No Recovery for the Black Worker

Despite better times for some, the growing income inequality has been particularly hard on black America.

Fast-food workers demonstrating outside a Wendy's in New York (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Fast-food workers demonstrating outside a Wendy's in New York (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Right now, restaurant-industry workers rely on food stamps at twice the rate of other American workers to just feed themselves and their families, according to Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of the New York-based Restaurant Opportunities Centers United.

“It’s an incredible irony that the people who put food on our tables … can’t afford to put food on their own family’s tables … ” Jayaraman told the PBS show Moyers & Company earlier this year. “They can’t afford to eat.”

Organizers with Jobs With Justice argue that boosting the minimum wage will allow larger shares of Americans to support their families without help from the social safety net. SEIU officials also insist that an increase in the minimum wage would eventually put upward pressure on all workers’ wages and that corporations have, for far too long, wrestled huge profits out of their businesses by underpaying their workers.

The union’s critics say that the fast-food-worker campaign organized by Jobs With Justice and other local groups is really just a cynical attempt to boost union membership at a time when the share of American workers paying union dues has reached an all-time low.

Blacks and Unions

For black America, union membership remains one of the most assured paths to living wages equal or nearly equal to the pay that employers dole out to their white peers. Union members enjoy the country’s smallest gender and racial pay gaps. So while union members make up a much smaller share of the workforce than they did even 20 years ago, blacks remain the most likely participants in collective bargaining agreements. Nearly 15 percent of all black people with jobs belong to a union, more than any other racial or demographic group.

But large majorities of Americans — Republicans and Democrats, men and women, black and white — all support raising the nation’s legally mandated minimum wage. In a March Gallup poll, a full 71 percent of Americans said that they would vote in favor of boosting the nation’s minimum wage as high as $9 an hour. And just this month, a poll released by the National Employment Law Project (a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit working to boost the minimum wage) but conducted by an independent research firm found that 80 percent of Americans would support a minimum wage increase to $10.10 per hour.

The fast-food industry’s biggest trade group insists that wage increases would produce a lot of economic pain for workers.

“Restaurants operate on very thin profit margins,” the National Restaurant Association’s executive vice president, Scott DeFife, said in a press release. “Significant additional labor costs can negatively impact a restaurant’s ability to hire or maintain jobs.”

Back in St. Louis, Rafanan insists that both claims are just the well-rehearsed scare tactics of companies that want to hold on to gargantuan profits rather than share some of their largesse with the line workers who make their companies work.

“What they don’t talk about is who is really footing the bill, making it possible for these companies to hoard profits,” said Rafanan, who has spent the last week away from the cameras making sure that workers who participated in the St. Louis strike were not fired or otherwise retaliated against when they returned to work. “The rest of us, other taxpayers … [have] to cover the cost of the things that these hardworking people cannot provide for themselves because they are so poorly paid.”

Those costs include day care, health care, food and housing aid, he said.  

“It’s time that we realize that income inequality is a disease that weakens us all,” he said.

Janell Ross is a reporter in New York who covers political and economic issues. She is working on a book about race, economic inequality and the recession, due to be published by Beacon Press next year. Follow her on Twitter.