Let's honor the picket lines today. Fast food workers are striking for higher wages across the country. It will be a good thing all around if they succeed.
Inadequate private-sector wages at the low end of the wage distribution are a key source of our country's hard economic times and basic feeling of distress. As individual consumers, we cannot be proud to save a couple bucks ourselves by supporting companies who pay people so little. The coalition of groups that has organized today's walk-out has been circulating this video, mocking McDonald's own website that purports to educate its workers about how to survive on a low budget. A technical detail: the McDonald's website actually allowed for a miscellaneous category for some expenses, so some have quibbled with the video's list of all the basic needs that are excluded, but this is a very minor correction. I found the video completely persuasive on its main point: somebody in the McDonald's hierarchy was tasked with trying to demonstrate that the company's wages were adquate, and discovered exactly the opposite.
Restaurant industry defenders have claimed that higher wages would cost jobs, but I see things differently. First, labor economists are divided on this question. Some leading labor economists believe there would be no job loss and might even be employment gains (see, for example, Jeremy Stahl at Slate). Second, even if there were a small loss of employment in particular quick service restaurant outlets, here is how that loss would play out: a substantial percentage increase in wages would lead to a small percentage increase in actual restaurant product prices, which would then cause a small decrease in fast food consumption, which would finally lead to an even smaller decrease in employment. The fast food consumers who reduce their restaurant consumption will not go hungry; they will buy other things from other businesses instead, and those other businesses hire workers too. The upshot is economically healthy and nutritionally healthy all around.
Some people think of striking for higher wages as anti-market or anti-capitalist, but again I see things differently. Our great market economy will only work if it provides prosperity that reaches even down to the lower end of the wage distribution. It would be an unpatriotic and anti-market sentiment to say that the American economy is somehow incapable of this modest accomplishment. I expect decent wages at the restaurants I patronize precisely because that's what makes this whole fine system work. That's what makes a market system better than the alternatives.
See Time and AP for more news reports. The AFL-CIO has links to labor movement sites. In Boston, there is a rally on the Boston Common at 4 pm today. I'll be there.