Demand Justice for Fast Food Workers

Our economy of low wages and corporate greed is not what God intends for human life.

Note: This article appeared originally in September 2013. 

The fast food industry today in the U.S. is a veritable buffet of injustice. That is why this Labor Day, fast food workers are striking across the country. Their demands are simple: they want to be able to form unions without employer retaliation and bargain for higher wages.

These workers do not even make a living wage. Even though they work long hours, they subsist on wages so low they still live below the poverty level. They are not teenagers making some after school money; two-thirds of them are women often with dependent children. They work double and triple shifts, subsisting on little sleep, often with inadequate food and shelter.

The worker’s demands are both practical and moral. Workers want an increase in the minimum wage so they can earn enough to be able to live above the poverty level, and live with simple human dignity. They also want to be treated with enough respect to be able to negotiate with their employers without being fired. “All I’m asking for is to be treated like a human being,” said a father of two who is a shift manager at Dunkin’ Donuts.

Just as in the 19th and early 20th century, this growing labor movement today is based in this moral conviction: Respect for human dignity and worth requires decent wages and safe working conditions.

A century ago, Christian pastors started to preach what they called “the Social Gospel.” This was their effort of Christians to shine the light of the Christian gospel on the appalling working conditions that had become commonplace in the nineteenth century era of rapid industrialization. The Social Gospel, as exemplified in the work of Walter Rauschenbusch and Washington Gladden, took a new look at scripture from the perspective of the rampant social abuses of the time, from unsafe working conditions to pauper’s wages.

These early 20th century pastors were right. The Christian Gospel is a “social Gospel.” Jesus sends the disciples out to labor and tells them to accept food and housing because “laborers deserve to be paid” (Luke 10:7). The work of the Social Gospel leaders was influential on the Roosevelt administration and the architects of the New Deal.

But today attacks on unions and an economics of austerity wages combined with huge corporate profits have again created appalling conditions for many American workers, like those in the fast food industry.

If you order food at one of these fast food restaurants today, you get a heaping order of injustice against workers to go with it.

It is clear that today we need a new Social Gospel reading of the Bible, but we also need the insights of Catholic Social teaching (think “Nuns on the Bus”!), the Tikkun olam (repairing the world) of Judaism, the Ramadan spirit of Islam, and all the spiritual insight that people of faith, and people of humanist values, have to offer in our pluralistic society. In many cities, interfaith coalitions are supporting workers in this rolling Labor Day action against the poverty-level wages in the fast food industry.

As a Christian, it is my profound belief that Jesus was right. The Kingdom of God is now, it is here, “in your midst.” Nothing is more central to the immediacy of this claim that the kingdom of God is here, right now, is the rights of workers to join together and bargain collectively for better wages and working conditions.

Worker justice is not just a civil right, it is a fundamental way we recognize that human beings have an inherent dignity and worth. This idea, that human dignity, what Christians call “the image of God,” is what connects Christian moral reasoning and action for worker rights in the Gospels, the Social Gospel, the Civil Rights movement, the Solidarity movement in Poland as seen in the work of John Paul II and a reawakened American labor movement for the 21st century.

What makes us not only people, but human beings with dignity and transcendent worth, is our capacity to work creatively in this world. When a society exploits our contribution to the whole, and refuses to recognize that we have a moral obligation to one another to insure decent working conditions, living wages and the means to support our families, it violates our human dignity and it denies the reality of the kingdom of God in our midst.

John Paul II, in his famous encyclical “On Human Work” (Laborem Exercens, V.25), stated his deep conviction of the centrality of work to human dignity and our being created in the Image of God. Work is fundamental to the truth of the human condition. Through work, Pope John Paul II argues, people become who they are intended to be. Through work, human beings share “in the activity of the Creator.”

Our economy of low wages and corporate greed is not what God intends for human life.

It’s not even good business. Some business analysts are beginning to question “the ‘profit maximization’ obsession that has taken over American business culture over the past 30 years.” Business Insider does the math: McDonalds could double workers’ wages and ‘only’ make $5.5 billion in profit.

What a deal. Workers get a living wage, CEO’s get their big salaries, and shareholders get a profit.

So why don’t industries pay a living wage? Well, in Christian theology we call that greed, and it’s a sin.

This Labor Day weekend, and from now on, all people of conscience need to reject the injustice that comes with every serving of fast food in the U.S. and demand that these bloated fast food industry giants pay their workers a living wage.

  • WmarkW

    Fine. Create a living wage for fast-food workers, and the industry will contract at least 25%, and three million Mexicans will self-deport. I’ll be all for that.

    The fast food industry should not be encouraged to grow. In addition to its effects on our health, it creates little new technology, consumes prime real estate (as opposed to helping distribute our population better by locating on under-used land), and teaches its employees few skills useful in other jobs.

    If it wasn’t for illegal immigrants, the industry would be a lot smaller. And we’d be better off for it.

  • dameon10

    All these fast food workers demanding $15 an hour is ridiculous. Maybe if they got a solid education they could get a better job, but asking if someone wants fries with that isn’t too difficult and does not warrant $15 an hour. If I were the fast food companies I would fire them all ASAP! The protesting by these people could lead to serious implications on business and even these protesting employees’ jobs. As an example: If they were paid $15 an hour how much would a happy meal cost? $12? One would just go out to a real restaurant to get better food at the same or even cheaper price than fast food. The business would most likely fail and these “entitled” workers would be on unemployment then probably welfare because they have no real skill set whatsoever other than messing up a fast food order. This is pathetic. All these people that feel entitled to everything without lifting a finger makes me sick. I used to work at a fast food place. WHEN I WAS 15!!! These jobs are meant for students and retirees. It is not a career path. Unless that is, you dropped out of school because you thought you were cool and wanted to hang out with your friends, then you got what you put in; Nothing!!! This is how life really works. Get a good education, join the military (unless you can afford college), go to college, get a good job, and contribute to society. It’s not as easy as kickin back on the block but it is easier than living off the system and working at a fast food joint your whole life.

  • TJmitch

    I’m all for helping those in need, but increasing the minimum wage is not the way to do it. If the cashier at McDonalds gets what is essentially a raise to $15/hour, don’t you think the shift manager who was making $10/hour is going to ask for a raise? It’s only fair since they have more responsibility. So now the shift manager gets $18/hour. Awesome, everyone is making good money! Except now the GM that was making $15/hour deserves a raise because they are now making less than the shift manager. Then the District manager is making about the same as the GM, they are gunna need a raise. So on and so forth up to the top. Now, yes, maybe McDonalds could afford this and still stay profitable, but a minimum wage affects all industries, not just fast food. What do you think is going to happen at food processing plants where McDonalds get’s their food when every one of the many workers is also getting $15/hour? Now McDonalds is going to have to pay more for labor and for the food. Surely in order to offset this astronomical increase in cost, prices are going to go up. Ok, so a big mac is $8 instead of $5 big deal right? Wrong. Every industry is going to have the same problems and it will cause two things. Inflation and layoffs. So now that everything is more expensive, $15/hour is not a livable wage and we are back to where we started within the next few years. We need to figure out some other solution that will work long term. Until then, I don’t support raising the minimum wage and the costs of goods with it.

  • Does It Matter?

    So once again, when people complain about how “unfair” life is, the solution is to…. throw money at them. Big surprise there. Social injustice? Welfare is one example. There are plenty of private options available, churches one of them. But wait, you want to pick and choose on when to actually praise Christianity.

    Like others have said, raising minimum wage will have no positive effect, especially for those that are receiving it. Throw in the fact that most companies pay more than minimum wage. I haven’t made minimum wage since I worked at a fast food place in high school 17 years ago. After a few months of working there, I was making more than minimum wage. But, that was probably due to me being a good worker. So, maybe they should have taken my raise and split it among everyone. That would be “social justice”.

  • jdpetric

    Wow, Luke 10:7 the social gospel for secular working wages? What a misapplication the Scripture.

    Luke 10 starts, “ After these things the Lord designated seventy others and sent them forth by twos in advance of him into every city and place to which he himself was going to come.” Why ? As Chapter 9:60b had already indicated, “… but you go away and declare abroad the kingdom of God.” Meaning a preaching work.

    The above article can beat be summed up by one scripture found at 2 Timothy 4:3-4, “ For there will be a period of time when they will not put up with the healthful teaching, but, in accord with their own desires, they will accumulate teachers for themselves to have their ears tickled; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, whereas they will be turned aside to false stories.”

  • luxurysugar

    Brilliant! Make getting a 15 dollar an hour fast food job a lifetime aspiration. Heck, you dont have to go to high school, you can just get a job at BK and live your life forever tending the fry station! Mission accomplished. And this will help develop poor communities intellect and desire for success. This is called lowering the bar. Now what job will be relegated to a low paying entry level position? Are we really this stupid? This will put the final nail in poor connunities coffin. ALthough, on the bright side, you will see a rise in alcohol and tobacco sales in these communities.

  • longjohns

    Well Ms. Thistlethwaite, you are right. The Australians have a minimum wage of about $16. They have McDonalds there too. But of course greed will be wrapped in other forms like efficiency, good of the economy etc… There is no convincing people. The right thing, indeed the only thing, that will help is allowing unionization to give the workers the ability to negotiate.

  • Fosl

    People like to throw words around like sprinkling salt on a salad. Injustice is one of those words that is very often casually used, casually read and taken for granted without foundation. Why is it an injustice for McDonalds to pay someone $8 an hour if that’s the job they’re doing is worth? wouldn’t it be an injustice to take more money than your job is worth?

    what is a job worth? – well, what will the market bear? A doctor is worth more than a plumber because it’s harder to be a doctor than a plumber, but serving fries is a job that a high school kid can do, it is not McDonald’s fault if the person doing it is not a high school kid. (like the mother of 3 kids on NPR last week – who wasn’t asked where the husband was, or why the father wasn’t contributing, but because she screwed up her life – everyone should have to pay $10 for a cheeseburger – that’s fair right, that’s just?)

    do you pay your baby sitter $15 an hour? do you pay all the musicians in your church the industry scale? Do you bring in 4 or 5 companies to bid for work on your home and then chose the one with the lowest price and pay him what the highest price co. bid?

  • Pete Walker

    Has anyone asked: Are all fast-food workers WORTH $15 an hour? Are half of them worth that much? When you add all the costs of employees (supervision, vacations, insurance, taxes, training, sick time, breaks, pilferage, and just plain incompetence and stupidity ) a large percentage of these workers, at $15 per hour, would be a net loss to employers. Let the free market determine their salaries. That’s the American way.

  • ZZimian

    “Their demands are simple: they want to be able to form unions without employer retaliation and bargain for higher wages.”

    That’s already the law of the land. So I see no legitimate greivance here.