Fast food, home care, retail and other low-wage workers in nearly 190 cities walked off the job today to demand a $15 minimum wage and the right to unionize.

The strikes come less than 24 hours after the Department of Labor issued a new study that shows at least 300,000 wage and salary earners in New York and another 300,000 in California are making less than the current minimum wage due to wage theft. “These findings are alarming in terms of the prevalence of the problem, particularly in a set of industries where we already know workers earn low wages and struggle to earn even a basic family budget,” said David Weil. Weil is the administrator of the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division. The violations amount to more than $20 – $29 million in lost income per week. Minimum wage workers in California earn $9 an hour in California, and $8 in New York, creating on average a 49 percent and 38 percent drain in lost income for workers in those states, respectively. According to the study, correcting the violations would theoretically move between 7,000 and 8,000 families out of poverty.

The Department of Labor looked at violations across 13 industries. In general, the greatest concentration of wage violations were found in the leisure and hospitality industry, which includes food services; then educational and health services; followed by wholesale and retail trade. In the two years since the fast food worker strikes began, DOL investigations into lost wages have grown as significantly as the Department itself. Some 1,040 Wage and Hour Division investigators now work to recover lost wages and monitor violations through lawsuits taken out against major employers like McDonald’s.

McDonald’s Corporation executives have attempted to undermine the impact the worker strikes have had on operations. Executives downplayed accusations of retaliation against employees in some locations, arguing that federal law prohibits the company from firing workers who strike. In an emailed statement last week, a company spokesperson said, “At McDonald’s we respect everyone’s right to peacefully protest.”

Based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the food service industry is the worst-paying sector in the USFemale laborers and people of color fare the worst. Seventy-three percent of all front-line workers are female, and 43 percent are black or Latino. At least 52 percent of fast food workers depend on public assistance because of the poverty wages they earn.

 

The non-indictment of NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, the officer responsible for the choking death of Eric Garner, has also contributed to the tenor and massive size of today’s strikes. Activists and organizers representing both #StrikeFastFood and the #BlackLivesMatter movements have embraced the wage fight and the ongoing call for police reform as non-mutually exclusive struggles.

Media Resources: Al Jazeera America 12/4/14; New York Times 12/3/14; Department of Labor, “The Social & Economic Effects of Wage Violations: Estimates for California and New York” 12/2014; The New Republic 8/31/14; Feminist Newswire 9/3/14

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