I worked in food service for a total of 15 years (in every possible job classification) and, during that time, I worked for only two large chain companies – Burger King and Starwood. When I was 18, I spent a summer working the drive thru in a Portland, Maine Burger King (on a recent trip to Portland, I noticed that it is now a Subway). It was a crappy job. I remember really hating the corporate videos and I couldn’t wait until the summer ended and I headed off to college. My drive thru window looked out at the Greyhound station across the street and I would daydream about all the places I could be going if I wasn’t working at Burger King. The difference between me and my coworkers like Buelah, a single mom who seemed really quite old and worn out to me, was that I knew would be going places after my summer stint in fast food. What I didn’t know was that I had the bug – the food service bug. As soon as I left the industry, I missed it. I still miss it. In my mind, it is both my back-up plan and my dream job. When I was finishing up my PhD, I knew that I could always find work in food service if I didn’t get a job. And, I knew I could find a good job in food service, because my last five years in the industry (and my second corporate food service job) was in a union hotel. In fact, as an American historian, my salary prospects for many academic jobs paid less than I would make if I went back to full-time work at the Chicago hotel I used to work at. But I would never go back to Burger King. Why? Because Burger King jobs(and other fast food jobs like it) are service sector assembly lines of low-paid work that make it impossible to support a family. And, it is why Beulah is seared into my mind – I remember thinking – how the hell does she support herself and her kids by making minimum wage at Burger King. What are her options? There were none – no career ladder, no training possibilities. Hell, Beulah was probably working at the Burger King until it converted to a Subway a couple of years ago.
As of May 2012, the top three job categories in the U.S are retail salespersons, cashiers, and “combined food preparation and serving workers, including fast food.” These are also jobs that tend to be low paid, non-union, minimal room for advancement, and more often part-time rather than full-time. In short, these jobs provide insecure employment. Yet, they are the jobs that are experiencing less of a decline as the economy struggles to recover from the Great Recession. What does this mean for workers and their communities?
Well, some communities are fighting back. In Chicago today, downtown fast food workers allied with a group called The Fight for $15 are on strike demanding a $15/hour wage. In New York City last month, Fast Food Forward organized a one-day strike with workers chanting “We can survive on $7.25!” And, nationally, organizations like The Restaurant Opportunities Centers and the Food Chain Workers Alliance are organizing food workers from the farm to the table to demand job security, a living wage, and improved health and safety on the job. This is all good. Consumers need to understand that the people who feed them are hard workers who are undervalued in this nation. But this is just the issue – as a nation we undervalue service labor. But why?
Work is gendered. Service work is women’s work. Producing goods is men’s work. The catch? Women are underpaid and undervalued in this society so as a result so is the work. Manufacturing has been in a steady decline for a long time and, let’s face it, it is not returning. Service work, on the other hand, is here to stay and we better figure out a way to turn these jobs into sustainable, middle-class type jobs. In the 1930s, autoworkers and steelworkers were seen as the low-wage workers of the nation. Their labor was undervalued and so was their paycheck. So what happened? They organized and formed a union. As a result, industrial jobs became steady and reliable sources of income and offered financial security to working families. This is not the case in the service sector. In the 21st century, the service sector is the new industrial sector. Service work needs to be valued by consumers, politicians, and corporate America. And that value needs to be shown in dollars and cents not a pat on the back.
So workers are rising up in Chicago today. And, next month, workers will rise up again because they are FED UP. Who is listening? What do you hear?
What will it take to bring economic justice to the service sector workers?
Unionization. Collective Bargaining. A voice on the job. Power!