Do You Know the $8.25 Man?

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The $8.25 man, Bloomberg News wrote in December, has worked at McDonald’s for twenty years. Still, he can’t get forty hours a week or anything more than minimum wage. He can’t make rent payments, can’t afford a computer, and has to go to the Apple store to update his Facebook. After picking cigarette butts out of a bathroom drain, he has to clean off before his next job—at another McDonald’s. The $8.25 man is cheap goods compared to the $8.75 million man. The $8.25 man would have to work roughly a million hours to make what McDonald’s’ CEO made in 2011. The $8.75 million man stands atop an industry that added jobs at double the U.S. average post-recession. Between 2008 and 2011, McDonald’s profits alone rose from $4.3 billion to $5.5 billion. If the $8.25 man became a $15 man, a report from the Economic Policy Institute suggests, the labor market wouldn’t lose any jobs. In downtown Chicago’s retail and food service sectors, raising the minimum wage to $15 would cost $103 million, small change compared to the $14.2 billion in revenue accrued by these sectors in 2011. Even if the aggregate raise were passed on directly to consumers, prices would go up only 2.6%.

But who is the $8.25 man?

In the popular imagination, the $8.25 man is, unfortunately, what you see on TV: younger and less child-dependent than the growing majority of his real-life counterparts. He is also, unlike the central figure of Bloomberg’s well-traveled, well-narrated piece, statistically unlikely to be a man. Nationally, women make up 66% of food preparers and servers, 70% of waiters and waitresses, and 74% of cashiers.

In the post-2007 progressive eye, low-wage workers are the face and hope of the 99%. If Michael Bloomberg is the figurehead of neoliberalism with a healthy diet, fast food workers are the sickle-wielding poster-people of the new American labor movement. As with Wal-Mart workers and domestic workers, their jobs are growing in number—and ripe for unionization. The public is, moreover, well-primed by social critiques like Super Size Me and Bloomberg’s anti-junk food soapboxing. In two cities, the organized struggle is heating up. In New York, food service workers are pushing for recognition of an independent union, the Fast Food Workers Committee, with support from community groups and established trade unions. In Chicago, food service and retail workers from the downtown “Magnificent Mile” have a similar drive, “Fight for 15,” under the aegis of the independent Workers Organizers Committee of Chicago.

The horizons of the $8.25 man, beyond a living wage, are less certain. In his famous 1972 essay in the New York Review of Books, Christopher Lasch took issue with the economism of Jack Newfield and Jeff Greenfield’s Populist Manifesto and Michael Harrington’s allegiance to the sabre-rattling, high-seated AFL-CIO. The challenge, he wrote, is to develop “a theory of class and an understanding of the way in which class interests, seldom presenting themselves directly in economic form, are mediated by culture, which in turn acquires a life independent of its social origin.” The question, carried on by decades of cultural historiography and half-lived Italian debates surrounding class composition, can be rehashed simply: Is the low-wage workers’ movement a “labor” movement? Or a movement for black and brown power? Or a twenty-first century “other women’s movement”? Or, when the workplace is no longer a factory but an urban commons dotted with chain stores, a movement to reclaim “the public”?

In New York and Chicago, workers struggle within and against a political economy of urban space: a dynamic reconstruction of big cities with upscale retail in the center, low-wage labor pushed to the periphery or walled into projects, and McDonald’s everywhere. As part of this architecture, workers are, like fast-food CEOs, political actors—agents of the system as much as its victims. In Andrew Herod’s formulation, “Workers are not dropped from the air into some preexisting economic landscape but are thoroughly connected to the production of space through their struggles to work out geographical solutions to the problems of ensuring their own self-reproduction.” At the highest stratum of labor geography, trade unions advocate different wage rates for different regions in order to maximize their overall leverage. Within locales, workers can, as in the Justice for Janitors campaign in the early 1990s, appropriate public space to unify struggle across spatially fragmented workplaces. As Sarah Jaffe writes about New York, “organizers have moved to find strategies that make sense to workers, that aren’t trapped in the same old formulations that worked in factories but don’t make sense in food service.”

Properly situated in place and space, the heterogeneity of low-wage labor asserts itself. Workers operate within a web of political economies—of race, gender, sexuality, migration—that re-cast the labor-capital antagonism along political lines that outlets like Bloomberg generally hold at arms length. “Fight for It,” an official Fight for 15 music video, riffs, “President don’t give a fuck/His foreign policy is gonna trigger World War III” and then, “Macy’s, aka modern day slavery.” Hip-hop polemic doesn’t lend itself to reportage. But, if workers are anything more than workers, it should.

The campaign in New York grew out of broadly focused community organizing. Naquasia LeGrand, who works at a Brooklyn KFC, recalls being confronted about housing issues. “I signed the petition for that and the next thing you know, a few months later, I got a call about fast food—about how I feel about fast food and better wages,” she says. “Me and my team went from there. It was underground… once we got enough people, we went public.”

On November 29 and April 4, workers from dozens of chain stores went on one-day strikes—in both cases, the first action that many took as part of the campaign. “My coworkers—they have a choice now,” LeGrand says. “They see what’s been going on…. It’s kind of easy now, because I’m confident to let them know that they have nothing to worry about.”

The Chicago campaign emerged from conversations among low-wage workers and community organizers on issues ranging from transit access to Illinois’s minimum wage.

“I was working one day and they came and asked me if I struggled every day and they asked if I’m working my butt off every day,” says Felix Mendez, a sandwich-maker at Subway. “It’s basically paying my bus pass just to get back and forth, and I got two kids, back and forth.”

After the initial interaction, he says, “I started snatching other people up, just taking it day by day.” Now, he attends weekly Wednesday meetings that include a growing number and diversity of workers: “It’s awesome. You hear different stories, and you can relate to a lot of people. You’re not struggling by yourself. Everybody is out there struggling in the way that you are.”

Rachael Teague, who works at both Navy Pier and Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., remembers a similar induction to the campaign. Organizers “were doing what we call ‘hub-hopping,’ going to service doors, talking to as many people as you can, exchanging information, following up with them, and just letting them know that this is something legit, and we’re not asking anything from you, we’re just giving something to you.”

For Teague, the geography of struggle extends beyond the Magnificent Mile. “The reason why I ‘Fight for 15’ is I am a single mom,” she says. “A lot of people think when you say drug dealer, you think of a guy standing on the corner. I know a mother of three who is in school who has that kind of income. That’s one of the most heartbreaking things as a mom to see other moms.”

Mendez says, about his partner of seven years, “I can’t support her like that for now. We got two kids. It’s a struggle every day. Right now I’m living with other people.” East Garfield, on Chicago’s West Side, is “not the greatest neighborhood that my kids see.”

LeGrand describes her grandmother’s immediate reaction to the first one-day strike: “She was like, what are you getting yourself into?” Then, “When she saw it on TV, she was like, oh ok, that’s when she said I hope they do make a change.” The second strike, which was twice as large as the first, elevated public consciousness of racism historically—and proximately—embedded in low-wage labor relations. Strikers carried pickets with variations on “I AM A MAN,” invoking the Memphis sanitation strike of 1968, which Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated exactly 45 years earlier supporting. (“YO SOY UN HOMBRE” represents another slice of the $8.25 man. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, Latino workers, like black workers, fill a disproportionate share of low-wage service sector jobs.) April 4 also, as Jaffe reports in her podcast with Josh Eidelson, Belabored, united churches and community groups with workers from particular fast-food joints—which, having metastasized into poor neighborhoods, are as round-the-corner as mom-and-pop bodegas.

In Chicago, workers decided to end Christmas retail season with a visible show of civil disobedience. As Teague recounts, “First we met at St. James Cathedral. We talked and we prayed. We basically went from store to store singing and asking for higher wages, and we moved on and on to the next one. The last one we moved from was Starbucks. Then we walked down to the water tower, which is where we sang the last song. The water tower has signs up saying that nobody can gather or protest or you’ll get arrested. A few of my fellow union members sat down in the street and were singing peacefully and were asking for higher wages. It was so awesome. It was such a huge turnout.” On April 24, Chicago’s downtown fast-food and retail workers staged a one-day strike of their own. Upwards of 500 workers walked off the job at dozens of chains—in some cases, shutting them down.

Teague says, “All eyes are on us, and people are listening up. They have no choice but to hear us now. It’s actually become a thing where I walked into a store downtown, and I had on my union hat—a red hat with white writing—and one of the managers got to the security guard to keep an eye on me. It just lets me know that you see me.”

The image of workers’ struggle as a vertical opposition between ideal types—the pure and unitary 99% against the centralized and conniving 1%—has worked as a powerful catalyst of indignation against the hypocrisies of big-chain industry. But in representing low-wage workers’ struggle, these ideal types are limits to be overcome. Workers are tactical innovators pushing on different points of pressure rather than upward, in a unified hegemony, against the system. The emergence of mass struggle is a charge for those at the switchboard of popular attention to reconceive struggle itself, attending to the composition of agencies and spaces implicated in it—far more than what one can, as here, understand from a handful of phone conversations.

The visibility of critical geography has increased with the popularity of David Harvey’s books—which, themselves, offer a mixed bag of 21st century social movement theorizations. In Spaces of Hope, Harvey marshals world-systems theory to rethink movements around human rights, the environment, and the exploitation of women, all of which “bridge the micro-scale of the body and the personal on the one hand and the macro-scale of the global and the political-economic order on the other.” On Baltimore’s living wage struggle in the 1990s, he writes, “Its basis in the churches, the community, the unions, the universities, as well as among those social layers ‘not immediately concerned with the questions,’ starts to frame body politics in a rather special way, by-passing some of the more conventional binaries of capital/labor, white/black, male/female, and nature/culture.” He concludes with a description of the “insurgent architect,” who assembles alternatives by finding ways “to negotiate between the security conferred by fixed institutions and spatial forms on the one hand and the need to be open and flexible in relation to new socio-spatial possibilities on the other.”

Elsewhere, Harvey’s attention to the heterogeneous and shifting class composition of low-wage industry unravels. In The Enigma of Capital and his post-Occupy Rebel Cities, he posits a “Party of Indignation” and an anti-Party of Wall Street “People,” respectively—in both cases, one “yes” (for global justice) to counter the one “no” (global capital) that obscures the multitude of agencies that he collects over the course of the text. Harvey’s arguments against anarchist forms of political practice in Rebel Cities are targeted against the imperfections of an ideal type, rather than taking anarchism as one item in a material, if incoherent, assemblage of alternatives.

Harvey’s flat assertions can be read as provocations rather than sui generis proposals. Even so, for a politicized audience trying to grasp the horizons of struggle, they risk reproducing the “annihilation of space through time,” as Marx famously put it, characteristic of capital itself. They denote a struggle, an anti-systemic class, revolting from within a despatialized political economy. They respond to the 30,000-franchise spacelessness of McDonald’s with spaceless, textureless alternatives.

The obliqueness of Marx’s own labor geography highlights the challenge of teasing out variegated “spaces of hope” from the emergence, and startling newness, of mass struggle.

In their March 1850 Address, Marx and Engels called for the creation “of at least a provincial association of the workers’ clubs” to combat the consolidation of bourgeois power in response to the revolution. The Industrial Congress supported strikes “as a means of transition from our present state of affairs to one of association.” Mass insurgency could unite an otherwise “incoherent mass” of laborers “scattered over the whole country, and broken up by their mutual competition.”

As a sometime journalist, Marx was a close observer of coordinated labor action. In one report in the New York Daily Tribune, he wrote of an 1853 British strike wave:

Each mail brings new reports of strikes; the turn-out grows epidemic. Every one of the larger strikes, like those at Stockport, Liverpool, etc., necessarily generates a whole series of minor strikes, through great numbers of people being unable to carry out their resistance to the masters, unless they appeal to the support of their fellow-workmen in the Kingdom, and the latter, in order to assist them, asking in their turn for higher wages. Besides it becomes alike a point of honor and of interest for each locality not to isolate the efforts of their fellow-workmen by submitting to worse terms, and thus strikes in one locality are echoed by strikes in the remotest other localities.

In the case of surprise one-day strikes at diffuse locations, the echo of “new reports” inheres in the action itself. With the addition of social media, space and time implode into a single, if lengthy, moment. This moment feeds on—but clouds—the constellation of political economies that delimit low-wage workers’ struggle. Swept up in the moment, the $8.25 man is an exploited man with a low wage. Simultaneously set free by it, low-wage labor reveals a complex landscape of political practice, with new agents of struggle to get to know.

Photo: Micah Uetricht

Author of the article

(@cersonsky) is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist. His writing can be found at Dissent, In These Times, AlterNet, and elsewhere. Read about his work on community-centered pedagogy here.