What does the drama in Washington over the "fiscal cliff" have to do with strikes and work stoppages among America's lowest-paid workers at Walmart, McDonald's, Burger King, and Domino's Pizza?
Jobs are slowly returning to America, but most of them pay lousy wages and low if non-existent benefits. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that seven out of 10 growth occupations over the next decade will be low-wage -- like serving customers at big-box retailers and fast-food chains. That's why the median wage keeps dropping, especially for the 80 percent of the workforce that's paid by the hour.
It's also part of the reason why the percent of Americans living below the poverty line has been increasing even as the economy has started to recover -- from 12.3 percent in 2006 to 15 percent in 2011. More than 46 million Americans now live below the poverty line.
Many of them have jobs. The problem is these jobs just don't pay enough to lift their families out of poverty.
So, encouraged by the economic recovery and perhaps also by the election returns, low-wage workers have started to organize.
Yesterday in New York hundreds of workers at dozens of fast-food chain stores went on strike, demanding a raise to $15-an-hour from their current pay of $8 to $10 an hour (the median hourly wage for food service and prep workers in New York is $8.90 an hour).
Last week, Walmart workers staged demonstrations and walkouts at thousands of Walmart stores, also demanding better pay. The average Walmart employee earns $8.81 an hour. A third of Walmart's employees work less than 28 hours per week and don't qualify for benefits.
These workers are not teenagers. Most have to support their families. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median age of fast-food workers is over 28; and women, who comprise two-thirds of the industry, are over 32. The median age of big-box retail workers is over 30.
Organizing makes economic sense.
Unlike industrial jobs, these can't be outsourced abroad. Nor are they likely to be replaced by automated machinery and computers. The service these workers provide is personal and direct: Someone has to be on hand to help customers and dole out the burgers.
And any wage gains they receive aren't likely to be passed on to consumers in higher prices because big-box retailers and fast-food chains have to compete intensely for consumers. They have no choice but to keep their prices low.
That means wage gains are likely to come out of profits -- which, in turn, would affect the return to shareholders and the total compensation of top executives.
That wouldn't be such a bad thing.
According to a recent report by the National Employment Law Project, most low-wage workers are employed by large corporations that have been enjoying healthy profits. Three-quarters of these employers (the 50 biggest employers of low-wage workers) are raking in higher revenues now than they did before the recession.