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Living wage: Workers are fighting for vast underpaid majority

  • Los Angeles fast-food workers demonstrating for a living wage. (NICK UT / Associated Press)

Walkouts and protests by fast-food workers demanding higher wages and collective bargaining rights began last November and spread to 60 cities nationwide at the end of August.

It is an inspiring grass-roots movement led by some of the nation's most underpaid employees, and should be supported by everyone who has a sense of fairness.

First let's dispense with some of the nonsense that people have been told about these workers: they are not mostly teenagers.

As my colleagues John Schmitt and Janelle Jones have shown, the majority are at least 23 and only 30 percent are teenagers. More than a quarter of them are raising at least one child.

How are they supposed to survive on about $9 an hour — their average wage — with many making the current federal minimum of just $7.25? Obviously, they are not just there temporarily before advancing to higher-paying jobs with benefits: our deformed economy is not producing enough decent jobs to which they could move. In fact, nearly half of employed college graduates say that their jobs do not require a college degree.

Fast-food workers are suffering for the same reasons that the majority of employees have lost ground for decades: the rules of the economy have been rewritten against them.

It is not primarily “technological change” or “skills mismatches” that have caused the richest 1 percent of Americans to double their share of total income from 10 percent in 1980 to 20 percent in 2011. It is because the link between productivity growth — increasing output per employee — and wage growth has been broken. If even the federal minimum wage had increased with productivity and inflation since 1968 — as it had done in prior decades — it would be $17 per hour today instead of a meager $7.25.

The broken link between productivity and wages is due to the fact that most workers have lost bargaining power. And that is a result of deliberate “reforms,” including

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