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Monday, September 2, 2013

Labor, Then and Now

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On Thursday, the day after the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, thousands of fast-food workers in 60 cities walked off their jobs, the latest in an escalating series of walkouts by low-wage workers demanding higher pay and the right to organize without retaliation.

The parallels, though inexact, are compelling. A half-century ago, the marchers called on Congress to increase the minimum wage from $1.15 an hour to $2 “so that men may live in dignity,” in the words of Bayard Rustin, one of the chief organizers of the march. Today, the fast-food workers also seek a raise, from the $9 an hour that most of them make to $15.00 an hour. That’s not much different from what the marchers wanted in 1963; adjusted for inflation, $2 then is $13.39 an hour today.

The strikers are targeting their employers — profitable companies like McDonald’s, Yum Brands (which includes Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC) and Wendy’s. But Congress could help. Today’s minimum wage is a miserly $7.25 an hour — which is actually lower, adjusted for inflation, than it was 50 long years ago. Raising it would support the legitimate demands of the strikers and underscore the pressing needs of the country’s growing ranks of low-wage workers.

President Obama has noted, correctly, that increases in labor productivity have long failed to translate into higher wages for most Americans, even while income for the richest households has skyrocketed. His...
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