Last week media outlets coast to coast were covering news of what some called the largest fast food worker walkout in American history. In spite of the spiraling situation in Syria, the short-term strike took the headline on Drudge Report and was seen splashed on the front pages of major newspapers.
The action was designed to highlight one key demand: an increase in wages to $15/hour. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour, and some states have legislated higher rates - like Massachusetts at $8.00/hour.
According to the U.S. News & World Report story: "The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a median hourly wage of $8.85 last year for more than 500,000 fast-food cooks nationwide, with an annual wage of $18,410. Roughly 3 million workers in food service and preparation garnered $18,260 in annual income and $8.78 in median hourly wages."
But those statistics only tell part of the story. That real wages have been stagnant is even worse news that will continue to distress anyone who needs one of these jobs as a medium or long-term source of income. This graph below shows the trend, which has been declining since at least the turn of this decade:
Certainly there are many facets to the dynamic changes happening in food service. It seems likely that - as in many other industries - technology will continue to influence business structures, potentially replacing some of the workforce. And the current economic woes have seen many food service jobs filled by overqualified adults displaced from their careers due to pervasive unemployment and tepid job creation at the macro level of the economy. Thus, teens now comprise only 16% of the fast food industry's workers - down from 25% a decade ago. But all of these developments seem to argue for fewer, more productive future workers rather than an oversupply.
We also learned again today that hundreds of thousands more working-aged adults left the labor force last month because they are so discouraged by the prospects available. Labor force participation is now as low as it was in 1978. We don't have a labor shortage, we have a labor surplus - by every economic measure.
What is ignored in all of the news coverage is the impact of current levels of immigration and the well-funded, coordinated efforts in Washington DC to boost still-higher-yet the number of foreign job-seekers available in the U.S. labor market. Not one story mentions even a whiff of correlation between flatlined wages and the number of workers vying for these scarce jobs.
Does no reporter consider, perhaps, that having a continuous and never-ending surplus of cheap, low-skilled labor has contributed to declining wages in fast food? Christopher Matthews at TIME does some excellent reporting on fast food industry revenues, profit margins, and percentage of revenue spent on labor costs. And so we see (again) that those who already possess wealth and own the capital inputs are doing better than ever.
Businesses, of course, are free to ask for expanded flows of foreign labor - both permanent and temporary. But we should ensure that our elected officials say "no" for at least as long as we see evidence of an American middle class in deep distress. That is our collective duty unless we prefer the ivory tower wisdom of Messrs. Schumer and Rubio.
And instead of sitting idly by while immigration coverage rehashes the same recycled boilerplate writing like the latest non-development in House negotiations or yet more immigration rallies (and that haven't resulted in amnesty for ten years anyway), we should help journalists everywhere to see this neglected, salient angle in immigration reporting.
ANDREW GOOD works on the Media Standards Project for NumbersUSA and is the former executive director for the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus
Updated: Fri, Sep 6th 2013 @ 12:30pm EDT