Why America Should Not Tolerate Low Pay For Fast Food Workers

Capitalism’s emphasis on property rights has been historically fraught with peril since its inception as an economic force in the Western world. Capitalism is an economic system in which assets are privately owned and commodities and services are produced for profit in an otherwise global and competitive market place. But, as seen when the many bloody European revolutions transpired during the fall of feudalism, capitalism has routinely placed property rights over human rights.

American roots in capitalism run deep, beginning early during the Transatlantic slave trade when Africans were brought to the eastern shores of what is now North America. Stolen from their native lands and placed in chains for the voyage to America, Africans were exploited for their labor power, leaving their status among the ranks of humans to be determined by elite white men. Slavery built up the economic engine that propelled American capitalism, creating enormous wealth for white elites on the backs of Blacks. The history of African Americans and other race-based conflicts provided a blueprint for further economic-based exploits that stratified people on the basis of social class position, further advancing economic class divisions by deepening the gulf between the haves and have nots. Class matters because it provides individuals with access to society’s most valued resources like good paying jobs, stability and other financial rewards. The higher the class position the more resources afforded for individuals and families.

(Image source)

But not all people benefit equally and few actually move up in social class position in life, as we uncritically tend to believe. People of color and women disproportionately make up the bulk of the working class and working poor who are generally invisible and out of sight from the daily happenings of the shrinking middle class. Given our past development in maintaining cheap labor such as the utilization of “sweat shops” by our nation’s major corporations, the mounting pressure of increasing inflation and economic instability have cause the working class to take matters into their own hands. Fast food workers in 60 cities walked off their jobs en masse recently, protesting the economic injustice they have long endured before a greedy restaurant empire.

The fast food industry has long exploited the working class for cheap labor, maintaining a protracted policy of low wages that only benefits corporate elites. Currently, the minimum wage of $7.75 per hour is on the edge of the poverty line for an individual and certainly cannot support a family of four. The reluctance on the part of the government (Department of Labor) to mandate steady increases has contributed, in part, to the wage disparities currently under scrutiny. There is much evidence to show that paying living wages to sustain life above poverty is good for society and makes good business sense.

Research consistently shows that more unequal societies generally have higher levels of social problems, negative self-perceptions, poorer health status, and increased mental and emotional disorders than more equal societies. Conversely, there are also positive benefits to equal societies that translate into a better-educated citizenry and overall better general health, more innovation from within society, higher social mobility and greater levels of societal trust, which results in a lowered crime rate. Thus, when working class individuals are able to secure and maintain steady decent employment and compensation that allows them to rise above the poverty line, society benefits as a whole. As Dr. King so eloquently said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The meager wages that fast food workers are paid in the United States compared to other parts of the Western world reveals much about where our national interests lie and the degree of pro-government involvement with the corporate world. This relationship has allowed many US corporations to flourish, at times creating extraordinary profits even during economic downturn. But capitalism comes at a high price for the oppressed, usually at the at the expense of the poor and disadvantaged. In this case, the proletariat is primarily women with children, who make up the bulk of low-wage fast food workers. This sort of labor requires no formal education and generally attracts people from the fringes of society who are trying to maintain a good living in our downwardly mobile economy.

Many Western European democracies consider the United States an unequal and stratified society, historically divided around skin tone, religious persuasion, sexuality, wealth and income inequality. Capitalism deepens this suffering as the very idea of a system designed to allow great economic success for one must come at the expense of another. This history is now being met with contemporary appeals by a growing economically disenfranchised populace who are left to fend for themselves in a class-based society where there is more rhetoric over the ability to move up the ladder than research actually shows.

The degree of American discontent over the uncertainty of the economy and the class-based society that defines us as a nation, divided not only by race but by social class position, is our legacy to bear and hopefully undue as it is a matter of public policy for the common good. Like other forms of white-imposed oppression, class-based injustice presents a growing threat to our national security, image and standing in the world as well as our well being as a nation. But it does not have to be this way. American understandings of work, which has notoriously placed property at the center of analysis, can reverse course by beginning to legislate and implement sound policies. To improve our society, these policies must include greater attention to wages and benefits that have the potential to economically empower its most valuable commodity, its citizens.

Dr. Darron Smith is an assistant professor in the Department of Physician Assistant Studies at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. Follow him on twitter @drdarronsmith.

Labor Day: Considering the Legacy of Stolen Labor

On this Labor Day, I’m thinking about the legacy of stolen labor.  While Labor Movement-created-holiday is meant to commemorate the “social and economic achievements of American workers,” a post from a friend, Son of Baldwin, has me thinking about labor that was not freely given, but rather was taken from people and for which they were not compensated.

(Facebook post from Son of Baldwin)

What does that legacy of stolen labor look like today?  If it were a bar graph, it might look something like this:

(Graph from Demos – Stats from 2010 Survey of Consumer Finances)

As you can see, black and Latino families have much less wealth than white families, even when you compare  within the same income groups.  Matt Bruenig, writing at Demos, asks, “why is this the case?” and then answers his own question with the following:

“There are many factors, but one in particular looms large. It turns out that three centuries of enslavement followed by another bonus century of explicit racial apartheid was hell on black wealth accumulation. Wealth accumulation opportunities haven’t exactly been evenly distributed in the last half century either. Because wealth is the sort of thing you transmit across generations and down family lines (e.g. through inheritance, gifts, and so on), racial wealth disparities remain quite massive.”

And, indeed, if we look at the wealth accrued to those who enslaved others, just in the U.S., the estimates from economists put those numbers in the trillions, in 2011 dollars.

(Source: Measuring Worth.com)

In their understated, scholarly language, the creators of the chart  – Williamson and Cain – write:

Slavery in the United States was an institution that had a large impact on the economic, political and social fabric on the country. This paper gives an idea of its economic magnitude in today’s values. As noted in the introduction, they can be conservatively described as large.”

So, the impact of slavery in the US was large?  Got it. But slavery ended in 1865.  Everything’s been fine since then, hasn’t it?

Not really.

Profiting from Stolen Labor Now

Deadria Farmer-Paellmann is researcher who is documenting the way contemporary corporations benefit from slavery. Many of the companies we use today initially established those profitable entities by profiting from stolen labor. For example, many of the current insurance companies began by insuring slaves, as with an 1854 Aetna policy insuring three slaves owned by Thomas Murphy of New Orleans. Farmer-Paellmann has located evidence of connections to slavery from a number of other corporations, including:

In 2000, Aetna expressed “regret for any involvement” it “may have” had in insuring slaves. Today, the company stands by that statement and says it has been able to locate “only” seven policies insuring 18 slaves. “We stood up; we apologized; we tried to do the right thing,” said Aetna spokesman Fred Laberge.

That was all a long, long time ago. Aetna apologized.  Besides, what’s all this got to do with now, today? These companies built their wealth, either partially or in whole, on labor that was stolen from people who didn’t have a choice and who were never compensated for that labor.

These corporations with legacy-connections to slavery are not the only ones profiting from stolen labor now. For-profit corporations are making millions off of locking people up. CCA, which I’ve written about here before, and The Geo Group are among the worst offenders here.


Federal Prison Industries, also known as UNICOR, is a US-owned government corporation created in 1934 that uses penal labor from the Federal Bureau of Prisons to produce goods and services (UNICOR has no access to the commercial market but sells products and services to federal government agencies). The statistics about UNICOR’s use of prison labor, perhaps the quintessence of contemporary stolen labor, are staggering.

These U.S. federal prison labor statistics are from Prison Policy (pulled from UNICOR Annual Reports):

These wages at federal prison are criminal, and the ones at state facilities are even worse. Nevada, for example, pays inmates just .13 cents/hour for their labor.

There’s no possibility of organizing these workers, however, since the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a North Carolina warden’s ban on prisoners’ right to form a labor union.


Addressing the Legacy of Stolen Labor & the Contemporary Racial Wealth Gap

To address this legacy of stolen labor, some have called for reparations.

US Rep. John Conyers has introduced H.B.40, Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act, into every session of Congress since 1989, and vows to keep doing so until it is passed into law.

In 2002, a group of U.S. legal scholars led by Charles Ogletree (Harvard) started litigating the legacy of slavery to get redress from some of the corporations that benefited. A number of people, mostly political conservatives, oppose reparations.

More recently, representatives from more than a dozen Caribbean nations are uniting in an effort to get reparations for slavery from three former colonial powers: Britain, France and the Netherlands. Leaders from The Caribbean Community (Caricom)  are launching a united effort to seek compensation for the lingering legacy of the Atlantic slave trade.

A much more modest proposal, as Bruenig of Demos suggests, is a steep, progressive inheritance tax in the U.S.  If the proceeds of such a tax were directed to a full-fledged sovereign wealth fund that pays out social dividends, we could address a number of social ills at once.

It’s actually not hard to think of ways to address the legacy of stolen labor and stolen wealth. It simply involves the transfer of capital. And, there is precedent for it in the U.S.

The federal government reached a consent decree with a class of over 20,000 black farmers to compensate for years of discrimination by the Department of Agriculture. Previously, the government also approved significant compensation for Japanese-Americans interned during World War II and paid reparations to black survivors of the Rosewood, FL [pdf], massacre.

What we lack to address the legacy of stolen labor and the contemporary reality of a racial wealth gap is the collective political will to do the right thing.

Increasing Racial Gaps in Wealth and Income: The Real U.S.

The organization United for a Fair Economy has a good website with data-filled reports on issues like the racial wealth divide in the U.S. Here are a few excerpts from their most recent report on the “state of the dream”:

The official unemployment rate is 15.8 percent among Blacks and 13 percent among Latinos as of December 2010. The White unemployment rate is 8.5 percent. Including discouraged and under-employed workers would push these unemployment numbers up significantly.

They add this:

With fewer assets to fall back on in hard times, Black and Latino families rely more heavily on unemployment insurance, Social Security and public assistance in times of need. For example, a new analysis shows that well over half of older Blacks (59.1 percent) and Latinos (64.8 percent) depend on Social Security for more than 80 percent of their family income, as compared to only 46 percent of Whites.

They have some data too on the reality of African Americans and Latinos working disproportionately in the government sector (historically one impact of Jim Crow segregation), one reason that blacks are more likely than whites to be in today’s unions:

. . . Blacks are 30 percent more likely than the overall workforce to work in public sector jobs as teachers, social workers, bus drivers, public health inspectors and other valuable roles, and they are 70 percent as likely to work for the federal government. Public sector jobs have also provided Black and Latino workers better opportunities for professional advancement.

They provide data showing how the Bush era tax cuts regularly favor whites, especially those with higher incomes. Recent taxation law too is very racialized in the U.S.:

… income tax extension heavily favors Whites, who are three times as likely as Blacks and 4.6 times as likely as Latinos to have annual incomes in excess of $250,000, according to original analysis in this report.

They also take political aim at the white leadership of the Republican Party, essentially now, as I have shown in here, the “white party” of the United States:

The Republican tax cut agenda rewards wealth for those who already have it, and limits opportunity for those who do not. . . . preferential treatment of capital gains and dividend income further exacerbates the racial wealth divide. . . . Blacks earn only 13 cents and Latinos earn eight cents for every dollar that Whites receive in dividend income. Similarly, Blacks have 12 cents and Latinos have 10 cents of unrealized capital gains for each dollar that Whites have.

There is much additional information on income, employment, and wealth inequality in this useful report (available free in pdf at their website). The current trends in income and wealth inequalities for racial groups in the United States are very disturbing for the future of a supposed “democracy”–and its unrealized ideals of liberty and justice for all.

In 2008, Institute for Policy Studies researcher, Dedrick Muhammad, summarized glaring U.S. racial inequalities in a report similarly titled–“The Unrealized American Dream.” He showed then that the income gap between black and white Americans was closing extraordinarily slowly, for at the rate of change then black Americans would only gain income equality with white Americans in about 537 years. The wealth gap between black and white Americans would take 634 years to close. After his analysis, from 2009 to 2010, the income gap actually increased a little. In addition, the wealth gap has increased significantly over recent years. (See reference and my further discussion in Chapter 9 of this book.)

The Huge Racial Wealth Gap: A Systemic Analysis

On Tuesday, July 26, Pew Research Center published a report entitled “Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics.” In the study, calculating wealth as the accumulated sum of assets minus the sum of debt, the authors report

The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households. . . . These lopsided wealth ratios are the largest since the government began publishing such data a quarter century ago.

Pew attributes their finding to the fact that “Minority households largely depend on home equity as a source of wealth” and “the housing market has yet to recover” from the housing bust which began in 2007. However, this explanation fails to explain the magnitude of racial wealth disparities. To adequately analyze the racial wealth gap, one must explore America’s history of unjustly enriching whites.

America’s history has been one of unjustly enriching whites and impoverishing people of color. Sociologist Joe Feagin (2006; 2010) defines unjust enrichment and impoverishment as “the unjust theft of labor or resources by one group, such as white Americans, from another group, such as black Americans.” According to Feagin (2010):

For over fourteen generations the exploitation of African Americans has redistributed income and wealth earned by them to generations of white Americans, leaving the former relatively impoverished as a group and the latter relatively privileged and affluent as a group.

This story of exploitation by whites has long been the story of American economics. In his discussion of black exploitation and the American centuries old “racial classes,” Oliver Cox (1948) argues, whites decided “to proletarianize a whole people.” In doing so, whites established a socioeconomic system centered on syphoning the labor and resources from melaninated bodies and placing it into white America. Supporting this claim, in his analysis of the development of the American economic system, Feagin argues (2010):

It is unlikely that the American colonies and, later, the United States would have seen dramatic agricultural and industrial development in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries without the blood and sweat of those enslaved…Without slave labor it seems likely there would have been no successful textile industry, and without the cotton textile industry–the first major U.S. industry–it is unclear how or when the United States would have become a major industrial power.

Here one sees just how integral the theft of labor was for American economics. Whites needed to prey on minorities to create a nation in which amassing great wealth was possible. Without stealing the labor and resources of people of color, it is very unlikely America would have ever prospered. However, continuously reinvesting the wealth accumulated on the backs of the enslaved in new economic and industrial ventures created the prosperity enjoyed in the modern United States–particularly by white Americans. The wealth that was not reinvested, was often passed down familial lines in the form of inheritance which many white Americans benefit from today. Using the concepts of unjust enrichment and impoverishment, one gains more insight into Pew’s data on the racial wealth gap.

Reviewing the new data on the racial wealth gap, one sees just how unequal wealth is distributed across races in America. While the housing bust of the last 4 years is a clear factor in the amount of wealth accumulated by Americas, it is not that minorities have most of their wealth in home equity that causes the racial wealth gap. The key is that whites do not and why. As Pew reports, “A higher share of whites than blacks or Hispanics own stocks–as well as mutual funds and 401(k) or individuals retirement accounts (IRAs).”

The ability to acquire such means of wealth dates back to the founding of America. From first contact with people of color, whites have established a system of stealing resources and labor from the racialized “other” and placing it in white America. Due to centuries of this practice, whites have been able to accumulate great sources of wealth outside of home equity. Furthermore, whites have often monopolized certain sources of wealth and more importantly sentenced minorities to generations of impoverishment. The neglect of America’s history of unjust enrichment and impoverishment is a major hole in Pew’s report. Without contextualizing wealth in America, Pew is only telling half of the story. The practice of stealing resources and labor from people of color and placing into white America is central to why whites have been able to amass such wealth and must be considered if one is to honestly discuss the racial wealth gap.

Cox, Oliver C. 1948. Caste, class, & race; a study in social dynamics. Garden City, N.Y.,: Doubleday.
Feagin, Joe R. 2006. Systemic racism: a theory of oppression. New York: Routledge.
Feagin, Joe R. 2010. Racist America: roots, current realities, and future reparations. New York: Routledge.

Why and How Race Ties to Place: California

Here is a new and interesting report on “race and place”published by PolicyLink and California Endowment that explores much important territory with data on the costs of structural and systemic racism. It begins this way:

One number may determine how healthy you are and how long you live. It is not your weight, cholesterol count, or any of those numbers doctors track in patients. It is your address. If you live in a community with parks and playgrounds, grocery stores selling nutritious foods, access to good jobs and to other economic opportunities, clean air, safe streets, good schools, ample health care and social services, and neighbors who look after one another, you are more likely to thrive. If you live in a neighborhood without these essentials, you are more likely to suffer from obesity, asthma, diabetes, heart disease, or other chronic ailments You are also more likely to die of a stroke, a hear attack, or certain forms of cancer. You are more likely to be injured or killed during a crime, in a car crash, or simply crossing the street. Healthy people and healthy places go together. This simple fact, supported by a deep, evolving body of research, is propelling a broad- based movement in California and in this nation to improve the health of people. . . .

and then adds:

Woven throughout the nexus of health and place is the often unspoken strand of race.

There is much food for thought in this research report about the links of space and racism in this report, and it uses a “structural racism” perspective from the Aspen Institute.

Yet the report never really calls out white decisionmakers as such, as the responsible white parties for the many racial inequalities the report’s data document so well. ‘Tis interesting how most critical reports on racial inequality still defer to white sensibilities in that way. Is this sidestepping of white racism by name a sort of white racial frame in its liberal version?

How Much is Enough?

Two articles that appeared on April 1 in USA Today caught my attention. At first you might think they were an April Fool’s joke. Over a million homes went into foreclosure this year and last. Nearly 15 million people are unemployed and, according to a Gallup Poll last year, 30 million more are underemployed. Poverty is pervasive among people of color, especially their children. More than a third (34 percent) of African American children and 29 percent of Latino children live below the poverty level. A report in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine in November, 2009 noted that nearly half of all children and 90 percent of black children will be on food stamps at some point during childhood. And yet we learn that 75 percent of top CEOs received raises in 2010. While middle and working class people are tightening their belts and being inexorably forced into poverty, (one in seven lives below the poverty level in the U.S.), we find that the compensation of the top 25 CEOs ranged from a low of $15,121,370 for David Cordani of Cigna to the “comfortable” $84,409,515 of Phillippe Dauman of Viacom. (USA Today, April 1, 2011:2B)

It would seem the economy is doing well—at least for some people.

On page 12C of the same paper sports aficionados can scan the salaries of all the teams and players in major league baseball. There are disparities there, too, though many people struggling with their rent or mortgage payments, food, fuel and health care bills probably would not commiserate with players on the “low end” of the scale, drawing in a paltry $414,000 annual salary. And who would begrudge Alex Rodriguez, of the New York Yankees his $32,000,000, or Vernon Wells of the Dodgers his $26 million? With average player compensation this year at $3.31 million, they won’t have to worry about cuts in Medicaid, Head Start, and food stamps.

Should we begrudge businessmen and athletes their salaries? The American Dream, based on the concept of a meritocracy, holds out the promise of wealth to anyone who works hard and plays by the rules. Tell that to the victims of Bernie Madoff, and the millions of children who were not lucky enough to be born to wealthy parents or win the genetic lottery as they struggle to survive. I ask you, how much is enough? Is any job worth that kind of money? What will be the effect of the recent budget deal on the lives of American children?

H. Roy Kaplan is Research Associate Professor in the Department of Africana Studies at the University of South Florida, and author of The Myth of Post-Racial America.