Editor's note: Marc Doussard is a professor of urban and regional planning. His research focuses on workplace inequalities and the effect of public policy on economic opportunity, with partners ranging from the Department of Defense to the Service Employees International Union. His 2013 book "Degraded Work: The Struggle at the Bottom of the Labor Market," used his Chicago field work with construction and food retail workers — the kind of jobs that cannot be outsourced overseas — to challenge the prevailing assumption that poor working conditions are an inherent part of certain industries. With colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley Labor Center, he is a co-author of a report being released today on frontline fast-food jobs. He spoke with News Bureau news editor Dusty Rhodes about the current efforts of fast-food workers to improve their wages and working conditions.
Q: What's the difference between "degraded work" and jobs that just pay a low hourly wage? Which category applies to fast-food work?
A: Degraded work consists of everything problematic with a job beyond the wages. Take the example of a day laborer. Day laborers often earn $10 or $12 an hour when they're hired — way over the minimum wage. But they work just a few days a week, their pay often gets stolen, they don't get breaks or safety equipment, there's no path forward on the job, and their bodies break down in a hurry. That's the difference between low-wage work and degraded work.
Our report (released Oct. 15) on fast food focuses on wages. But research I'll publish soon shows that working conditions, especially in terms of short hours and erratic schedules, may be as significant a problem for workers. Expanding our focus beyond wages raises all kinds of questions we typically ignore. When basic labor laws aren't enforced — and the evidence of that is overwhelming — workers use all of their bargaining power just to make sure they keep their jobs, or that they can work more than 20 hours per week. In the interviews I do, pay is always a central topic. But just as often I hear frustration with short hours, unpredictable schedules and working sick.
Q: The report by you and your colleagues at Berkeley reveals that even though the average pay of fast-food workers is $8.69 per hour (federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour), most fast-food workers' families are in public assistance programs. How much do these programs cost taxpayers?
A: By our extremely conservative estimate, the cost is just short of $7 billion per year. Fast food is a relatively small industry, and what stands out isn't the total public cost so much as the fact that the typical fast-food worker's family receives public assistance. And just to be clear, we are not talking about teenage dependents — the majority of fast-food workers are adults, and many of them have kids. So you have an adult workforce that needs public aid to get by, even in the rare cases when they can get 40 or more hours per week.
Public support programs are the last line of defense for workers and the poor, and we need them. But over the last two full economic booms, our economy has done a much better job of creating low-wage jobs than mid-wage ones. There is no real upside in that trend — but its downside to taxpayers and workers can be mitigated if fast food and similar industries pay better wages.
Q: How far back does this problem go? Haven't there always been degraded jobs?
A: It always has been and always will be a problem. The amazing thing is that we seem to have forgotten that. Take the example of manufacturing. One hundred years ago, manufacturing jobs were poorly paid and dangerous. Now we lament their disappearance. We do that because the political choices the country made during the Great Depression — support for minimum wages, unions, workplace regulation — made factory jobs much, much better.
The irony is that you often hear that service-sector jobs are immune to that same process. Well — why? There was nothing inherently good about manufacturing jobs. To the contrary, they're vulnerable to low-wage offshore competition in a way that fast food and retail aren't. And there is nothing inherently good about service jobs, but that doesn't mean they can't be improved.
Q: The SEIU, listed as one of your research partners, has been involved in a campaign in which fast-food workers have gone on strike. What tactics might be necessary to accomplish the change they're looking for?
A: That's the question everyone is asking. One of the open secrets of industrial relations is that the National Labor Relations Act — your right to form a union — is no longer really enforced. Firing union supporters is illegal. But it's also easy and effective, and the penalties are very small. I'll leave the tactics to the experts — but the process has to start with building a popular consensus that something has to change. Which, given stagnant pay and diminished job security for a growing share of workers, should not be hard to do.
Q: You have done extensive research on both the retail grocery industry and the fast-food industry. If you're the kind of consumer who wants to "vote" with your wallet, where should you get food?
A: I used to ask myself that same question. But I stopped, because the answer wasn't important, and because it was beside the point. Right now, our regulatory rules say it's fine to pay poverty wages, and that breaking basic labor laws carries a very small cost. It's only natural to search for a better place to shop, but crossing the street to buy a burger somewhere else isn't going to change the basic problem. Instead, I'd counsel people to reverse the old saw, "think globally, act locally." If you want to do something about wages and working conditions where you live, join up with a national network pressuring state assemblies and Congress to develop a fairer set of rules. Think locally, act globally.