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Op-Ed: Emerging Labor Movement Is A Presidential Opportunity


And now, time for the Opinion Page. There's a new kind of labor movement in the United States led by those who are not in unions, primarily retail and fast-food workers. These workers are protesting before they unionize. And in a column for the Chicago Tribune, columnist Clarence Page compares this new labor movement to Occupy Wall Street.

If you work in the fast-food industry, if you own a fast-food franchise, what would a change in the minimum wage law mean for you? 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email us: talk@npr.org. Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune and joins us here in Studio 42. Welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION. Welcome to the new studio.

CLARENCE PAGE: Thank you, Neal. Great to be here.

CONAN: And you talk about the wage discrepancies that we've seen so much, and that is because a lot of the jobs that poorer people have are in retail operations, particularly in operations like fast-food.

PAGE: Well, that's right, folks we deal with every day when we go to get our cheeseburgers, or whatever. Our minimum-wage workers, at a time when minimum - being a minimum-wage worker doesn't put you on that starting ladder to upward mobility the way it used to.

CONAN: Not the engine to the middle class.

PAGE: Not like it used to be way back when I was one in my youth, you know, and could work my way through college with the jobs I picked up in the summer or part-time. You know, those tuitions are a lot higher now. The industrial jobs I was able to have access to have dried up. And we really haven't talked enough about this, but this income gap is a very real thing. And I now it's not chic to say anything nice about unions and this day in age, but I said, what the heck? Now you taking to folks who are out there trying, you know, a lot of them are single moms, supporting kids and this sort of thing. And I think it takes a lot of courage for them, really, to take a stand.

CONAN: And you're talking about a movement of a sort, organized by a union offshoot, an offshoot of the SEIU...

PAGE: Yeah.

CONAN: ...but is trying to organize protests before they organize unions.

PAGE: Yeah. As you know, SEIU was an offshoot from the AFL-CIO and all because they thought there was too much time spent doing things besides organizing. So now, this Change to Win campaign is an offshoot of that...


PAGE: ...that is even more into getting people to organize and advocate for themselves. And this is the way how organized labor got started. You know, before there were unions there were people who protested their working conditions and their wages. And so, it's become almost a possible form of union these days with the way the federal law has turned. And so, there's kind of this new movement afoot, and I compare it to Occupiers because for one thing some of the folks I talked to were out there Occupy demonstration line, too. And a lot of that spirit is living here where you see a protest.

CONAN: Well, how's it manifesting itself?

PAGE: Well, it's been a - what we used to call wildcat walkouts. I mean, there are strikes - one-day strikes in cities like Washington, D.C., Chicago, New York, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Detroit, Seattle. And, well, in D.C., which I focused on, it's taken a turn of pushing for President Obama to - by executive order - have raised the wages of anybody who contracts with the government and in government buildings, which is, as you know, in D.C., Union Station, Smithsonian, Reagan Building, a lot of these government buildings have fast-food franchises in them.

CONAN: And you wrote about in your piece a woman who works at a fast-food franchise at the very popular Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

PAGE: Right. And she testified before Congress as well, Melissa Roseborough, and she's one of those cases of a single mom, a grandmom, actually, who has been working at the McDonald's there. And she walked out with other workers and did testify before Congress and talking about what can be done for minimum-wage workers in the government buildings in particular. And she ran into some heat from her boss, but the other workers stood up with her. She's not the only case where that's happened. But, no, a lot - some of the managers and owners are raising wages on their own, because, for one thing, it helps to reduce turnover to have happy workers.

CONAN: Again, in your piece, you talk about one of those executives - the head of Costco, I think...

PAGE: That's right.

CONAN: ...who's saying, we ought to be paying not eight and a quarter, but what, 10.68?

PAGE: That's right. Craig Jelinek at Costco in order to have competitive advantage. And they pay 11.50, in fact, at Costco as their starting wage. And he's very much a believer in saving money through reducing turnover rather than cutting wages. And I think he's a good role model for a lot of other bosses and owners, because, you know, this - today, we have seen, since 1960 really, the real new-class structure in America, those who have some education beyond high school and those who don't. There has been no real increase in wages, considering inflation, since that time.

And in fact, in the recent years low-wage workers have slipped back. And that's really, like I say, one of those hidden issues. You know, I mean, the civil right movement, you talk about race and people get up and take to the streets. They get a lot of support. When you talk about class and Americans get real itchy and run and hide. I don't know why that is, Neal, but I think that's why I said, well, I'm going to stand out and - step out and stand up for these folks. And I think more people should too.

CONAN: We'll get to calls in just a minute. We particularly want to hear from those of you in the fast food industry, whichever part of the industry you're in. Would a change in the minimum wage, how will that change things: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. But, Clarence, as you well know, there are plenty of people say, wait a minute, if you raise the minimum wage, you're going to have fewer jobs. So...

PAGE: Yeah.

CONAN: It's going to cost the poor people. It's not going to help them.

PAGE: That's the debate. And in fact, I've looked - well, there's two kinds of wages - or two kinds of minimum wage. There's the statutory, minimum wage by law, and there's the real minimum wage, which is what will the market bear. When you're having a real prosperous economy, like we had in the late '90s, a lot of employers, most of them were paying more than the minimum wage because they needed to get workers to flip hamburgers or whatever else. Some were even - I remember in Boston, shuttle buses being run to low-income areas to get young kids to work at the McDonald's and the other franchises out in the more affluent suburbs or communities.

This is what the theory is based on. But in fact, a number of studies - I cited one in my column - which have found that when you consider the reduced turnover, which is a very expensive proposition for employers...

CONAN: Because you have to bring in new people and train them.

PAGE: That's right. That - you really save money in the long run by paying higher minimum wage. So the debate goes on. But I think, realistically, we do have - we look, overall, at the situation here in America. We do have a widening gap between low income workers and upper income. And this is one way to relieve it.

CONAN: As so often in the past. Clarence Page is with us, syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Let see, we get a caller in on the conversation and we'll start with Peter. Peter with us from Sioux Falls in South Dakota.

PETER: Hi. Thank you so much for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

PETER: As your guest mentioned, the idea of different companies a paying higher wage, I think that's definitely the way to go. Sorry, let me back up. I've worked in fast food, in kitchens basically, for just under a decade and - so I've been working, kind of, right around that minimum wage and above. But as you label this the opinion page, well, here comes my opinion.

How would it affect me if the minimum wage were raised? Quite frankly, I see not at all, because if every company has to pay slightly higher for those that are pay at minimum wage, that's going to affect their bottom line. And so they're going to pass that cost on to their customers. While the customers then are going to complain that their cost of living has gone up, they go to their employers, so on and so forth. And all we just get up is just more inflation, which I understand is necessary to make investments work. But really, it's - I'm going to end up right back where I started. Sure, my paychecks are bigger, but I'm spending a lot more money on things that I buy when I go places.

I think, really, the way to do it, as your guest mentioned, is the individual, you know, case-by-case basis, individual companies taking the initiative. I mean, as long as - so long as they're not, you know, passing on all of - passing on the cost, which I understand. But if they truly view it as a savings and preventing the turnover and are saving the money that way, why not? More power to them. But paying...


PETER: ...on a government-wide level, I think, is not the way to go.

CONAN: So, Clarence, you're clearly talking about inflation here.

PAGE: Yeah, that's the debate, as I say. But what we have found, I mean, just by experience, I don't even need to have a Ph.D. in economics to see that for one thing the - the burger franchises, for example, they keep making them cheaper, when they want to, you know, to increase sales. We find that - I mentioned the Costco example, which has been what The New York Times report call the anti-Walmart because while - a lot of controversies. And there was a big walkout by Walmart workers last year that made news.

Costco hasn't had that problem. And so, I think, if you look at different companies who are able to remain competitive and the customers still keep flowing in because when people want to buy something, they're going to find ways to do it, and that - we have not had an inflation problem as the Fed tells us. So I think the usual theories seem to fall by the wayside, quite often, when it comes to supply and demand in this sort of thing.

CONAN: Peter, thanks very much for the call.

PETER: Thank you so much for taking my call.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask you - we'll get to another call in just a minute, but the - you talked about protests before unionization and the barriers we know to unionization. Are these people going to be able to have an effective representation, ala a union to, well, benefit from these wildcat strikes?

PAGE: Now that's the whole - SEIU and other unions that are involved with assisting this movement, they are hoping that once people begin to - I mean, I talked to organizers and saw them at work, you know, going out and talking to fast-food workers. And their first question is, would you like to make more money.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

PAGE: Now, who wouldn't, right?

CONAN: Right.

PAGE: And so - and no, not everybody is going to listen to you but there are others who stepped up and say, I got, you know, three kids at home and blah, blah, blah, and I'm desperate.

And those are the folks who are the beginning of your movement. And you start to see more and more of that, and then you have a walk out. Everybody doesn't walk out, but enough do that they feel more solidarity. And then in some cases you've had employers who say, well, don't bother coming back, but then everybody comes back in the next day. And the employer sees the lights and says well, OK, we'll give you another chance. I mean, that's how it starts.

CONAN: Then he'll have to trade a whole new cohort of workers.

PAGE: Well, exactly. You know, and so this is how it starts. Now, once you get enough successes, then people start to talk about developing an infrastructure, meaning form real organizations, which we call unions. And that's what a lot of these organizers are hoping. I think that's the real long-term thrust of the movement, to try to revive the union movement through this method.

CONAN: Clarence Page with the Chicago Tribune. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Dale is on the line with us from Columbus.

DALE: Hi. How are you doing?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

DALE: OK. I'm 61. I'm in good shape. I spent a lifetime, from 15 years old at 90 cents an hour in restaurants. I made it a point to become an executive chef, at a 500-seat restaurant here in Columbus. And my wife was my pastry chef, as a matter of fact.

And we went through a series of jobs, and we decided that it was time to watch our tweens, because we were working a lot of hours, and went to family restaurant. And we planned on opening a restaurant of our own. And, of course, soon as I bought this house (unintelligible) goes down, they (unintelligible) you have breast cancer. So we lost half our income - later I lost her. Two years later, I lost my job because the restaurant closed and then I lost my house.

And the bottom line is this, everything is fast food today. I'm a dishwasher right now. I'm a dishwasher at a gourmet Mexican restaurant, and its all fast food. And the bottom line is, I make just above minimum wage and its like when they want you, you work 14 hours a day, nonstop. And when they don't want you, after three hours they send you home.

And I worked with Latinos who, by the way, during election I had been chanting Obama, Obama. And as it turns out it's - there is nowhere to go. Corporations are taking over food service. There's no question about it. Everything is minimum wage. Everything is fast food.

And you're talking to a guy who had served former presidents, former governors, former mayors; fine dining, $250 a meal entities for, you know, charities and stuff American Red Cross and things. And I get a letter from the president, after getting one back, where I whined about my life and said, hey, here's what you need to do. Be cool, be safe because you're going to be challenged every step. And I understand the politics of life but I'm nowhere. My wife's Social Security pays my rent, I lost my house, I'm in a one-bedroom apartment, I'm barely getting by, and I ran 550-seat restaurant.

CONAN: Hmm. Given the number of children, kids, Dale, that go into culinary school these days, would you encourage...

PAGE: My kids are grown up, my kids are grown up.

CONAN: All right. Dale, thanks very much for the call. We wish you better luck.

PAGE: Mm-hmm. Sure you do.

CONAN: Thank you.

PAGE: And a fellow Ohioan, I sympathized. I mean, I grew up in, you know, we talked about this before, how much more difficult it is now to afford college. You know, I worked in the steel mill there in Middletown, Ohio at the time when tuition to Ohio U was $770 for the - and this was in the mid-'60s.

And, you know, the steel mill jobs aren't there any more like they used to be, and college tuition as you know is 10 times higher than it used to be. There is a real difficulty, now, in moving upward in that classic American dream fashion. And Ohio is one of those post-industrial states, if you will, where that's happened.

CONAN: Do you fear that this is going to become a permanent stratification, that people would be trapped for a lifetime in these kinds of service jobs?

PAGE: I don't see a turnaround. I mean, there's always opportunities to move up if you work hard enough, you know, take a community college or some other route or whatever. But we see the numbers just going up and up.

And, you know, even now in the immigration debate, it is apparent that while immigration has helped our economy and helped America in the long run, it's creating more competition for low-wage jobs. And so that tends to depress low-wage income even more, or prevent it from rising in value. So I don't see any real turnaround right now unless we consciously start talking about this in an honest way.

CONAN: Clarence, always thanks very much.

PAGE: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: It'll be interesting to see that vote on the border surge later today...

PAGE: That's right.

CONAN: ...in the Senate to see whether the immigration bill is going to get to 70 votes with Lindsey Graham and other people we're talking about.

PAGE: That's right.

CONAN: Yeah. Interesting. Clarence Page joined us here in Studio 42. Tomorrow, a look ahead at the future of medicine with Dr. Sherwin Nuland and Atul Gawande. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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