After six years of strikes, lawsuits, and damning public scrutiny of how the fast food business model relies on taxpayer-subsidized poverty wages, McDonald’s formally withdrew from efforts to block a federal minimum wage hike on Tuesday.
The chain will also stop working against minimum wage increases at state and local levels, its executives told lobbying partners at the National Restaurant Association in a letter.
Workers and organizers involved in the six-year campaign of walk-outs, demonstrations, and litigation, dubbed the “Fight for $15,” immediately celebrated the about-face and pressed their advantage.
“It’s also time the company respect our right to a union. Since day one, we’ve called for $15 and union rights and we’re not going to stop marching, speaking out, and striking until we win both,” Kansas City McDonald’s worker and prominent Fight for $15 leader Terrence Wise said in a statement. “McDonald’s decision to no longer use its power, influence and deep pockets to block minimum wage increases shows the power workers have when we join together, speak out, and go on strike.”
Wise’s mix of praise and warning reflects some murkiness attending the company’s decision. McDonald’s hasn’t renounced its membership in the “other NRA,” just forsworn corporate support for an ongoing lobbying effort funded in part through its own dues payments to the group. And it’s unclear if the company now welcomes the $15 wage floor workers have consistently sought since 2012, or if it merely accepts some smaller increase is inevitable.
The details of how minimum wage hike policies come together are always tricky, as business organizations fight to carve out certain sizes of business and to slow the phase-in period of a wage hike beyond what workers and progressive economists say is reasonable. The nation’s first $15 hourly wage floor deal was the product of months of vigorous negotiations where “everybody left… a little bit of blood on the floor,” as Seattle Hospitality Group leader Howard Wright told ThinkProgress after that city brokered the first low-wage labor peace of the conflict-oriented era workers like Wise created.
Despite Tuesday’s letter, McDonald’s is also continuing to fight a federal labor board’s finding that its franchise business model does not protect the corporate parent from liability for how its franchisees operate their stores. That dispute over whether or not “joint employer” legal doctrines apply to the franchise models common to the fast food industry likely presents a more fundamental threat to McDonald’s ability to funnel money to its shareholders and CEOs than do wage floors.
But if the war between McDonald’s and workers like Wise isn’t exactly over, it’s radically reshaped by Tuesday’s letter, which was first reported by Politico.
Retail and service workers paid at or near the legal minimum have become a staple of the stock price-obsessed modern U.S. business world. Congress’ multi-generation failure to hike the federal minimum pay has meant that corporate reliance on low-wage work steadily eroded the traditional social contract in which having a job meant being able to afford a decent standard of living. Instead, as people who work substantial hours found themselves impoverished anyhow, government programs funded by taxpayers stepped into the gap — effectively subsidizing the profits McDonald’s and its peers reaped from their low-wage business models.
Stark partisanship within federal government coincided with the rapid, coast-to-coast spread of Fight for $15 strikes and protests, preventing legislative action in response to the mounting labor strife for years. A bill to gradually raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 was among the first legislative proposals Democrats introduced after taking the House in last year’s midterm elections.
The same month, Chamber of Commerce officials announced they’d entertain some pay hike provided Democrats were willing to negotiate some flavor of concessions. Like the chamber’s announcement, Tuesday’s high-profile maneuver from McDonald’s carries major symbolic weight but leaves lingering unanswered questions about just how far major corporate interests that have taken publicly-subsidized wage serfdom for granted for decades are now willing to move in the name of economic justice.