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The Big Picture Of The Fast-Food Wage Dispute


Those protests are part of a larger discussion about the minimum wage that's happening at all levels of government. There are potential policy changes out of Washington that could affect the wages and benefits for fast-food and other low-wage workers. And for more on that big picture, we're joined now by NPR's Yuki Noguchi. Hi, Yuki.


BLOCK: The fast-food workers here are calling for a $15-an-hour minimum wage. We've heard the Obama administration say that they would like to see an increase to a little over $10-an-hour. Meanwhile, a number of states and cities are taking steps on their own. What's been going on over the last year or so?

NOGUCHI: Well, Congress hasn't really responded to the Obama administration's call that you mentioned for a higher minimum wage. But there have been other piecemeal changes. Earlier this year, the president signed an executive order raising the minimum wage to $10.10 cents for federal contractors. And in the last year and a half, more than a dozen states have increased their minimum wages and some cities and counties are doing the same. Plus, there will be, this fall, several ballot measures where this issue will go before voters.

BLOCK: And where are these changes happening?

NOGUCHI: Well, mostly they're happening in higher-cost areas - urban areas, states along the coasts, you know, Washington, D.C. and surrounding areas, several cities in California and New Mexico. And Seattle made waves recently when it said it would raise its minimum wage to $15-an-hour over the course of several years. But it's also happening in other areas as well - Minnesota and Michigan have raised their wages, and Arkansas voters will see a ballot initiative also in November.

BLOCK: And what's inspiring these shifts in minimum wage?

NOGUCHI: Well, it has public backing. About two-thirds of Americans support raising the minimum wage. President Obama's been pushing for it as we mentioned. Plus, there's been a lot of focus on income inequality. And the SEIU service workers union has poured millions of dollars into this fast-food worker campaign. So it's really raised the awareness.

BLOCK: And as you say, the service workers union is really pushing this. But are these fast-food workers that they're pushing for, are they unionized?

NOGUCHI: They aren't. However, there are policies that might eventually change that. The National Labor Relations Board here in D.C. is looking at whether McDonald's, the corporation, is jointly responsible for wage and benefit issues that come up in its franchises. So we know that McDonald's calls the shots on products, prices, uniforms, marketing and so on. The question then is when there is an unfair labor practice, should McDonald's corporations share a responsibility with a franchise owner? And this summer, the board's top lawyers said they should be. If that recommendation stands, there would be big implications for McDonald's. The corporation would likely engage in more labor negotiations at local levels. And the theory is that would spur organization of these workers.

BLOCK: But the implication would go well beyond McDonald's, right? Because franchises exist in many parts of the economy.

NOGUCHI: That's true. Across the fast-food and other sectors, that franchise would have an impact. And in fact, some labor experts say this and other similar policy questions around, for example, whether independent contractors ought to be considered employees, could really change life for rank-and-file workers in many industries.

BLOCK: OK, NPR's Yuki Noguchi. Yuki, thanks.

NOGUCHI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.
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