US: A Fast Food Worker Speaks Out

Walk into any big chain restaurant around the country and the scene will predictably be the same: fresh-faced workers hustling and bustling around the dining room and kitchen bussing tables, waiting on customers, and cooking food. Aside from the seemingly endless repetitive nature of the business, the most common theme that unites workers in the food service industry is their age.

Education Trust, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, reported last month that 80% of the 10.3 million workers in the food service industry are between the ages of 18 and 24. And with the flight of skilled jobs rising at tremendous rates, these low-paying, low-skilled service industry jobs have begun to dominate the job market, says Education Trust.

What do these jobs really offer the young workforce? The food service industry’s financial benefits are paltry in comparison to the responsibilities of most positions, and benefits packages are nearly non-existent for the majority of these workers.

Many big chain restaurants cloak the economic disadvantages of food service work in the guise of “team membership,” a strategy pioneered by the multi-national burger joint Red Robin. Ironically, the idea of team membership ends when it comes to the issues that really matter to workers: pay raises, vacation time, scheduling, etc.

The idea of team membership at Red Robin, like many other restaurants, often comes with added responsibilities and little to no economic incentives. I was a line cook and kitchen supervisor at Red Robin for almost three years, but struggled to make $17,000 annually – and that was working full-time.

But my situation is par for the course when juxtaposed with the average income of jobs in the industry. The average annual wages of all food service industry workers is currently $17,400 (U.S. Department of Labor), some $1,500 under the federal poverty line for a family of four. And, as industry analysts claim, with the food service industry continuing to grow at an unprecedented pace the competitive nature of these big chain companies will only draw the annual wages of these workers further into poverty.

No wonder I have found widespread support for a union among Red Robin workers.

From Justice, journal of Socialist Alternative, cwi in the US

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April 2005