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Thursday, 7 September 2017

McJobs & McStrikes

Last Tuesday the 5th, McDonald's workers went on strike in the UK. Their demands included a £10 an hour wage, decent working conditions, and an end to zero-hour contracts.

This resulted in a lot of this sort of thing:

So there's several things wrong with this.

I have a very real issue with precisely how we decide who deserves this and that paycheck. It is clear that Suzy here has come to the decision that McDonald's workers do not deserve £10 an hour, it is implicit in the tone of the tweet. Some folks reading this blog may even think the same thing.

Let's begin with that key point:


Why do we have an idea of what someone should be paid? What informs that particular figure in our head? The National Minimum Wage may contribute, but then, so does how much we are each paid individually and how much we know other people are paid. We form this hierarchy in our heads, and in that hierarchy, we try and place where someone who works at McDonald's should be.

As if there is some kind of invisible scale of objective worth to employment. As if there is a master table of every profession on earth and a notation of who should be paid more, less, or the same.

What people often mean is, "That is more than people who work at X are paid, and that doesn't seem right".

Well, I have never worked at McDonald's, but I know people who have, and plenty of other people who work in the service industry. On my island, that's where like half of the jobs are. (Or were. That's another blog.) The work is hard - you are treated something like indentured servants, assumed to have little to no rights, treated like garbage by your superiors AND the public, and then paradoxically are demanded to give flawless service by the same.

Now, I don't know about you, but that doesn't sound like it deserves to be paid less than some other jobs.

I've talked about this before, in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek parable utilising cakes. What I talked about was that our assumptions about how much people should earn isn't seemingly based on how hard they actually work, which they maybe should be.

Also: how is the response to a statement like "They don't deserve to be paid more than ambulance drivers" or "But that's more than a qualified machinist in Business X" not immediately: "Maybe they are ALL being underpaid"?

Because they are.

Let's talk about how much people earn in terms of minimum wage, in comparison to the average house prices per year.

Prior to the National Minimum Wage Act of 1998, it was down to the unions to ensure that people weren't basically used as slave labour. (Remember that, next time you complain about a strike.) Then it gets signed, and the minimum wage is first set in 1999, and increases each year. House prices, of course, increase every year - aside from a couple of blips and one huge Sub-Prime Crisis-shaped blot.

When the first minimum wage is brought in, 1999, it is £3.60. Average house price at this time is £74,638 - that comes from Nationwide Building Society, who by nature of their business keep tabs on this kind of thing. That means that, in 1999, if I wanted to buy a house outright I would need to work 20,733 hours to afford it. Assuming you work 24-7 and never sleep or take bank holidays, that is two years, four months, one week, six days and seven hours. Or so.

I know that mortgages exist. Bear with me.

Come 2002, with the minimum wage set at £4.20 and the average house price reaching £115,940, we have to work a full 27,605 hours to afford it - almost 7,000 hours more, just over a third.

Just before the Sub-Prime, in 2007, we see the minimum wage at £5.52, average house prices at £183,959. An unprecedented high of how many hours one has to work to afford one - 33,326 hours. That's a 40% increase on 1999.  If you want somewhere to live, which everyone does, you need to work a week and a half extra per month that you had to put in previously.

Then the recession bit. In 2012, minimum wages were £6.19 (assuming you are older than 24), and house prices had dipped to £162,924 on average - keep in mind that that is still more than twice that of 1999. At this low point, those on minimum wage only had to work a mere 26,321 hours to afford a house. Weren't we lucky?

The housing market has rallied since. Now it is steadily on the rise, has been since 2013. Today in 2017 our minimum wage is £7.50, house average price is £209,971. We work 27,997 hours to afford that house.

If the minimum wage was £10, here and now, we'd have to work 20,998 hours - which is only slightly more than we'd have had to back in 1999, when the National Minimum Wage was introduced.

So putting aside the elitist attitude that McDonald's workers (or service staff in general) don't deserve £10 an hour. The minimum wage ran ahead of inflation for a while, and then in 2008, that stopped. So even if we make the strict baseline argument that the minimum wage should afford now what it did back then, it needs to be higher. Slightly higher if we talk about a food basket, at least £10 if we talk about a home.

But we're not going to make that argument.

What we're going to do is argue that, if we increase the minimum wage, then people can afford to spend more. They spend more, pay more taxes, the economy benefits after the short-term cost of actually paying people more - but then, why do we immediately assume that employers have the right to pay human beings as little as possible to do a job? Because that is what we have been raised to believe, of course. The notion of the market above all things, of never questioning management decisions, of accepting what you get gratefully. It's a lie we all believe, because we have all been told since time immemorial that we can ALL be the manager - if we work hard enough.

I'm not going to spend an age going through how increasing minimum wage will improve lives - there's a lot of studies that do that for me - here's an article from the New York Times, and there's a balanced study here from Economics Online.

Instead I'm now going to set my sights on the actual attitude of the tweet at the beginning.

Suzy, I assume, believes that McDonald's workers have a shit role, and should get a better job if they want to be paid more. Suzy, I assume, doesn't believe that people's jobs shouldn't be arbitrarily shit. That an effort should be made to make a job not shit. Almost every single work benefit you have ever heard of comes from industrial or civil action - remember what I said about wages being handled by union efforts before 1998?

So instead of assuming that McDonald's workers should either deal with their job being shit or get a new one, why doesn't Suzy support the strike action that might lead to them actually HAVING a better job?

Because Suzy sees herself as better than them. And thus she doesn't care what they earn, as long as her life isn't affected at all - and the moment there is a change that she might not get her McCafe in the morning from some poor bastard on about £4.50 an hour, she lashes out at the workers with implications of self-entitled greed.

You know that most of the downsides of an increased minimum wage are mostly what employers will choose to do in response? Because, obviously, businesses will then hire less people or increase their prices, and that will be bad for everyone. Because that is what happens when you tell a business owner that they can't pay someone the bare minimum any more - or that the bare minimum is high enough that the employee can actually afford to live without working sixty hours a week.

But that's another example of Suzy's attitude being formed by the society we grow up in, now. We don't even ask what a worker deserves - the moment they imply they deserve more, we treat them like they are greedy and selfish, because they want to do what the owners of their business do every day. That's some kind of fucked up irony, seeing as we act like this because we all want to believe that we'll BE that manager one day.

It's time to face facts. This whole attitude is one that was invented to make fifty people work harder and only reward one of them. If we support those at the bottom end of the pay spectrum, the short-term costs incurred on those at the middle end will balance out in the long term. There's a significant number of ways this could be offset via legislation, too.

Just so happens that trickle-up economics is more feasible than trickle-down. But then if the current system wasn't built in such a convenient way to channel resources from bottom to top, it wouldn't be necessary, would it?

...oh and by the way Suzy IF YOU WORK FOR A LIVING IT ISN'T A HANDOUT stupid fucking grr

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