Wage Against the Machine | Sojourners

Wage Against the Machine

Employers say there’s a ‘labor shortage.’ The Bible says workers deserve fair wages.
A McDonald's sign in in Tiegard, Ore., on May 4, 2021. Photo: Tada Images / Shutterstock.com

Over the past few weeks, social media has served up images of fast-food drive-thrus plastered with messages hoping for customers' patience as these restaurants face low staffing. “No one wants to work anymore,” reads one sign taped to a McDonald's drive-thru. In the wake of these posts, many fast-food and service industry employers report that they're facing a labor shortage created and sustained by unemployment insurance. A letter from the National Owners Association, an independent group of McDonald’s franchisees, put it bluntly: “When people can make more staying at home than going to work, they will stay at home.”

Yet, there's a better way to look at this story: Rather than see this as a labor shortage caused by unmotivated workers — a narrative that ultimately forces workers into taking low wages — we could look at what's happening from the perspective of the workers. Using this lens, it’s clear that the problem isn’t caused by workers, but rather by McDonald's, Burger King, and other fast-food chains unwilling to provide adequate compensation and safe working conditions to attract workers.

In the capitalist economy in which we live, the labor market and wages are matters of profound inequality, exploitation, and injustice. For example, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan organization committed to policies that benefit low-and middle-income workers, the current federal minimum wage is just $7.25 per hour and hasn’t been raised in over 10 years. Even raising the minimum wage modestly to $15 per hour would give more than 32 million Americans a raise. Black, Latinx, and Indigenous workers would be the biggest beneficiaries of raising the minimum wage.

Drawing on biblical passages that emphasize the importance of paying workers fairly — including passages in  Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, Luke, and James — Christians throughout history have often played a key role in advocating for workers' rights. Informed by biblical tradition, Christians cannot be neutral in matters of wages and must advocate for workers' rights.

What's at stake in the labor/pay shortage discourse is the story we tell ourselves about the economy and how it works. When we let employers set the terms of the conversation, we risk and often degrade the livelihood and personhood of low-wage workers. All too often, employers even spin a rhetorical web of racist and anti-worker tropes to avoid paying a fair price for the labor they need.

It's not a labor shortage

Recent articles reporting on the so-called labor shortage usually go something like this: As jurisdictions ease their COVID-19 restrictions and more people become vaccinated, things are getting back to business as usual — good! Except for one snag: Fast-food chains, local restaurants, businesses in the hospitality industry are unable to fill their vacant positions — bad! These articles usually end with a folksy quote from a fast-food franchise owner or a sweeping claim from an industry executive from something like the National Restaurant Association. For example, in one article from Business Insider, John Motta, a Dunkin' franchise owner, noted, “This is the pandemic of 2021 — lack of people to work.”

Back in April, Tik Tok user @brittanyjade903 posted a video of a McDonald's drive-thru with a sign that read: “We are short-staffed. Please be patient with the staff that did show up. No one wants to work anymore.” McDonald's later apologized for the sign, but there has been a cavalcade of similar postings at different restaurants across the country since then.

The bias in these statements is hard to miss: Comparing the lack of workers to a pandemic or just outright saying “no one wants to work” assumes laziness from a potential workforce that is happy to stay home and just take checks from big government. The phrase “no one wants to work anymore” is hyperbole intended to call forward the worst stereotypes about fast-food workers. These stereotypes are often anti-worker and anti-Black. Because of major advertising campaigns from companies like McDonald's — like the infamous “Calvin Got a Job” commercial — Black workers are closely linked to cultural perceptions of fast-food. The trope that low-wage workers, especially workers of color, are lazy, plays off the intermingling of class and racial biases.

This rhetoric creates social pressures that often translate into political power to roll back the current unemployment benefits programs. For example, The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which lobbies aggressively for big corporations, is capitalizing on this so-called “labor shortage” to lobby for legislation that would end supplemental federal unemployment benefits and compel workers into taking low-wage jobs.

And several governors are indicating their willingness to back these federally funded unemployment benefits in their own state. For example, the governors of Tennessee, Missouri, Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Montana, South Carolina, and Iowa have made statements about their rejection of federal funds to answer the “labor shortage.” Mike Parson, the governor of Missouri issued a statement explaining his rationale: “Continuing these programs [federal unemployment benefits] only worsens the workforce issues we are currently facing ... It is time we ended these programs that have incentivized people to stay out of the workforce.”

Rather than reflecting the truth of the motivations of both workers and employers, the “labor shortage” conversation is a tactic to adjust public perception and create the political will big corporations need to capture cheap labor — it's propaganda at its most straightforward.

This is not to say that labor shortages don't exist altogether — they do. For example, during World War I and World War II, there were legitimate worker shortages when male workers were drafted or joined the military. But what we see with current fast-food and restaurant worker “shortages” is not the same. The workers are present, but employers are simply offering wages that are too low.

In a recent op-ed, economist Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute, explained the difference:

“Employers who truly face shortages of suitable, interested workers will respond by bidding up wages to attract those workers, and employers whose workers are being poached will raise wages to retain their workers…” Shierholz wrote. “And right now, wages are not growing at a rapid pace.”

It’s not like big fast-food companies can’t afford to raise the wages for their employees. McDonald’s unwillingness to set their wage floor to at least $15 per hour is especially egregious. In 2020, their CEO, Chris Kempczinski, made $10.8 million. McDonald’s itself made nearly $5 billion dollars in profits last year. Making mountains of wealth while employees limp by on starvation wages is unconscionable.

Worth their wages

The inner workings of the political economy are complicated, especially when journalists favor bosses' perspectives and leave out workers' voices. James 5:1-6 offers some clarity. Like many other biblical passages, James 5 warns against the oppression of the poor, yet mentions wages explicitly: “Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (James 5:4). The writer of this epistle explains the rich have a major tool when exploiting the poor: withholding wages to fortify their own coffers.

Of course, the political economy of James’ author is quite different from 2021. Yet, the main logic holds: A workers' labor is worth their wages, and to withhold those wages means the perpetrator should “weep and wail for the miseries that are coming.” Persuading workers to accept unlivable wages is precisely what the writer of James is condemning.

The fight for higher wages and workers' rights is not new territory for Christians. For example, the Memphis sanitation workers' strike of 1968, a struggle for higher wages and better working conditions, was the backdrop of Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous “I've Been to the Mountaintop” speech. And beyond notable figures like King, many clergy and lay Christians have been involved in labor struggles — including in the recent union drive at Amazon.

Christians must follow the lead of both biblical texts and the Christians who have come before. These examples will lead Christians to listen to the real experiences of workers struggling with low wages and center them in the solutions to these struggles.

Through my own work as a digital organizer with Fight for $15, a campaign dedicated to organizing for workers’ rights and a living wage, I’ve learned to listen to people like Nicole Rush, a St. Louis fast-food worker. When Rush went on strike back in February, she made the severity of her situation clear: “I make $11/hr right now. Some people might think that's a lot, but it's not a livable wage,” Rush said on Twitter. “I still can't afford my own place, so I live in a two-bedroom with my sister, brother, and my two kids.” Stories like Rush's show what's at stake when employers refuse to raise their wages and organizations like The U.S. Chamber of Commerce fire up the propaganda mill to legislate against unemployment benefits. Low wages are a sentence to poverty.

The story we tell about workers matters, and Christians can tell a different story. Christians may be familiar with the biblical principle in 1 Timothy that “a worker is worth their wages.” Another way of saying this today, following James 5, might be: “a wage must be worthy of the work.”

Yet, wages are an ever-evolving struggle, and workers desperately need people to show up and stand on their side to demand a living wage. When wages are $8, $10, and $11 an hour, workers aren't worth their wage; they're worth far more.