Skillet Johnson tried to do what he was told.
Instead of just heading out to find the nearest low-wage job after high school, the 21-year-old went through a program in construction, a field that could have paid relatively well in his home town of St. Louis. But in the teeth of the recession, he wasn’t able to find a job.
Lydia DePillis is a reporter for the Washington Post.
"You’ve got to know somebody who knows somebody, or own something to build something,” says Johnson, whose dreadlocks are tucked neatly into a ponytail. "So it just tanked, with the economy, and I was forced to go into fast food."
He’s got a girlfriend to support—she’s trying to finish off some college—and a baby, too. So right now, Johnson works all the hours he can get at McDonald’s, valets cars, and works as an in-home health aide on the side. Maybe later, he can go back to school to get some other qualification, but right now he’s not making enough to buy the time.
Despite his best efforts, Johnson is a service worker, several times over—holding three of the kinds of jobs that have been growing the fastest in recent decades. Food service employment has grown by 68 percent since 1990, and health care is up 87 percent. Construction payrolls still haven't recovered from the recession, putting them at 17 percent higher than they were in 1990; the number of manufacturing jobs has dropped by 44 percent.
Those service jobs, however, don’t pay as well as the production jobs they’re replacing. Fast food cooks make $9.15, and home health aides make $10.77. Non-supervisory workers in manufacturing make $19.82 per hour on average, and construction laborers make $17.19.
And what if this trend continues? What if the new opportunities available to the Skillet Johnsons of the world continue to be low-paying positions with little opportunity for advancement? With the exception of registered nurses, the 10 highest-growth occupations for the next decade make less than $33,000 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s not the kind of employment base you need to rebuild a middle class.
Part of the answer is better, cheaper education to match people with higher-paying jobs where there’s more demand, like nursing or computer programming. But Johnson thinks there’s another piece of the puzzle: Transforming those low-paying jobs into careers that can support a family. Why should a fast-food cook or a home health aide make less than a machine operator, anyway? Is there something inherent in the work that makes it less valuable to society? Manufacturing jobs didn’t pay well, after all, until workers banded together and demanded something more for their labor than barely enough to eat.
The Service Employees International Union has long held the position that, no, service jobs shouldn’t command dramatically less in the marketplace than those that produce tangible goods. In an ambitious bid to balance out the scale, the two million-member union three years ago launched the Fight for $15, holding one-day “strikes” to call for companies to raise wages, or for governments to make them. The movement started with fast-food workers in New York City, but quickly spread to Walmart workers, child care providers, home health care aides—even adjunct professors, who picked their own rhetorical echo of the $15-an-hour wage demand, asking for $15,000 per course.
The response has been dramatic. The $15 minimum wage is now law in three major cities, and will come up for consideration in several more over the next year. Large companies like Facebook and Aetna have raised wage floors for their employees and their contractors to $15. Democratic presidential candidates have taken up the call, and even some Republicans acknowledge that the minimum wage could use a boost. Finally, grudgingly, Walmart and McDonald's have started to inch their wage scales up as well.
And Johnson has been in the middle of it. He got active enough in the Fight for $15 campaign to land a spot on the National Organizing Committee, which helps map strategy and motivate the rank and file. His hometown of St. Louis is now debating a $15 minimum wage proposal. Johnson’s excited about that, but still has his eye on the ultimate prize: A fast-food workers union, which could push for further improvement in working conditions, even after the economy outpaces whatever raise they might achieve.
“You give me $15, that would be lovely,” Johnson says. “You give me a union, that would be excellent.”
Of course, winning a union in the fast food industry could be a long ways off. The largely franchised business is particularly resistant to organization, since it’s composed of many small workplaces with little actual control over conditions of employment. But the National Labor Relations Board is considering changes that might start to re-calibrate those relationships. If the board decides that McDonald's exerts enough control over working conditions that it should qualify as a "joint employer," employees might be able to organize on a nationwide basis, rather than store by store.
Even if it does take a while—and Johnson has found his way back into construction—Johnson thinks collective action has already had an impact on his day-to-day. When McDonald's cut his hours after he started participating in day-long strikes, he and his co-workers petitioned management for redress.
“Two days later, I got put back on the schedule,” Johnson says. "That just shows us that, shit, we can make a change. And let’s do it."
For the Future of Work, a special project from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace, and what anxieties and possibilities they might produce.