By Canyon Lalama, “Customer Service” Representative, Member of OPEIU Local 12, Minneapolis, Minnesota
You can find us throughout malls, fast food joints, retail stores, and phone centers across the country. We’re the ones who pour the coffee, flip the burgers, and offer savings on long distance phone service. We are America’s youth, and we are increasingly trapped in dead-end jobs that offer low wages and no future.
Over 60% of workers aged 16-24 work in the retail or service industries. Young people provide big chains with a cheap and readily available workforce, and in return these companies provide their workers with low pay, grueling labor, and few benefits.
Seven out of ten new jobs created are “McJobs” in the retail and service sectors. In fact, McDonald’s is now the largest employer of youth in the country. And while their CEO makes a whopping $2,670 per hour, the poverty rate for workers under 25 is nearly twice the national average.
Anyone who has worked in these positions knows how demanding they can be. Breaks are often few and far between. Long hours of standing add to the stress caused by short-tempered customers and authoritarian managers.
Wages for occupations such as cashiering, food preparation, and other youth jobs are often far lower than the national average. These jobs regularly pay the federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour, which hasn’t even been increased to keep up with inflation, let alone to provide a decent standard of living.
Service jobs are notorious for their lack of benefits as well. Only 24% of service workers receive health care benefits from their employer. 18-24-year-olds are the least likely age bracket to have health coverage, and make up over one fourth of the nation’s 45 million uninsured. Other benefits such as paid vacation or retirement funds are almost non-existent.
Young workers are also often forced into “contingent” or temporary part-time employment, usually for large temp agencies such as Manpower Inc. Half of all temp workers are under the age of 35. They are paid 16.5% less than the national average, and only 5% have health coverage. Large corporations turn to temp agencies in order to cut labor costs. They also provide big business with scabs in the event of a strike.
Many young workers are lucky to have a job at all. In 2004, the unemployment rate for 16-20 year olds was 12.3%, compared to 5.4% overall. Bush’s new plan to privatize Social Security threatens our generation by cutting guaranteed benefits by 40%. We are also the ones who are expected to fight and die for corporate profits in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But things are far from hopeless. Decade after decade, workers have been fighting and winning battles for wages, benefits, and respect on the job. Today, only 5% of workers under 25 are unionized, but a militant unionization struggle could change that. It is possible that the next big labor battles will be fought in the retail and service industry, with young workers at the head of these struggles.
There have also been successful city-wide living wage campaigns. San Francisco raised its minimum wage to $8.50, due in part to the efforts of organized young workers. Washington, D.C. and Santa Fe, among other cities, have also instituted higher local minimum wages.
However, big business will always be waiting around the corner to steal any benefits we earn. Bush and the corporate puppets in Congress are now taking back the gains won by workers in the last century.
We need to build a society organized in the interests of everyone, instead of just the interests of Wal-Mart, Starbucks, and Blockbuster. A socialist society, with a democratically planned economy, would not only provide better wages and working conditions. It would also give youth a voice in our future.
Join us in the struggle against low wages and bad jobs! Join us in the struggle for socialism!