More Than A Minimum Wage: What Recent Protests Tell Us About Women’s Economic Justice

Low-wage workers in America are finally throwing up their fists.

photo by Laura Mandanas, Zucotti Park Protest

photo by Laura Mandanas, Zucotti Park Protest

On Thursday, fast food workers in over 100 cities across the country went on strike for the day to demand a $15 minimum wage, which is over double the nation’s pathetic standing rate of $7.25. They were also protesting for the right to form a union without retaliation, which would put them in a better position to collectively bargain on the local level for protections and wage-related benefits.

The strike echoed this year’s Black Friday protests, in which retail employees from Walmarts took a similar action by staging all-day protests during the country’s biggest spending event of the year. Their demands were along the same lines: a $25,000 yearly salary for all employees, increased ability to work full-time hours, and unionization without resistance.

For employers like McDonald’s and Walmart, the suffering of their lowest-ranking workers doesn’t go unnoticed — nor does it disturb those in higher ranking positions. Managers at a Walmart in Ohio enlisted assistance from fellow workers to help employees make ends meet for Thanksgiving, and McDonalds’ Human Resources Department tells employees to apply for food stamps when they come asking for more hours or higher pay. Walmart employees cut deep into the economy every year because they rely on various form of public assistance.

The demands of workers participating in these protests are not so great that their employers can’t commit to them. If McDonalds doubled the wages of everyone they employed — including their multi-million dollar CEO — the price of a Big Mac wouldn’t even increase a dollar, and research shows that Walmart could pay their employees $25,000 per year without raising their prices. (Employers like Costco remains proof that rewarding workers well for their work does no harm to corporate growth or morale — and indeed often does the opposite.) Economic data has also shown that these workers are fighting for something which has been theirs all along: if low-wage salaries had remained consistent with the earnings of America’s top 1% since its creation, every minimum wage worker would be making over three times the current federal minimum wage. Instead, they’ve been earning poverty wages since 1982. Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 would lift over 3.5 million people of color out of poverty.


President Obama has come out in support of a $10 minimum wage, and he spoke out recently and labeled income inequality “the defining challenge of our time.” In his speech, he added: “We have to reject a politics that suggests any effort to address [income inequality] in a meaningful way somehow pits the interests of a deserving middle class against those of an undeserving poor in search of handouts.”

A demand for a $15 minimum wage proves that these shows of interstate worker solidarity and a move toward unionizing and finding success within the community of working-class America proves that this is about more than a federally-decided standard for baseline pay. This is the beginning of a war on an economy that makes certain people vulnerable so a select few can survive.

Photo by Laura Mandanas.

Photo by Laura Mandanas.

Many of the people affected by minimum wage legislation and the working conditions in low-wage positions are women, people of color, immigrants, young people, and displaced workers from other sectors which fell apart in the recession. In other words, a lot of them look like you, the people you love, and the people you’ve been fighting for.

A majority of minimum wage workers are young women employed in the service sector. In the fast food industry, 73%of all front-line workers are women, and 43% are African-American or Latina. A recent Ms. magazine feature on women in the fast food strikes illustrated that for women workers, chances at advancement remain incredibly low — as they do across all sectors and industries — compared to that of their male counterparts, although the opportunities for advancement for all fast food workers are low. Only 2% of fast food employees are managers, and less than 10% are supervisors. In many ways, the service industry is attacking women and, therefore, families by keeping them in the lowest-paid positions and thus replicating the feminization of poverty we see around the world. But what’s happening behind the scenes to keep women down is now resulting in a massive number of women coming out to demand justice. A feminization of poverty has become the feminization of activism.

“When I spoke at the rally today, I wanted to remind people that women still make less wages for the exact same job as men do, and I also wanted to remind people that the Senate recently passed ENDA,” trans* protestor and journalist Ashley Love told Autostraddle Contributing Editor Laura Mandanas at the Zucotti Park rally. “I was very upset because at least 20 speakers had spoken and not one of them mentioned gender inequality, and not one talked about discrimination against LGBT Americans in the workplace.” Love said her experience of demanding the opportunity to raise these issues was a reminder that “even we in the 98% don’t always like to talk about sexism.”

Ashley Love at the Fast Food Protest in Zucotti Park, New York

Ashley Love. Photo by Laura Mandanas.

Willieta Dukes, a Durham, NC Burger King guest ambassador, told Ms. that she considers the fight for worker’s rights an essential piece of the movement for women’s rights. “We’re the ones on the front lines,” she told writer Michelle Chen. “We’re the ones on the back lines. But the men sit in their office. They do the paperwork. They run around in their big cars to get their bonuses… We deserve more as women and mothers and as workers.”

Indeed, it is women who are living at the intersections of workplace discrimination and wage inequality when they come to work each morning who are now bringing this movement to its apex. As I’ve written about previously, the folks living at intersections feel all of the effects of inequality once, twice, or three times over — often manifesting as a lifelong series of obstacles that hinder their chances at basic human survival. For women, people of color, immigrants, and gender-nonconforming and/or trans* folks, the effect of income inequality low-wage workers have been protesting compound and play into one another to make the effects of inequity even more inescapable.

“I came out today,” Occupy Wall Street veteran Athena told Mandanas, “because we can all create so much beauty that it will infiltrate through the world.” She added:

The fast food workers today are being very brave and they are coming forward like many other works are, and I think that the way that different groups are coming forward shows any other group that they can, too — like we did today — we come together and then we realize that we are together, that we do have the power. So I’m thrilled that the fast food workers are striking and I think it just encourages more fighting for what we all deserve.

Gina Chiala, a Stand Up KC spokesperson, echoed those sentiments to Ms. Thursday. “So many workers and organizations know that if we don’t change the trajectory in this country toward poverty wages and industries that make billions of dollars, the gap between the rich and poor is just going to grow,” she said.

Athena. Photo by Laura Mandanas.

Athena. Photo by Laura Mandanas.

A demand for a living wage moves the labor rights movement for low-wage workers beyond the concept of “scraping by” and toward a concept of actual economic justice for all people. Economic justice for these women isn’t about simply making “enough money to live,” which isn’t even a baseline that their jobs are currently meeting, but about moving further past that to a place of access, opportunity, and advancement. Economic justice is being able to dream with your money. Being able to eat and feel full with your money. Being able to clothe and house your family — no matter its size — without feeling shame, guilt, or anxiety. The concept of a “minimum wage” is the problem is the equation, not the solution: by designating a literal floor for wages, a mark at which only living below is labeled as problematic and not subsisting in stasis with, we both lend shame and deny dignity to the folks earning anything near it, and we allow it to become associated with work that we, as a culture, have agreed deserves to remain there: service jobs. Food service, hotel service, wait service, cleaning service, secretarial service.

No matter your educational experience or your life situation, you deserve to make enough money by working to survive in America. By setting the standard of a living wage — by raising the bar for employers and challenging our culture’s notion of what “a part-time worker” looks like and “needs” from their salary — we make America’s economic system work better for everyone. Most American families currently earn under $60,000 a year, and wage penalties for women related to their family life, gender presentation, sexual orientation, race, and sex still persist in America’s workplaces. When we allow any worker to be exploited, harassed, and robbed of their opportunities, we open the door for the effects of that treatment to move up and beyond their sector, beyond their industry, and beyond their life experiences. When we treat low-wage workers like they’re not fully human — which is already inexcusable — we suggest that we can get away with treating middle-wage workers like they aren’t fully human. And so it goes. This is everybody’s fight.

Two solutions to the problems being laid out by workers are being discussed during reporting on the strikes: the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, which raises the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by 2015 and adjusts automatically with cost of living, and more local, hands-on organizing and unionizing work for gradual, worker-controlled workplace protections and wage adjustments state-by-state. Neither solution is perfect: the FMWA doesn’t account for the true cost of living, even as it raises the minimum wage by almost three dollars per hour, and the solution of letting workers stand up for themselves would ultimately lead to awesome workplaces but, in the meantime, still leaves them with no recourse or solution. A hybrid of both would be best: setting a livable standard and allowing workers to unionize and work together for more specific needs that may not be generally applicable to their industries. (With a Congress which makes “passing a bill” the new “creating matter out of nothingness as contrary to all scientific data,” this is all more of a fantasy than an impending reality, anyway.)

As low-wage workers fight for their ability to survive, it becomes more imperative that we find an ideal solution – and that nothing less will fix the economic structures we’re all struggling with each day.

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!


Carmen spent six years at Autostraddle, ultimately serving as Straddleverse Director, Feminism Editor and Social Media Co-Director. She is now the Consulting Digital Editor at Ms. and writes regularly for DAME, the Women’s Media Center, the National Women’s History Museum and other prominent feminist platforms; her work has also been published in print and online by outlets like BuzzFeed, Bitch, Bust, CityLab, ElixHER, Feministing, Feminist Formations, GirlBoss, GrokNation, MEL, Mic and SIGNS, and she is a co-founder of Argot Magazine. You can find Carmen on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr or in the drive-thru line at the nearest In-N-Out.

Carmen has written 919 articles for us.


  1. Not to fully get off topic, I am still confused if unions are truly good. In school I heard both sides, and it gets a bit tricky, because unions like the teachers and/or grocery workers union are a positive thing, but then you have something like the UAW(which I looked at in depth), which is a controversial mess. Maybe UAW has messed with me a bit too much, so I’ve become a bit skeptical and confused. But, I am in support for higher wages, a greater voice at the local level, and anything else that helps us positively as a community and a society.

    • I think its telling that places like Walmart are so anti-union. Without unions they can continue to treat the workers badly.

      I don’t know much about UAW but personally I belong to a union that has prevents some of the frustrating things that I’ve heard from other people working for large companies.

      • Well that is a fair point about Walmart. But the UAW topic can be a real jumble, and it could be just them that’s giving me the confusion. I wrote my undergrad dissertation on the auto industry so I’ve read a few too many negative pieces on unions.

    • I actually do some advocacy work with UAW members who have to organize separately from the UAW in order to work on certain issues that they disagree on.
      I wouldn’t let one big union throw you off the whole process, because unionizing basically allows people who don’t have financial or political power to gain power as a group to work toward shared goals.

      There are real benefits to unionizing, like having the negotiating power that a group brings, as well as a concrete goal/strategy (rather than a bunch of loose cannon groups that want similar things but aren’t working together). That’s how we got a minimum wage in the first place, and that’s how we’ll get it back to a living wage!

      Sorry about the long reply! I just hate to see people my age getting disillusioned when we can make big changes if we’re persistent and work together. Wow, I’m not usually this cheeeezy

    • Not all unions always do good things, to be a little overly obvious. I tend to dislike a lot of things that police unions do, for instance. Miners’ unions have done good things for their workers at various times but have also supported bad environmental policies. In a recent Senate primary in my state, a lot of building trades unions went for a socially regressive candidate (who lost). Old-school unions pushed some really racist policies. Also, as with other big influential organizations, you run the risk of corruption.

      But we don’t have any other mechanism, in US society, for workers to organize and bargain in ways that use their numbers to alleviate the power imbalance between workers and management. We don’t have another comparably large working-class political force to even begin to balance out the influence of the resource-laden rich. Before the labor movement things pretty much sucked for workers, and the decline of the labor movement has also seen things suck in many ways for workers. That realization is what really turned me pro-union. Maybe we should have something better, but we don’t, and until we do, a lot of unions are doing important work.

      Not all unions will always do things I like, but unionization is important because we have no mechanism capable of replacing its necessary functions. Besides which, many unions DO do things that I like much of the time, like push for good wages and safety conditions for working class people.

  2. With the money that big corporations evade in taxes, they should allocate that money to their employees. Along the line, there is a happy medium between employee salary and the money these big corporations have. Of course, then we have to think of the lack of quality products that these corporations offer us and we happily consume…this idea is too broad for a tiny comment box. Vicious cycle.

    • The problem there is, if they start to make better quality products, they will put some cost bs(which to a certain extent is true) saying that the price has to increase because it cost more to make. It’s never a win win for the consumers.

      • What I was referring to in my lack of quality sentence is the fact that consumers knowingly purchase low-quality products from China, Wal-Mart and fast food companies to decrease expenses and maximize their dollar. By the same token, corporations forfeit ethics and moral standards for the purpose of decreasing expenses and maximizing profits. It’s a double standard. In turn, both of these institutions the people and corporations work together. But of course, if quality increases, price will increase and demand will decrease. Some consumers wouldn’t mind paying more for the quality and this would be a win, while other consumers will be offended. In my opinion, I try as much to not go to big businesses. I dine in at mainly small family restaurants, shop locally, but of course, I still drive a Nissan. :) Sorry for the long read AL. Cheers!

        • No need to apologize here, and nothing wrong with Nissan(fan-person of their products). You would be surprised really how offended people get over price. In my line of work, people are getting offended over 25 pennies an item, and don’t even care that the product we offer is worth the extra 25. All they see is we cost more and they get mad. And you see it more and more these days, people only care about the cost not the quality they get for the cost.

  3. Other than the low wages, the things that is the biggest kick in the face is that so many of these insanely rich companies won’t hire full time employees solely to avoid paying them benefits.

  4. Carmen, this was stellar and I just want to give you a pat on the back for how amazing all your writing has been lately (it’s always great but girl you are just ON A ROLL OF AMAZINGNESS).

  5. omg, I am legit crying right now. THIS IS ME. I work at McDonald’s. Because I have no better options at the moment, because of reasons that don’t need explaining. Obvs I have so many feels about the subject, but more than anything I just wanted to say thank you for writing this. Thank you for seeing me as more than my circumstances and employer.

    Thank you for existing, Carmen Rios.

    • My sister is going through the same issue. She works at Panera and this is the first job she has been able to keep without no one fat-shaming her or bullying her. She was literally crying to me because she has no better options at the moment. Breaks my heart. Somewhere in this world, I would like to think, if you give life your absolute all and your intentions are in the right place, things will pan out.

  6. The thing to remember in this debate is that, while WallMart and McDonalds do employ a big chunk of those making minimum wage, statistically over half are actually employed by small businesses. Absolutely, WallMart and McDonalds could raise their wages and hardly lose much profit. But small businesses would lay off workers – and historically, when there are increases in the minimum wage (and certainly for one that was as large as $3, I’ve never done a rigorous analysis of quite that big a jump, but I can only imagine), some employees that were better off making minimum wage are laid off.

    I’m not saying that the minimum wage shouldn’t be raised, but if you are trying to give anything even remotely resembling an economic analysis you have to acknowledge that reality. And then argue that the loss to those families will be offset by the huge benefit to those who do keep their jobs. You can make that argument, but it’s irresponsible journalism to just lambast big corporations in this way because it’s popular. Plenty of women and marginalized individuals work for small businesses too.

    Again – YES, let’s raise the minimum wage, in the long run the benefits will be enormous. But let’s talk about what the real impacts would be, and how we are going to help the people who will inevitably be hurt by such a change.

  7. (I’m mostly referring to unionism in Australia)

    Unions are generally awesome – historically they can be very radical and support a variety of struggles outside of increases in wages/decreases in hours/better safety/etc – such as anti-war movements, women’s liberation, refugee issues, LGBT struggles, anti-racism, etc.

    Sadly this seems to be happening less frequently now – this might just be due the general decrease in union membership after work choices and surrounding legislation. Also in Australia, union officials generally hold back members of the union, want stability in THEIR job and often also want to liaise with the Labor government to set up their future political careers with the labor party who used to be a “workers” party but lol they’re so similar the the right-wing liberal party.

Comments are closed.