Some of you have been wondering why I’ve been writing for Al Jazeera and other outlets with less frequency. The answer is my in-depth article on the fast food workers of St. Louis, “The Minimum Wage Worker Strikes Back”. An excerpt:
Fast-food workers begin each week with uncertainty. They do not know how many hours they will work or when those hours will be. They do not know whether they will come up with the cash — and it is always cash — to make it to the job. They do not know if the lights will still be on when they get home. They do not know where, in a few months, home will be. They hunt for cheaper or easier or safer, knowing that to combine them is impossible.
When I ask workers if I can call with follow-up questions, they tell me they no longer have a phone or worry about wasting prepaid minutes. Meetings are canceled because the car runs out of gas, because someone’s child needs to be watched, because an unexpected opportunity arises — extra hours on the job, or a chance to do some paid yard work for a neighbor.
The paradox of poverty is that tomorrow is unpredictable but the future never changes.
The word I hear over and over is “maintain.” Krystal, a 23-year-old Taco Bell employee working 25-35 hours a week, tells me that for six months she had no gas or heat in her apartment, because she could not afford it on $7.65 per hour. She took cold showers and boiled water to bathe her six-year-old son. Now nine months pregnant with her second child, Krystal is scrambling to prepare for the new baby. She and her boyfriend, a Pizza Hut delivery driver, have a “money bag” where they put spare change in the hope of paying for laundry and diapers. I ask how she handles it all.
“We maintain, we maintain,” she says, sipping on ice chips to ease the pregnancy pain. “We have lights. We have a roof over our heads. For now.”
“Maintain” is both what you do to survive and what you survive to do.
Patrick frames “maintaining” as an aspiration. “A person who has to work with the struggle — how do you expect them to pretend everything is fine and dandy?” he says, gesturing in exasperation. “The second you take off your apron, it’s not all peachy keen. It’s fake. It’s all fake! You want me to follow the rules? All I ask for is a livable wage, something to maintain.”
Fast-food workers often refer to “the struggle” — not in a dramatic way, but as a synonym for life. The struggle is what people did not know about, they tell me. The struggle is what people cannot see, even though the struggle is happening right in front of them.