Yesterday morning I met another volunteer in the dark, chilly parking lot of a Burger King to pick up strike notices that I would deliver to fast food restaurants around town. The sun was just coming up as the manager of the last restaurant flipped the microphone on his drive-thru headset out of his face and took the paper I handed him.
“It’s a notice that these workers are participating in a lawful one-day strike,” I explained. They were joining with others all over the country on December 5 to protest their abysmally low pay and to express their desire for a raise in the minimum wage and the right to form a union. At first glance that might not seem like such a big deal. After all, a lot of us have some experience working in the fast food industry at some point in our lives, and we probably weren’t too worried about unionizing and raising the minimum wage at the time. My first job was working the drive-thru window at Raisin’ Cane’s after school in the tenth grade. My dad thought the work experience would be good for me, and I liked having a little of my own money for movies with friends and stuff like that. As a 15-year-old I couldn’t care less that at minimum wage I could work full-time and still qualify for food stamps. I had a parents with jobs that paid a decent salary, so anything I earned was just mall money. That’s how a lot of us still think of most fast food workers–teenagers working part-time for spending money–but that’s not really true anymore. Pay attention to who serves you next time you stop in to one of these restaurants. Odds are it’s an adult trying to support herself and maybe a family with some of the only jobs available right now. Jobs that pay so little that over half of fast food workers in the U.S. have to rely on some kind of public assistance just to survive. That means the government is spending millions to make up the difference in the significant gap between what a McDonald’s employee makes working 40 hours a week and the actual cost of living–millions that could be spent on education, health care, and any number of other things that actually make people’s lives better. Infuriating, isn’t it? This is what got me out of bed at 4:45am to go have a bunch of awkward conversations about strike notices.
The manager at my last store nodded and looked over the names on the page, and I let out a sigh of relief that I’d made it through the deliveries without any problems. Thankfully each of the managers had been friendly as I interrupted their opening routine for a few minutes each, probably because a lot of them are in the same boat as their workers. I was in and out quickly at each place, but with all the driving it had taken me about an hour and half to get to everyone. When I got done I was starving. My first thought was that I could run through a drive-thru on my way into the office for a quick breakfast, but I felt weird about that. Wouldn’t it just support the chains I was protesting for treating their workers so terribly? On the other hand, would not shopping there hurt the same workers and the franchise owners I was trying to support?
I couldn’t make up my mind on the 45 minute commute, so I ended up snacking on a gingerbread cookie from the office kitchen as I kept chewing on this dilemma. I hadn’t thought this hard about my fast food options since the whole Chick-fil-A debacle of 2012. In fact, I realized that this was the most thought I’d put into where my money goes and what message it sends in a long time.
What does it say to fast food workers that we continue to support these big name companies like McDonald’s and Burger King that are totally fine paying them so little that full-time employees still have to rely on food stamps to survive? What does it say to them that people line up for hours outside of Walmart to get deals on Black Friday, knowing that the company will pocket the money and hold food drives for its underpaid and overworked staff instead of paying them a living wage?
That information alone is enough to make me uneasy about how much I spend on quick meals in a month (Diet Coke and chicken biscuits add up faster than you think), but it has me wondering about the rest of the stores I go to all the time, too. What about the people who work at my grocery store? Or the stores where I’m planning to buy my Christmas gifts this year? How are they doing? What are they dealing with at work and how much are they taking home at night? How are they getting by?
Honestly, I’d rather not think about it. It’s too big and there are too many moving parts to keep track of. Plus, it just seems pessimistic and cynical to point out all the bad stuff if I can’t figure out what I’m supposed to do about it. Yes, clearly someone should definitely do something. But that someone probably shouldn’t be me. I’m busy. I’m just a student. What the hell do I know?
Not as much as I should, that’s for sure. But enough to care. Enough to recognize that “I had no idea this was going on” isn’t a viable excuse anymore. Obviously I can’t be responsible for the well-being and livelihood of every worker at every business I come into contact with. And I shouldn’t be. But I can be responsible for me. I can be accountable to how the money I spend affects other people.
Now listen, I know this is just one issue among many. I know we all have a lot going on, and it’s not possible to stay in the loop about everything all the time. If we tried to be an expert and passionate advocate for every worthy cause we came across, we’d burn ourselves out faster than you can say, “I only shop local.” We can’t be fully aware of the business practices and ultimate destination of every dollar we spend, but we can be in the know about a few.
So I’m issuing us a challenge (think of it as an early New Year’s resolution): pick one thing, and learn about it this year. One thing you’ve heard about in the news. One thing you’ve been a little uneasy about for a while. One thing you really don’t want to find out anything bad about because damn it, you really love that product. Be brave, and pick one. And be accountable for where your time and money and energy go around that one thing this year. Know what you’re supporting, because money talks my friends. In your heart and in your soul and in your day-to-day interactions with the world you may be kind and conscientious and the epitome of Christian love. But if you are paying for things that are produced by businesses who treat their workers, their communities, and our world poorly, you are supporting that mistreatment. Just because there’s a middleman between you and the person your dollars are hurting, doesn’t mean you and your dollars aren’t hurting them. Out of sight and out of mind doesn’t apply here, because these are people we’re talking about. These are our neighbors. These are fellow children of God.
So pick your one thing and dig deep. Think about it. Read about it. Ask questions about it. Pray about it. Decide what you’re gonna do about it, and then do it. Put your money where your mouth is, and be intentional about being the kind of person with your money that you’re friends and loved ones already know that you are in your daily life. And share what you find out with the rest of us, because we’re all in this mess together. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.