Stephen Kent

Workers in fast-food restaurants have walked off their jobs in at least six cities this summer to back up their demands for better pay.

“I make $15 an hour or less and am worth more,” said the statement on one group’s website.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

The job action points out not only the complexity of the U.S. economy but how social changes have affected employment.

How does Catholic social teaching deal with this?

The tendency, reaction, is to have empathy for workers making $8 or $9 an hour. How much more would you pay for a cheeseburger so fast-food restaurant workers could receive a higher wage?

These part-time jobs are part of a business model that was not designed nor never meant to be a career in order to support a family of four.

Part-time jobs in fast-food restaurants were for teenagers, not for careers. “Real” restaurants with tables, tableware, and place settings and tips could be the place for a career.

“We’re the lowest rung in the economic ladder,” said Jim Spady, vice president of a fast-food chain in the Seattle area. “All you need to work for us is the willingness to work hard, be willing to learn and be 16.

“This is not supposed to be a place where you work all your life. We encourage our employees to get a B.A., a B.S., and get a better job in an industry that pays more,” Spady said.

At one time, beginning on the lowest rung held promise. Now, with high unemployment, the next rung on the ladder is no longer there. Life has changed.

Once fast-food restaurant jobs were like others — now mostly memories — of mowing lawns, delivering newspapers, bagging groceries: They were there to earn money to pay for the prom, but not a family.

Owners are allowed to make a return on their investment; workers are entitled to a just wage for their labor. The owners aren’t ogres. Their employees aren’t money grubbing. It’s the system.

Most fast-food operations in the country are franchises. The chains sell the rights to operate a location and receive royalties. They also often require franchisees to pay revenues for advertising, and, in some cases, rent if they are the landlords of restaurants.

Spady, whose family-owned firm operates six outlets, pays $10 an hour to start, plus health insurance and educational assistance.

“We paid off our land a long time ago, and we’re not a franchise, so we don’t to pay a franchiser fee,” he said.

Replacing family-owned operations with national operators affects the ability of conscientious owners such as Spady to make decisions. Rather than increase the wages at the lowest rung, more rungs should be added to the ladder to open better jobs with higher wages.

A shrinking middle-class and fewer ladders to enter it are deep issues of justice as well as an economic problem. The U.S. bishops in November 1996 made this statement in “A Catholic Framework for Economic Life”:

“Workers, owners, managers, stockholders and consumers are moral agents in economic life. By our choices, initiative, creativity and investment, we enhance or diminish economic opportunity, community life and social justice.”

And they followed it with these questions:

“What are the moral responsibilities of workers, owners, managers, stockholders and consumers in ensuring the health and well-being of our economy? How can we help each recognize the moral responsibilities they have?”

These questions remain unanswered almost 17 years later. A national conversation at the level of a constitutional convention is long overdue.


Kent is the retired editor of archdiocesan newspapers in Omaha and Seattle. He can be contacted at: