Workers in seven metro areas are striking, but their wages are even worse elsewhere.

After months of mounting frustration, fast food workers in New York walked off the job Monday morning, beginning a week-long, seven-city effort that amounts to the largest strike in the industry's history. The strikers demands were clear: "We can't survive on $7.25," read the online petition started by the New York-based group Fast Food Forward. News coverage of the strike is filled with stories of kitchens without air conditioning and workers too cash-strapped to afford even public transportation to get from home to their jobs and back again. Striking workers in New York and six other cities are demanding higher wages, better working conditions, and the right to form a union without retaliation from employers, which include prominent national chains such as McDonald's, Taco Bell, and Popeye's.

This latest round of labor strife could mark a turning point in America's low-wage service economy.  

Since 2010, fast food jobs have made up the most rapidly growing segment of the U.S. job market, growing at an incredible 11 percent clip. Even more mind-boggling, these 300,000 new fast food positions account for 5 percent of all new jobs added across America since 2010, according to data from the economic and labor market data firm EMSI. EMSI's data and analysis tracks job growth and wages for fast food occupations, including fast food cooks and combined food prep and serving workers, for America's 100 largest metros.

The table below shows how the seven striking metros — New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Detroit, Flint, and Milwaukee — stack up in terms of fast food jobs. It tracks the number of fast food jobs created between 2010 and 2013, the percent growth in fast food jobs over the same period, median wages, and the concentration of fast food workers. (This last statistic is calculated using a conventional urban metric called a "location quotient," or LQ for short, which can be used to chart a city's concentration of jobs in a certain industry, as compared to the national average. An LQ of 1 is a metro's expected national share, while an LQ of less than one indicates a share lower than expected and an LQ greater than 1 reflects a higher than expected share.) The metros' overall ranking on each metric is included in parentheses, based on EMSI data for the 100 largest U.S. metro areas. (Because Flint is not among the country's 100 largest metropolitan regions, we note where it would rank based on metros with similar scores).

Fast Food Job Statistics for the Seven Striking Cities
Metropolitan Statistical Area Median Hourly Earnings (2012) Job Growth (2010-3) Percent Job Growth (2010-3) Location Quotient (2013)
Chicago-Joliet-Naperville, IL-IN-WI $9.20 (8) 9,492 10% (56) 0.9 (77)
New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA $8.97 (19) 22,466 16% (13) 0.72 (95)
St. Louis, MO-IL $8.95 (22) 668 2% (94) 1.09 (35)
Detroit-Warren-Livonia, MI $8.84 (40) 4,857 12% (38) 0.97 (61)
Kansas City, MO-KS $8.77 (49) 996 10% (56) 1.05 (45)
Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, WI $8.76 (54) 2,563 5% (81) 0.94 (66)
Flint, MI $8.69 (around 62) 312 6.6% (around 70) 1.43 (higher than any of top 100 metros)


The seven striking metros are something of a mixed bag. They include both large, world-class cities and more struggling Rustbelt economies. All seven cities are home to a growing number of fast food jobs. New York has seen the most rapid growth of the seven, with an above-average 16 percent growth rate. Still, it ranks only 13th of the largest 100 metro areas. Other striking metros saw varying degrees of growth in fast food jobs: Detroit (12 percent), Chicago and Kansas City (both 10 percent), Flint (6.6 percent), Milwaukee (5 percent), and St. Louis (2 percent). More interestingly, just three of these metros have above average concentrations of fast food jobs — Flint (an LQ of 1.43), St. Louis (1.09), and Kansas City (1.05) — though the latter two cities are not very far above their expected national shares. The concentrations of fast food workers in Chicago, Detroit, and Milwaukee are a bit below their respective expected national shares, while New York's concentration is substantially lower.

Significantly, the fast food workers in the seven striking metros actually have higher wages than their counterparts in many other areas of the country. Fast food workers in Chicago — who are building off of an earlier walkout in April — have median wages of $9.20 an hour, 8th highest in the country. Fast food workers in New York made a median wage of $8.97, 19th highest in the nation, while wages in St. Louis were the 22nd highest ($8.95). Milwaukee ($8.76) and Flint ($8.69) are the only striking cities that would sit among the bottom half of EMSI's list of 100 metropolitan areas.  

While fast food jobs make up the fastest growing segment of the U.S. job market, their growth remains widely uneven. The table below shows the metros which added fast food jobs at the fastest clip between 2010 and 2013.  Not a single one of the striking metros is on this list. The Bridgeport, Connecticut, metro saw the fastest rate of growth, 23 percent. Three other metros — Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, California; Salt Lake City and Lakeland, Florida — had rates of growth of 20 percent or more. Indianapolis; Raleigh and Durham, North Carolina; Palm Bay, Florida; Poughkeepsie, New York; Houston; Washington D.C; and Des Moines had among the highest growth rates for fast food jobs. Conversely, the metros with lowest rates of growth were centered in the Midwest. Five metros even saw fast food jobs decline: Chattanooga, Tennessee; Omaha-Council Bluffs, Nebraska-Iowa; Honolulu, Hawaii; Dayton, Ohio; and Wichita, Kansas.  

Leading Metros for Fast Food Job Growth,  2010-13
Rank Metro Percent Change
1 Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT 23%
2 Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, CA 22%
2 Salt Lake City, UT 22%
4 Lakeland-Winter Haven, FL 20%
5 Indianapolis-Carmel, IN 19%
5 Raleigh-Cary, NC 19%
5 Durham-Chapel Hill, NC 19%
8 Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville, FL 18%
8 Poughkeepsie-Newburgh-Middletown, NY 18%
10 Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, TX 17%
10 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 17%
10 Des Moines-West Des Moines, IA 17%


Some metros are also far more dependent on fast food jobs that others. The table below shows the top 10 metros (again among the 100 largest) based on their relative concentration of fast food jobs, measured by their location quotient.

Of the seven striking metros, only Flint would make this list — and, indeed, would top it, with an LQ of 1.43. Las Vegas has the highest concentration of fast food jobs of the 100 largest metros, with an LQ of 1.41. This is not surprising; Vegas is not only a tourist mecca but also a city that has been hard hit by the economic crisis. San Antonio, Texas, and Youngstown, Ohio, tied for second place (each with an LQ of 1.39). Other large concentrations occur in Ogden, Utah; Dayton, Ohio; and Provo, Utah. The cities with higher than expected concentrations of fast food prep are diverse, including both tourism hot spots and small Rustbelt cities like Youngstown and Dayton. Large, diverse, coastal metros tended to have lower concentrations of fast food workers; New York, Washington, D.C., Boston, and Seattle all ranked among the 10 metros with the lowest LQs for fast food workers.

Concentration of  Fast Food Jobs
Rank Metro Area Location Quotient
1 Las Vegas-Paradise, NV 1.41
2 San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX 1.39
2 Youngstown-Warren-Boardman, OH-PA 1.39
4 Ogden-Clearfield, UT 1.32
4 Dayton, OH 1.32
6 Provo-Orem, UT 1.31
7 Colorado Springs, CO 1.3
8 Cape Coral-Fort Myers, FL 1.29
8 Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA 1.29
10 Scranton--Wilkes-Barre, PA 1.28


While universally low, wages in the fast food sector also vary across the country. The median hourly earnings across the top 100 metros averaged $8.83 in 2012 — above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 but well below the strikers demand of $15 an hour. (This is also only slightly below the widely cited average hourly wage for front-line fast food jobs, $8.94, from a recent paper out of the National Employment Law Project). The table below shows the ten metros with the highest and the ten with the lowest wages for workers in fast food workers.

Median Hourly Wages for Fast Food Workers, 2012
Rank Metro Area Median Hourly Wages
1 Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT $10.22
2 San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA $9.82
3 Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA $9.74
4 Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA $9.68
5 Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH $9.56
6 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV $9.55
7 Las Vegas-Paradise, NV $9.51
8 Chicago-Joliet-Naperville, IL-IN-WI $9.20
9 San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA $9.19
10 San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos, CA $9.13
Metros With Lowest Median Hourly Wages
91 Greenville-Mauldin-Easley, SC $8.54
92 Jackson, MS $8.53
93 Ogden-Clearfield, UT $8.52
93 McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, TX $8.52
95 Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA $8.50
96 Columbia, SC $8.49
96 Memphis, TN-MS-AR $8.49
98 El Paso, TX $8.44
99 Birmingham-Hoover, AL $8.43
100 Chattanooga, TN-GA $8.39


The lowest paid fast food workers are largely concentrated in the Sunbelt, including Chattanooga (median hourly wages of  $8.39 per hour), Birmingham, Alabama ($8.43), El Paso ($8.44), Memphis ($8.49, Columbia, South Carolina ($8.49), and Atlanta ($8.50). 

On the other hand, the metros with the highest wages for fast food workers include large, knowledge-based metros like Bridgeport ($10.22), San Francisco ($9.82), Portland ($9.74), Seattle ($9.68), Boston ($9.65), and Washington, D.C. ($9.55). While it has a large concentration of fast food workers, Las Vegas also offers relatively high wages. Chicago, San Jose, and San Diego round out the top ten.

The striking fast food workers' major demands center on the introduction of a living wage. The EMSI data shows that the strike is not centered in the places where fast food workers are necessarily hardest hit. Median wages for Chicago workers are among the top 10 nationwide, though workers in several of the striking cities face notably higher than average costs of living. And, it's important to remember that wages could be even lower in metro areas that are not among the 100 largest in the country.

I've called before on this site for the upgrading of service jobs through higher wages. Economic history points to the gradual upgrading of work. The good middle class factory jobs that many bemoan the loss of were once low-paid, dirty and dangerous. Poet William Blake once dubbed factories as "satanic mills," and Marx believed these jobs were so onerous and alienating that they would spur major class struggle and the overthrow of capitalism. Over time, capitalists, prompted and cajoled by the nascent organized labor movement, learned that productivity could be improved by raising wages and involving workers in important shop floor innovation and decision making. America's poorest jobs turned into the engine of growing middle-class prosperity in the mid-twentieth century. The harnessing of worker knowledge and capability as a source of productivity improvement was accelerated in more recent decades with the rise of quality management, initially by Japanese companies like Toyota.

The same logic can and does hold for service jobs. Zeynep Ton of MIT’s Sloan School of Management has argued extensively that the choice between high wages and high profits is a false dichotomy. Last fall, writing about a New York Times article on retail work, she wrote:

There is no need to choose between low prices and good jobs. It is possible (though nobody said it's easy) to provide the lowest prices to customers and much better jobs for employees and great returns for shareholders, all at the same time.

But it's important to remember that this connection is not automatic. Jobs don't upgrade themselves. Henry Ford's decision to pay his workers $5 a day had limited impact and did little to change national wage standards more broadly. It took the efforts of organized labor and New Deal legislation to create the new social compact that improved working class wages, created a broad middle class, and drove broad post-war American prosperity.

This week's fast food strike is a sign that America's service workers are putting two-tiered capitalism on notice. And these efforts may be the first inklings of the kinds of struggle needed to create a new social compact for the split economy and labor market of post-industrial knowledge capitalism.

Life for the two-thirds of Americans who are unemployed or work in dead-end, low-wage service sector jobs is hard across the board. But the economic situation of fast food workers across the country points to a more troubling reality: the seven striking cities are just the tip of the iceberg, and their workers have hardly seen the worst of it.

Top Image: Protesters outside a Times Square McDonald's during an earlier strike in November 2012 (Andrew Kelly/Reuters).

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