Starvation Wages

The Vt. Bernie Buzz

Low-paid workers at fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s held protests in more than 50 cities throughout the United States last week. Sen. Bernie Sanders praised the workers for continuing the fight for a livable wage.  

In Vermont, the average annual wage of the 4,580 employees who work in these types of restaurants throughout the state is $13,928, said Mathew Barewicz, the Vermont Department of Labor’s economic and labor market information chief.  The median wage for these Vermonters, he said, is $9.54 an hour, according to 2012 data. Vermont’s minimum wage is $8.60 an hour.

Many of the fast-food workers in cities throughout the U.S. who protested their wages are paid only the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. That amounts to about $15,000 a year for full-time employees. Since many restaurant workers, in Vermont and throughout the U.S., do not work full time, they make even less.

Sanders cosponsored legislation to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. That’s about what it would be had minimum wage kept up with inflation during the past 50 years. The federal minimum wage has been $7.25 since 2009.  “$7.25 an hour is totally obscene,” Sanders said. “It is a starvation wage.”  

After one-day strikes at fast-food restaurants were staged throughout the country earlier this summer, Sanders praised the workers who, he said, “are standing up for justice.”

“They are putting a spotlight on one of the major economic crises facing this country,” the senator said. “I have a lot of respect for what these young people are doing.”

The effort to establish a better wage at fast food restaurants and Sanders’ effort to boost the federal minimum wage to more than $10 an hour is taking place 131 years after the first Labor Day celebration was held in New York City in September 1882. Labor Day was establishes as a holiday to recognize and celebrate the social and economic achievements of American workers.


Aside from legislation, one of the most effective ways to ensure workers have better wages is through unions. 

The number of workers in unions, however, has continued to fall, both nationally and in Vermont.  The number of Vermont workers that are members of unions slid last year to about 31,000 people, or just 10.7 percent of the workforce, according to the U.S. Labor Department.  That’s down from 12 percent in 2011. 

Nationally, last year, 11.3 percent of the workforce was in a union. That’s down a half-percent from 2011. Twenty years ago, in 1983, more than 1 in 5 workers were in union, or 20.1 percent.  

Workers in unions have a healthier paycheck than those who are not. Last year, full-time union members had median weekly earnings of $943, while those who were not union members had median weekly earnings of $742, according the U.S. Labor Department.

The level of people in a union differs dramatically, depending on what part of the country you live.  Eight states had union membership rates below 5 percent last year. North Carolina had the lowest rate (2.9 percent), followed by Arkansas (3.2 percent) and South Carolina (3.3 percent). 

Three states had union membership rates over 20 percent last year: New York (23.2 percent), Alaska (22.4 percent), and Hawaii (21.6 percent).

Public-sector workers have a much healthier union membership rate, 35.9 percent. That’s more than five times higher than that of private-sector workers, which stands at just 6.6 percent. Younger workers are less likely to be in a union.  Union membership rate among workers ages 55 to 64 was 14.9 percent last year. The lowest union membership rate occurred among those ages 16 to 24, where just 4.2 percent were in a union.

“At a time when many families are struggling to recover from the greatest recession in generations, we must continue to fight for progressive legislation to establish better wages for workers and encourage a renewed effort to build union membership. Unions will play a crucial role in helping rebuild the middle class,” Sanders said. 

State by state union membership data »

DOL data: Read more »

Minimum wages (by state) »

Labor Day History »