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Boston Capital

It’s a reasonable goal: wages that pay the bills

I bet you’ve seen news photos or video from those huge Market Basket rallies, where thousands of employees and their many supporters gathered to demand the return of ousted president Arthur T. Demoulas.

The most recent rally, held last Friday, was probably the biggest one of all. Once again, the commitment of employees to fight for Demoulas and the kind of working life they know — which means good wages, job security, and a positive environment — was impressive.

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Just as striking: the empathy and support of so many customers who shopped elsewhere and then pasted their receipts onto the windows of boycotted Market Basket stores to make it clear how they felt.

While Market Basket employees rallied on Friday, another group of workers in the food business held a two-day rally near Chicago. About 1,300 people who work at fast-food restaurants around the country, including more than a dozen from the Boston area, promoted a nationwide campaign to raise
the pay for those who serve you at McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, and a long list of other familiar chains.

Many of those people work for the minimum wage, or something close to it. Their simple message: We can’t live on this kind of money.

Often, they are young workers such as Darius Cephas, 23, who says he makes $8.25 an hour working full time at a McDonald’s on Gallivan Boulevard in Boston. Cephas rents a room in Dorchester and lives paycheck to paycheck. He jumped at a chance to go to Chicago last week.

“I was tired of the same thing, working for nothing,” he said. “It was powerful, being with over 1,300 people fighting for the same cause.”

Yet the plight of fast-food workers
doesn’t resonate much with customers. There are no throngs of people ready to hold up signs demanding change; no one seems prepared to boycott.

Most customers don’t connect with the people who serve them at fast-food restaurants, unlike the circumstances at a Market Basket supermarket. They are replaceable workers with unfamiliar faces. They are poor with a paycheck, unlike some of their customers.

But those people deserve your empathy. Many really are trying to make a living at these jobs, or at least squeak by. An industry that employs 4 million people across the country makes that nearly impossible.

Of course, the gathering near Chicago didn’t happen in a vacuum. A big union, the Service Employees International Union, was paying for most of the event, held just a few miles from the headquarters of McDonald’s Corp. The SEIU would surely like to unionize many of those fast-food employees.

The rally was part of a campaign with an ambitious goal: to raise fast-food wages to a minimum of $15 an hour.

A point of context: A new Massachusetts law will increase the state’s minimum wage to $11 an hour by 2017, from $8 per hour now. It’s among the most generous state wage laws in the country.

So $15 an hour is pie in the sky. The
most constructive development for fast-food workers is the growing consensus in many states that the minimum wage needs to increase. In Massachusetts — and many other states — that’s what will actually put more money in those pockets.

Watching the Market Basket rallies of recent weeks, I thought I saw people who wanted to hold onto the good things we once took for granted, or at least considered common.

One was a sense of community in the stores we frequent. Lots of familiar faces and everyday low prices have always been a powerful combination at Market Basket.

Another was about jobs. You didn’t need a fancy degree to get a job at Market Basket that would pay the bills, help raise a family, and eventually provide a comfortable retirement. Those are the kind of American Dream jobs that have been disappearing for a long time now.

It’s hard to embrace all that and not acknowledge that working people on the lowest wage scales are barely getting by. Even that audacious goal of $15 per hour for full-time fast-food workers would amount to about $31,000 a year, less than the pay and bonus for experienced cashiers at Market Basket.

Terrell Lee, who works a couple of jobs and takes community college classes, went to Illinois last weekend and came home with a goal. “I want to improve my living status: pay my bills and live a normal life.”

A normal life sounds like a reasonable goal.

Steven Syre is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at syre@globe.com.
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