Probably some of the most valuable work experience I had in my life was gained working at minimum wage jobs.  Of course, I was lucky enough to work in a series of high-end restaurants, where the quirks of Oregon’s tax laws meant that tips were taxed out of one’s already paltry paychecks, so we relied exclusively on tips.  If one were a favored employee, as I generally was, it was a pretty great deal.

But raking in $500-$800 per week in rumpled bills, a princely sum in the early 1980′s, was anything but a walk in the park.  It often meant back-to-back shifts at labor that is nothing if not grueling. The best shifts were the longest ones, which usually included a two or three hour stretch of flat-out maximum output, all accomplished (ideally) without a spill, crash, or breakdown.

Aside from the physical and mental gymnastics required to simply feed so many people and keep them happy, we were also required to be neatly groomed (pants creased, shoes polished, shirts crisp, etc.) and often most challenging, unfailingly pleasant. This could be particularly difficult given that kitchen workers were often, well, let’s just say short-tempered. Each day, we valiantly fought the same battles, but the war could never be won; people would just get hungry again, and return to test our mettle.

As each summer drew to a close, I would return to school ready to hit the books so I could someday come home from work not physically and mentally drained, smelling of smoke, sweat, and grease.  (No matter how fancy the restaurant, the smell is the same…)

It’s for that reason that I’m so appalled at how fast food workers are treated, and why their strike today ought to shame us all.  They work as hard or harder than I did, and they still don’t make any money.  I could whine about rude customers, obnoxiously demanding managers, petty dress codes, and all the rest, but I was making a living, eating good food, and serving well-dressed people with money to spend, in lovely rooms with sparkling tableware and crisp linens.  I was also in school, with a better future presumably ahead.

Needless to say, things have changed a bit since then.  Even as fine dining of the sort I toiled in has marched even further upscale, the vast majority of food service job growth has been at the lower end, with both fast food and casual dining dominated by ruthless chains, beholden not to employees or customers, but to shareholders; the result is not just a lot of shitty food, but a lot of shitty lives.

Those of us lucky enough to work in places like I did were still insecure; restaurants go in and out of style, and there were few opportunities for those over age 40 or so, but it was a great gig, if you could get it.  Many of my co-workers made connections for future careers, and some used their hard-earned people skills and/or knowledge of food and wine to move into management or open their own establishments.   Though we worked like slaves, we did get something out of it.

That’s why I find it so laughable to hear conservatives wax lyrical about the “opportunity” fast food workers have to climb the ladder of success, albeit from the “bottom rung.”  What other rungs are there?   Serving dreadful food to people nearly as poor as you are in a loud, tacky, degrading environment offers as little possibility for personal growth if you’re 18 or 48, and despite repeated assertions otherwise, most are closer to the latter than the former.

Without tips, there is little incentive to interact with customers and develop interpersonal skills, and standardized, limited menus of unhealthy, processed foods will create no culinary talent. In short, fast food workers have nothing to work for except their wages, and their wages are a disgrace.  It’s time we face that fact.

Photo by Stephen Melkisethian, used under Creative Commons license