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Are Fast Food CEOs Indebted to Workers?

According to this infographic from Fast Food Forward (the group spearheading the current organizing campaign across fast food chains in New York City), the average fast food worker makes in a YEAR less than HALF of what a fast food CEO makes in a DAY.

In addition to contributing to unconscionable wealth gaps, this industry-wide situation raises helpful questions about the intersections of Buddhist ethics and social justice frameworks.

1. Unskillful vs. Wrong. If the CEOs make the bulk of their money from industrial profits, and therefore from the labor of fast food workers (and farmers, and truckers, and electricians, etc.), might not we interpret this as “taking something that is not freely given?”— namely, the share of revenue that could go toward wages, but instead becomes profit?

If we do see it that way, from a Buddhist perspective we might interpret this as “unskillful action” or a hindrance to wholesome living, perpetuating suffering for the CEOs.  Perhaps the CEOs are disconnected from the humanity of people around them (and the realities of trying to survive in New York City on minimum wage).  Perhaps they are suffering from the frail illusion that $25,000 per day will make them happy or psychically secure.

At the same time, a social justice argument (like the one in the infographic) would probably argue that CEOs owe something to fast food workers.  Something the CEOs have inappropriately acquired, or are wrongly withholding.  Do we believe that CEOs are indebted to workers?  If so, why?  And if not, why not?

I’m not saying that the Unskillful and Wrong analyses are mutually exclusive.  Just noticing a difference in emphasis.  Would be curious to hear if others agree!

2. Contentment and the Relative Wage. The image of the CEO hoisting a mile-high stack of bills, while throwing money-crumbs to the fast food worker, tells us practically everything we need to know about the idea of the relative wage.  When describing the relative wage in his pamphlet Wage Labor and Capital, Karl Marx slips a bit of psychology into his economic analysis.

Our wants and pleasures have their origin in society; we therefore measure them in relation to society; we do not measure them in relation to the objects which serve for their gratification. Since they are of a social nature, they are of a relative nature.

Marx is describing the hungry-ghost qualities of material desires: the expectations that spur us to Keep Up With The Joneses — or, more specifically, with the capitalist boss.  When the CEO gets more, we want more, too.

As students of the Buddhadharma, how do we reconcile teachings on contentment, letting go of craving and competition, with our social-justice instincts that might support workers’ outrage at the enormous wealth gaps in their industry?

Just some thoughts to take us into the weekend.  I’m sure there are many more insights we can come up with, from this graphic!

Happy weekend, BPFers!


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