In Chicago, the demonstrations were run by the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago, a recently formed union backed by local labor groups. Lorraine Chavez, a spokeswoman for the Workers Organizing Committee union, said the goal is not to double wages over night. Workers also want better working conditions and full-time employment. And the union is prepared to continue to strike and plan other events until they reach all those goals.
“Workers have no choice,” Chavez said, adding that at $8.25 per hour many workers qualify for food stamps and can’t afford to pay rent.
While consumers say they empathize with the struggle, for the many whose wages have stagnated and don’t feel confident about the future, price trumps making a moral or ethical purchase.
“There is a big competition inside every consumer’s mind between really wanting to do something that would help other people and really wanting to save money,” said Kit Yarrow, a professor at Golden Gate University in San Francisco who specializes in consumer psychology.
Yarrow said consumers would likely choose to support a noble cause once or twice, but ultimately personal financial security would win. That’s partly because while consumers feel safe now that the recession is over, they don’t feel OK about the future.
“I think the wound was so deep and so great during the recession and so frightening that it made people kind of permanently a little bit more cautious about spending,” Yarrow said.
Cara Thaxton, 35, said she moved from California to live with her family in Chicago after being laid off in 2009. The experience, she said, has made her put more emphasis on saving.
“I still carry with me the two years of being unemployed on my shoulders,” Thaxton said, adding that while she would be willing to pay more for products if workers’ wages were to increase, she would also buy less of products at the higher cost.
Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago, said people don’t apply their values every time they make a decision.
“What you find most people would do is be willing to pay more but under some situations,” Fishbach said, adding that people would make a moral decision to pay more if that decision makes them feel good about themselves or if that decision makes them look good in front of others.
Fishbach said it’s difficult to say how much more a person would be willing to spend when making an ethical decision depends on the cost of a product.
Gina Evans, 46, said she would support the push for higher wages if companies would absorb the new costs.
“I fully support the fact that workers need a higher minimum wage, but I am not willing to pay more for this to happen since I am already overcharged by retailers as it is,” said Evans, an HIV training specialist who makes more than $75,000 a year.
Unlike Evans, other consumers are not so sure companies would absorb those costs.
“Part of me thinks minimum wage should be higher, but part of me understands that it is so hard to pay people a higher amount when stores like Wal-Mart expect to sell their products so cheap,” said Lisa True, 36.
Trish Kahle, a 25-year-old Whole Foods employee, said she cobbles together wages from three part-time jobs to make ends meet.
“I still qualify for food stamps,” Kahle said. “I believe my store can afford to pay us the $15 and a lot more.”
Kahle said her hourly wage at Whole Foods was bumped by $1.50 to $12 per hour after a similar strike in April, but she only works 18 hours a week. She also works as a researcher at the University of Chicago’s history department, which pays $11.50 per hour, and as a mover, which pays $12.50 per hour.
Whole Foods said in a statement its workers receive competitive pay and benefits, “some of which are extraordinary in the supermarket industry.” The company said its wages start at $10 per hour and average $18.63 per hour companywide. It added that full-time workers share in store profits and are eligible for stock options, medical coverage, 401(k) plans and paid time off.
Despite some consumers’ seeming willingness to pay more for hamburgers if the workers making them were getting better wages, the idea runs counter to fast food trends. Major fast food chains like McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s are embroiled in a war over which can sell the most items for $1.
“You don’t have the choice if you don’t have the money,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist of Mesirow Financial. “We are still struggling as a nation and we are not the only country struggling.”