Workers from fast food and retail chains along State Street walk off their jobs in a protest for higher wages. Photo: John H. White - Sun-Times Workers from fast food and retail chains along State Street walk off their jobs in a protest for higher wages. Photo: John H. White - Sun-Times

On May 15, fast-food workers all across America will be joined by their counterparts across the globe in an international demand for fair wages and the right to form a union. Charlie Ebert reports

It all began on one November day in 2012. After a year in the pipeline, a small group of fast-food workers in a handful of cities walked off their jobs and went on strike, demanding $15 p/hr wages and the right to form a union free of managerial interference. By all means this first-of-its-kind event was as much (if not more) a media stunt than an example of militant industrial action. But the word spread. And so too did the strikes. Pretty soon over a hundred cities were experiencing days of action, walk outs, and pickets of their own. And the movement was making headlines the world over. Unions and activists across the west soon took note and began to organize actions of their own. Campaigns began springing up from France to Argentina.

To further this end, the IUF (International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Association), a global labour alliances including 196 unions and over 12 million workers spanning 126 countries, called an international meeting in New York to discuss a future of global coordination. Said IUF General Secretary Ron Oswald, “The Fight for 15 has caught the attention of workers around the world… it has added further inspiration and led them to join together internationally [to] fight… This is just the beginning of an unprecedented international fast-food worker movement-and this highly profitable global industry better take note.”

Soon after the meeting ended, a massive new day of action was announced outside a New York City McDonalds. Scheduled for this Thursday (May 15th), already activists from 150 cities in 33 countries across six continents have declared their intention to take part. Among these will be at least 19 locations in the UK. ‘Headlining’ the UK-wing of the day of action will be a rally at 4PM outside the White Hall McDonalds near Trafalgar Square.

Game Changer

As we all know already, the overarching narrative of the organized labour movement over the last 30 years has been one of decline. At its height, union density in the US private sector stood at 35%. Since then it has declined precipitously to just 6.6%. In the UK it stands at a hardly-better 14.4%. With its membership, so too has gone much of organized labour’s political sway and work-place rights. Increasingly unions find their hands tied behind their backs by archaic and draconian labour laws, while simultaneously being shut out of the only political avenues to change that. Politicians hardly consult them, even on issues directly affecting union membership, much less allow true working class input into policy decision making.

Despite this, after years on the back foot it seems labour across the globe has returned, at least partially, to a position of advance. In the UK this took the form of two massive, union-backed rallies in 2011 and 2012 (as well as plans for another this October alongside the People’s Assembly march June 21st) along with something of an uptick in industrial militancy. Across the pond, we also saw large scale rallies, particularly after Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s assault on public-sector union rights. However, it is the recent organizing drives in fast food chains and at corporate super-giant Walmart that have been real game changers.

As AFL-CIO (the national US union federation) general secretary Richard Trumka put it, these low-wage workers “are a vanguard for a change in the economy.” And that they truly are. In the top 10 fast-food corporations alone there are approximately 2.3 million employees. Walmart, the largest private sector employer in the world, adds another 2.2 million. Together, should these campaigns come to absolute fruition and the workers be organized, which is admittedly somewhat unlikely, they’d add nearly a half again as many members as the entire AFL-CIO includes today. This would, of course, be an absolute game changer.

However, this campaign is important not merely for the sheer numbers of workers involved. Over a century ago, a debate raged within the labour movement on how (or if) to organize unskilled workers into the traditionally craft-dominated unions. Many saw them as un-organisable, too dispensable, with little leverage over their bosses. Others challenged the use of union funds on those who were at least not yet members. Still others disagreed with the basic rationale, claiming that expanding unions into the unskilled spheres would cheapen skilled labour and weaken the bargaining power of the old craft guilds.

The movement to organize fast-food workers is one step in just as monumental a direction. Trade unions have remained by-and-large shut out from the low-wage, high turnover world of the modern service sector. Increasingly those at the bottom of the totem pole, those in most need of union, have little if any experience or interaction with the labour movement. Breaking down this wall, organizing the seemingly “un-organisable” and representing the previously excluded are the absolute keys to rebuilding modern unions into a force to be reckoned with, one that can effect immediate and lasting change in society.

‘New’ Organizing

The burgeoning success of the fast food workers movement comes from its unique re-interpretation of what exactly it means to fight an organizing campaign. It’s no longer just an internal matter. It is not merely the SEIU (Service Employees International Union) in the US or the BAFWU (Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union) in the UK pushing this drive, though they’ve done a fair share to fund and organize the movement.

Just as important have been community groups like NYCC (New York Communities for Change) or Action Now as well as progressive churches. Furthermore, rallies and protests have been far from the provincial affair of the workers and their organizers. Instead, these have been mass actions, involving numerous outsiders, built, at least partly, for television cameras.

Some would criticize this strategy, arguing it spoils some sort of ideal purity in the movement. However, though they’re hierarchical and involve outsiders and the media, so too did the civil rights movement and, for that matter, most movements before it. Fast food workers are the victims of an oppressive economic system. There is no militant tradition, very little collective conscience. Like it or not, it will and it does take outside support and outside pressure to make such a movement a reality.

Perhaps one of the most important new tactics to emerge thus far has been the ‘walk-backs.’ Accompanied by a substantial group of outside supporters, workers are much less likely to face retaliation when they return to their jobs the next day. Remember, companies like Walmart and its fast food cousins have been known to frequently flaunt the law when it comes to illegally disciplining employees who take part in strikes or protests. Having outside community support makes such attacks much more difficult to pull off.

The results so far have also largely been different, often even in intention. Gaining union recognition faces an almost insurmountable legal hurdle due to ‘franchising.’ Since individual McDonalds, like most fast-food restaurants, are legally the sole property of their franchisee (despite the fact that everything from prices to wages to promotions comes from the corporate level) a collective bargaining agreement covering the whole company is a legal non-starter.

Of course, long term the goal is to get these regulations changed and force ‘corporate’ to take responsibility over its employees. For now though, ‘winning’ will be equally as much about impacting public opinion and applying public pressure as convincing workers themselves that unions are a worthwhile endeavour. It will be legislation like minimum wage laws and consumer-driven agitation alongside worker walk-outs that will impact these companies, change conditions, and make official unionization a real possibility.

Moving Forward

Without exaggeration, the fast food strikes (alongside their comrades at Walmart) mark potentially the most important campaign in the modern history of labour. Success could come in multiple forms. It could mean a higher minimum wage like Seattle or Vermont. Or it could mean companies buckling under pressure and internally improving conditions. Still yet, and best of all, it could combine both of these with a large swath of new union members and a burgeoning generation of activists ready to bring the campaign to dozens more low-wage industries.

Success could come in multiple forms, yes, but it is absolutely pivotal that it does come. If we are defeated it will take at least another generation to build a movement like this again. In that time, who knows what will come of the rest of the unions.

Finally, a counter-argument will be raised that goes something like this “why should fast-food workers get $15 an hour, I spent years getting my bachelors degree to be x and I hardly make more than minimum wage.” This, the right hopes, will be the trump card. It has already been used time and time again against public sector workers.

Remember, though, that solidarity is not just some abstract concept, something that affects someone else somewhere else. If the single-mother working at McDonalds earns £10 an hour, enough to raise a family, pay the rent, and maybe even have fun from time to time, than surely this would push up the wages of everyone else. If fast-food workers have a union, this strengthens Unite, Unison, RMT, and the rest just as much.

5,000,000 Brits make less than the living wage. It is amongst them that the future of the labour movement will be fought and, hopefully, will be won. Thursday marks an incredibly important step. Turning out at rallies and showing support is essential to it being a successful day.