Workers in fast food companies such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, KFC and others took to the streets in mobilisations at the end of July in seven cities.
They highlighted miserable wages and working conditions, and demanding the right to form unions in the virtually non-union sector.
The actions took place in New York, Chicago, St Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee, Kansas City and Flint, Michigan. It is likely that these actions will spread in the coming weeks.
The context is the aftermath of the financial collapse, the ensuing Great Recession and the anemic recovery, during which wages fell while the stock market and profits generally have soared, as has the pay of executives.
The official unemployment rate dropped slightly in July to 7.4%. But those new jobs that have been created since the official end of the Great Recession have been mainly in low wage industries such as hotels and restaurants.
A central fact of work life today is that as lower-wage occupations have proliferated in recent years, Americans are increasingly unable to make a decent living at their jobs.
Low wage workers work harder and are paid less than similar workers in other advanced capitalist countries.
The fast food workers are part of this growing layer. Many workers in fast food lost better paying jobs in the recession and its aftermath.
For most, fast food jobs are not just to make a few extra dollars, but are the sole source of income. For many, these wages must support families at poverty levels.
Keith Bullard from Detroit explained why he joined the protest in an email to the Huffington Post: “This morning, I walked off my job at McDonald’s. I’m a 29-year-old husband and a father of two.
“My wife can’t work because of health problems — and the $7.50 an hour I make at McDonald’s just isn’t enough to cover my family’s basic needs.”
Outside Wendy’s and McDonald’s in Manhatten, workers chanted, “We can’t survive, on seven-tewnty-five”. The federal minimum wage is US$7.25.
Lisette Ortiz, who works in Brooklyn, New York, said: “I want us to be respected. $7.25 is not enough! I live with my dad. I would like to get my own apartment. You can’t! It’s impossible!”
At a rally leading up to the walkout, KFC worker Naquasia LeGrand told fellow workers: “I don’t want my kids suffering. I want to make sure they have a better future than I do. So if I want that to happen, I need you guys to stand with me just as long as I’m standing with you.”
Nathalia Sepulveda, who works at a McDonald’s opposite Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York, said: “It’s noisy, it’s really hot, fast, they rush you. Sometimes you don’t even get breaks. All for $7.25? It’s crazy.”
Those are just some of the voices heard on the demonstrations.
As measured by the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, low-paid work is lower today than in the past 50 years. If the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation it would be about $10 an hour.
If it had kept pace with the growth of average labour productivity, it would be about $17 an hour. But the capitalists have not shared the fruits of the growth in labour productivity with the workers.
Instead they take advantage of the fact that the rise in labor productivity has meant the necessities of life have become cheaper to lower wages and reap higher profits.
According to the Living Wage Project, a single adult in New York City would need to make $12.75 an hour to have a bare living wage, which is far above the $9 an hour minimum wage New York State plans to implement over the next three years.
Moreover, many fast food workers don’t get 40 hours of work a week, so their real wage is less.
Employers of low-wage workers are frequently restricting the number of hours employees can work, keeping them technically part-time to avoid the costs of benefits that would be mandated for full-time.
In addition to demanding that their wages be doubled to $15 an hour, the workers also demanded the right to unionise without employer retaliation for organizing efforts.
There had been previous attempts to organise fast food workers. But the current campaign went public last November in New York when 200 workers walked off the job at various fast food places.
Over the past four months, that walkout was followed by others in five more cities, leading up to the July actions.
These were not traditional strikes by unionised workers seeking union recognition. Some unions, especially the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), have played key role in organizing these actions. But they have done so through various community groups, and among a minority of workers in the fast food establishments.
Many workers who joined these actions have been intimidated by management or fired. One of the demands of the July actions was that no workers who took part face company discipline for doing so, and that seems to have been largely effective.
A week after the walkouts, organisers and workers say enthusiasm has grown for their efforts.
At a Domino’s Pizza in Manhattan, Anatole Yameogo, a 43-year-old delivery worker from Burkina Faso persuaded only one other worker to walk out with him.
But when he went back to work, other employees applauded him, he said. “The other people are ready now. I explained to them what we are doing is not only for us. It is for everybody.”
AnnMarie Wallace, a 29-year-old cashier at a Burger King, was one of 10 workers who walked out, succeeding in shutting down the store for the day. The next day, a co-worker asked her about the next strike.
“Before the strike, she was afraid,” Wallace said. “But she saw that nothing happened when we went back to work. No one was fired and they didn’t cut our hours.”
Other low-paid workers are watching. Michael Ahles, a 21-year-old Walmart employee in Minnesota, said he’s seen a surge of enthusiasm on the Internet. He is the online leader for Our Walmart, a group that has led recent organizing efforts.
“[The fast food strike] blew up like crazy on Facebook,” he said. It was one of the main things I saw posted by just about everybody I know.
“I think it’s kind of one of those things that’s got to play itself out to see how it goes, but it could have a huge effect later as more people get educated about why people are standing up for better wages and work places.”
This is a hard fight, but one all workers should support.
[Barry Sheppard was a long-time leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International. He recounts his experience in the SWP in a two-volume book, The Party — the Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, available from Resistance Books. Read more of Sheppard's articles.]