United States: Fast-food workers step up wage fight

Fast-food workers rally in Chicago as part of a nationwide action on September 4. Photo from Amien Essif/In These Times.

“Paddy wagon’s on its way,” announced a Chicago Police tactical officer over his radio early on the morning of September 4. Shortly after, a crowd of about 300 demonstrators ― including more than 100 striking fast food workers ― began chanting “Take the street!” and proceeded to do just that.

Marching between a McDonald’s on one side and a Burger King on the other, the crowd blocked 87th street traffic on Chicago’s south side for about 20 minutes.

The action was the latest escalation in the fast-food workers’ campaign for a US$15 minimum hourly wage and the right to form a union without retaliation. Two dozen workers linked arms and sat down on the road in an act of civil disobedience, prompting the police to take them away in handcuffs.

As Tyree Johnson awaited arrest by advancing police officers, he explained to Working In These Times why he was willing to go to jail.

“I’m still living at the poverty level,” said Johnson, who has been employed by McDonald’s since 1992. “After 22 years, they refuse to pay me a decent living wage.”

Johnson and his fellow protesters were taken to patrol cars, and 19 were cited then released.

Later that day, another two dozen protesters were arrested in a separate action on Chicago's West Side. By midday, arrests had taken place in cities including New York, Boston, Detroit and Las Vegas.

There were still more actions later in the day in what organisers called the biggest fast-food workers' strike yet in the national push for “15 and a union”, which began in November 2012.

“Whatever it takes” was today’s rallying cry, as workers at McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and other large quick-service restaurant chains planned to walk off the job in over 100 cities.

In several cities, healthcare workers who are members of the Service Employees International Union, which also funds and supports fast-food worker strikes, joined the actions in solidarity.

“We’ll do whatever it takes to get to $15,” said Nashville McDonald’s worker Jamar Black. “If we have to go to jail, we’re doing that.”

Black, who is on strike today, spoke to Working In These Times over the phone as he attended a protest outside a Sonic restaurant in Tennessee’s capital city. Because he is in “crew training,” he earns $9.25 an hour, about $2 more than the $7.35 federal minimum wage, but much less than the wage he’s asking for.

The nationwide strikes are the culmination of months of intensifying actions in the fast-food workers movement, known variously as the Fight for 15, Show me 15, and Fast Food Forward. On May 15, workers in an estimated 30 countries staged one-day strikes.

The next week, 138 demonstrators were arrested in a protest outside of McDonald’s headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois. These actions set the tone for a national convention in Chicago at the end of July, where the 1300 workers attending voted unanimously to use civil disobedience as a national tactic.

Workers believe their efforts to draw attention to the low wages and poor working conditions in the fast-food industry are having an effect. On September 1, Obama cited the fast-food strikes in a Labor Day speech calling for a raise in the federal minimum wage.

Seattle passed a $15 municipal minimum wage in May. On September 3, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel signed an executive order raising the minimum wage for employees of city contractors to $13 an hour. Emanuel has also endorsed a proposal to extend this raise to all residents of Chicago by 2018.

So far this year, 10 states have opted to raise their minimum wage. This includes five states where the lowest-paid workers will be earning more than $10 an hour.

The fast-food industry, however, has yet to budge. Rob Green, executive director of the National Council of Chain Restaurants called the September 4 actions “irresponsible” and “disturbing” in a statement released by the industry trade group.

“Unions are calling it 'civil disobedience' when in reality, this choreographed activity is trespassing and it's illegal,” said Green.

McDonald’s, meanwhile, has insisted that protesters’ demands are misguided. In a response to the May 15 strike, company spokesperson Heidi Barker Sa Shekhem said the restaurant “offer[s] part-time and full-time employment, benefits and competitive pay based on the local marketplace and job level.”

She added that while the fast-food workers’ movement has targeted the McDonald’s brand, “It’s important to know approximately 80% of our global restaurants are independently owned and operated by small business owners, who are independent employers that comply with local and federal laws”.

But a recent ruling by the National Labor Relations Board’s General Counsel Richard Griffin could put an end to McDonald’s bid to pin low wages and poor working conditions on its franchisees.

On July 29, Griffin determined that McDonald’s should be considered a “joint employer” in more than 40 pending complaints brought by workers against the corporation. If the ruling is upheld, McDonald’s could be held liable for conditions in its franchises.

In response, McDonald’s issued a statement warning that the ruling “changes the rules for thousands of small businesses, and goes against decades of established law regarding the franchise model in the United States”.

Many labour advocates cheered such a change, which they hope could ultimately enable workers to bargain directly with the corporations that determine their wages and working conditions.

Fight for 15 is not just targeting McDonald’s, however. Though it has yet to successfully unionise a fast-food restaurant, it aims to win better pay and working conditions for all of the nation’s 4 million fast-food workers, including employees of companies like Wendy’s, Burger King, KFC and Popeye’s Chicken.

A similar effort by low-wage service workers at Walmart to win better pay and the freedom to unionise without retaliation began in 2010, and employs a similar organising tactic: the one-day, or “wildcat”, strike.

[Abridged from In These Times.]
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