Fast-food workers and supporters organized by the Service Employees International Union protest in Los Angeles in August 2013.
Patrick T. Fallon—Bloomberg—Getty Images
By Claire Zillman
September 4, 2014

 

The fast-food strikes that will hit 150 cities on Thursday, as workers demand $15 an hour and union representation, began two years ago, almost by accident.

As Kendall Fells, organizing director of Fast Food Forward, tells it, when the advocacy group New York Communities for Change put together a petition for affordable housing in New York City, they realized that the fast-food workers they talked to couldn’t afford even low-cost apartments; they were sleeping in homeless shelters and on friends’ couches. That prompted the group to call in the Service Employees International Union to organize meetings around the issue of low fast-food worker pay. By the third meeting in September 2012, the workers had decided that they wanted $15 an hour and a union, and they’d strike to get both.

Everything the workers have done since then has been entirely deliberate, most notably the seven coordinated strikes that have garnered international support.

The first strike took place in New York in November 2012, when 200 workers walked off the job; the last occurred in May of this year, when striking workers and supporters protested the industry’s poor pay in 150 cities in the United States and 33 locations overseas. The seventh occurred Thursday, when workers at restaurants like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King in 150 U.S. cities again walked off the job.

By Fell’s estimation, the movement has notched considerable victories along the way. He counts among its major wins Seattle’s new $15 minimum wage, the ballot initiative for $15 an hour that will go before San Francisco voters in November, and the consideration of a $13 minimum wage currently taking place in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. He also said the fast-food strikes deserve credit for individual corporations’ decisions to raise worker wages. Ikea promised to pay its employees an average of $10.76 an hour starting next year. And in February, The Gap guaranteed its workers $10 an hour in 2015.

When asked what direct influence the movement had in these increases, Fell pointed to Seattle’s minimum wage hike, which he called a “direct offshoot” of the fast-food protests. Indeed, last summer, a Taco Bell worker walked off the job to strike for higher wages and was followed the next day by more workers from at least a dozen other fast-food restaurants. The strike launched Seattle’s push for a $15 an hour minimum wage, according to Jeff Reading, communications director for Mayor Ed Murray.

The momentum created by the fast-food movement has “motivated elected officials to move on the issue,” Fells says. “[New York Governor Andrew] Cuomo fought tooth and nail for an $8 minimum wage a few years ago and now he wants $13,” he says. (In June, Cuomo said he would support the demands of the Working Families Party, which has called for locally set minimum wages—a policy that could push New York City’s minimum wage up to $13. Cuomo’s promise was seen largely as a way for him to secure the influential party’s endorsement in his reelection bid.)

Does the fast-food worker movement deserve credit for the wave of higher minimum wages hat has criss-crossed the country? To a certain extent, yes.

“They’re a visible force that’s captured a lot of attention in a way that’s compelling,” says Mary Hansen, an economics professor at American University. “They’ve been so effective at making it clear to people how difficult it is to live on [fast-food] wages. I don’t think that the [minimum wage] issue would’ve gained that much traction if [the fast-food workers] hadn’t been so determined.”

But when it comes to the movement’s two original goals—$15 an hour for all industry employees and union representation—workers have come up empty.

“It just takes time,” Fells says. He says that McDonald’s admission in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing in December 2013 that boycotts and protests can “adversely affect” the company and that there’s a “long-term trend toward higher wages and social expenses” is an indicator that workers are headed in the right direction. “They just need to keep doing what they’re doing, which is why they want to escalate the campaign,” he says. The workers plan to engage in civil disobedience during the strikes on Thursday.

So, is it too early to make any hard conclusions about the movement’s success? “It has been a relatively short time since the the protests started,” says John Logan, director of labor studies at San Francisco State University.

But there are other reasons that explain why fast-food workers haven’t secured a $15 per hour wage and union representation. For one, a $15 minimum wage for fast-food workers may make sense in Seattle, but it may not be logical in a place like St. Louis, where housing costs are nearly 50% lower. “I would tell [the fast-food workers] that a national minimum wage of $15 isn’t going to happen,” Hansen says. Instead of pushing for an across-the-board increase, the workers should embrace piecemeal wage legislation at the state and local levels across the country, she says.

The unionization effort has been hindered by the structure of the fast-food industry itself. Because many fast-food restaurants are owned by franchisees that oversee day-to-day operations, parent corporations have been able to skirt liability. At the outset of the strikes two years ago, gaining union representation for the industry in the traditional sense meant holding union elections at each individual fast-food location. The prospect of unionizing through that tactic was slim since “the last 20 years or so have demonstrated that, when an employer has resources, it’s very difficult to organize,” Logan says. Audio from anti-union meetings at Coca-Cola, Staples, and FedEx leaked this week illustrates the type of tactics employers can deploy during a union push. The employers used these meetings, which were intended to “educate” employees on their options, as opportunities to bash unions and publicly question their financial motives.

The alternative to the election route is to stage a mass movement that—in theory—becomes so big and garners so much public support that it eventually forces an employer to cave and recognize a union or, at the least, agree to be neutral in a union election. On this front, the fast-food workers are on track, especially with the civil disobedience the workers exercised on Thursday. “The only way you can organize outside of the law is by adopting tactics similar to the civil rights movement,” Logan says.

The workers could have a better chance at gaining union representation thanks to a ruling in late July by the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board. The ruling determined that McDonald’s could be considered a joint employer in worker complaints filed against the corporation and franchise owners. If upheld, this could give McDonald’s workers more leverage to collectively push the company to recognize a union.

The 1990 Justice for Janitors campaign, in which office building cleaners pushed to join the SEIU, has served as a working prototype for the mass movement approach to unionization. Striking janitors protesting pay and benefit cuts walked in peaceful marches in Los Angeles and remained nonviolent after confrontations with the police. The incident prompted public outrage and eventually convinced cleaning contractor International Service Systems to recognize the union. The tactic sparked similar demonstrations in cities across the country over the next two decades, which have led to the unionization of 225,000 janitors in 30 cities in the United States and Canada.

So, how long will it take for the fast food workers to achieve that kind of success? “These things aren’t predictable,” Logan says. There is no magic number of victories that will lead to change, he says.

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