US fast food workers' struggle escalates

Submitted by AWL on 8 September, 2014 - 3:19 Author: Daniel Lemberger Cooper

On 4 September, thousands of fast food workers and other service industry employees (including home healthcare workers), backed by both the SEIU (Service Employees International Union) and UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers), held strikes and protests in cities in California, Missouri, Wisconsin, New York, and elsewhere in the United States, for respect, improved benefits, the right to organise, and for a $15 minimum wage. Hundreds of workers and supporters were arrested.

The “Fight for 15”, a movement by fast food and other low-paid workers across America, began in November 2012. Actions took place in eight cities on a day of action in June 2013; 4 September saw actions in over 100. They are the result of an intense summer of organising, including a national convention held in Chicago at the end of July.

The growth and momentum is impressive, and should be discussed by trade unionists and campaigners in the UK.

The strikes involve a workforce that is young, black, Latino, predominately female, all of whom share a common plight: precariousness, paltry benefits, low wages (the federal minimum wage is worth $2 less than it was in 1968), routine racism and sexism, in unorganised industries - parts of the economy hitherto deemed impossible-to-organise by many in the labour movement.

Actions have been organised in a different way to “conventional” US labour organising practices. Traditionally, a union will seek to achieve majority density in a workplace, petition the National Labor Relations board for an election, and then, hopeful the election is won, seek recognition with the employer. In the “Fight for 15” campaign, minority strikes are held even before talking about union membership or collective bargaining. The first strikes might involve only a very small number of workers, but are bolstered by other trade unionists and community campaigners and backed up with well-publicised direct action. This approach has won widespread media coverage and public attention for the campaign.

There have already been victories. Some cities, including Chicago and New York, have raised the minimum wage for city contractors. In Seattle, where a socialist councillor prominently involved in the campaign was elected, the $15 minimum has been achieved.

Fast-food industry employers have been slower to shift, but there have been improvements in conditions. In one Dunkin' Donuts store, managers finally installed air conditioning in response to strike action. At a Chicago Whole Foods, workers won upgrades to the break room and defeated implementation of a points system that would have worsened punishments for absence and lateness.

Since the movement began, efforts have been made to form more long-term organisations. For example, several thousand Walmart workers have signed up to join a “non-majority association”, to stay connected to organising efforts. The associations, and newly-formed worker centres, are used for education, training and workshops. There is also some continuation of personnel with activists and organisers involved in similar campaigns in the past. Many leaders of the “Our Walmart” campaign are former organisers of “Justice for Janitors”, a 1990s SEIU campaign amongst cleaners, profiled in the Ken Loach film Bread and Roses. “Fight for 15” campaigners have established organising committees across several shops in particular cities.

In August 2014, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that McDonald’s could be held jointly liable for employment and wage violations by its franchise operators. The move, which is being heavily contested in the courts by the bosses, could force fast food firms to negotiate on wages and allow SEIU to unionise restaurants on a larger scale.

The support from progressive and community organisations have been important. If the campaigns are to grow, relationships will need to be deepened and connected to other struggles in localities. Moreover, if the movement is to expand, a great weight will need to be placed on making new conscious worker-militants and leaders who can democratically debate and decide on strategy and tactics (a necessary counterweight to the dominance of union staff in deciding activity) and developing dedicated organisers.

SEIU and UFCW are established unions with significant bureaucracies. There is a risk that union officials could channel the campaigns away from industrial direct action and towards mainstream political lobbying, or that they might sign industry-wide agreements over the heads of the workers. To guard against that, fast food workers themselves will need to own their struggles, control their committees, and develop strategy.

Trade unionists and socialists in Britain must support the “Fight for 15” movement. We should seek to make links with workers and activists on the ground. They offer us inspiration, and much we can learn from in terms of making unions relevant again and a force capable of changing society for the better.

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