Fast food workers plan surprise strike

UPDATED: Workers in some 70 restaurants expected to walk off job, potentially shutting down several eateries today

Published April 4, 2013 10:00AM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Andrew Kelly)
(Reuters/Andrew Kelly)

Updated, 12:11 p.m.: The Fast Food Forward campaign says hundreds of workers are now out on strike, and that they are on track to have 400 strikers, from about 70 stores, by the end of the day. At least one store was unable to open for lack of employees this morning. Local politicians, including at least three mayoral candidates - City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Comptroller John Liu, and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio - are expected to rally with the fast food workers. Striking workers are currently converging at a Wendy's in Midtown Manhattan, a Wendy's in Brooklyn, and a Burger King in Harlem. At 5:30 PM, strikers and supporters will gather in Harlem's Marcus Garvey Park and march to a McDonald's store for the day's largest event.

Asked for comment on the strike, spokespeople for McDonald's and the National Restaurant Association referred Salon to their statements from yesterday. In an e-mailed statement, de Blasio said, "Fast Food Forward is fighting for solutions for working people right here and now, and it deserves the support of all New Yorkers."

Original post: New York City fast food workers this morning planned to walk off the job in what organizers promised would be the largest-ever strike against the fast-growing, virtually union-free industry. The workers are demanding that chains like McDonald’s and Wendy’s raise their wages to $15 an hour and allow them to organize a union without retaliation. The campaign expected over 400 workers from 50-some stores to participate in the surprise strike, doubling the size of their previous walkout and potentially shutting down several fast food restaurants for the day.

“Obviously, it will piss off our bosses even more than before,” KFC worker Joe Barrera told Salon in a pre-strike interview. Barrera, 22, said that over his seven years in the industry, “we’ve had our complaints, but no one actually spoke out about it … I guess people were finally tired of the disrespect, under-compensation, being overworked, not having steady schedules and times, not having enough hours – basically, being played around with.” Workers from Burger King, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Domino’s, Papa John’s, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut are also expected to join the strike.

Barrera, who’s paid the $7.25 minimum wage, said that a decent raise would allow him to stop skipping meals and start pursuing college. “Maybe I could afford to have a girlfriend, take her out on a date …” he added. “All of that money goes right now to just surviving.”

Fast food is becoming an ever-larger and more representative sector of the U.S. economy. “We should think of these jobs as the norm,” said Columbia University political scientist Dorian Warren, “because even when you look at the high-skilled, high-paying jobs, they’re even adopting the low-wage model” of management. That means erratic schedules, paltry benefits, and – so far – almost no unions. “These are the quintessential example of the kinds of jobs that we have now,” said Warren, “and of the kind of job that we can expect in the future for the next few decades.”

Asked yesterday about recent labor protests, a McDonald’s spokesperson emailed a statement saying, “We value and respect all the employees who work at McDonald’s restaurants” and that the majority of its stores are franchisee-run restaurants “where employees are paid competitive wages, and have access to flexible schedules and quality, affordable benefits.”

Today’s planned work stoppage represents a major escalation by Fast Food Forward, a campaign spearheaded by the community organizing group New York Communities for Change (a successor to the now deceased ACORN). The fast food campaign’s funders include the Service Employees International Union. As Salon first reported, the campaign went public with a previous strike on Nov. 29. A parallel effort is underway in Chicago, where workers are also demanding $15 an hour and unionization without intimidation, but so far haven’t gone on strike. While New York’s and Chicago’s are the only ones to go public so far, similar organizing efforts are underway elsewhere as well.

Reached over email regarding the Fast Food Forward campaign, National Restaurant Association executive vice president Scott DeFife warned that "Any additional labor cost can negatively impact a restaurant's ability to hire or maintain jobs."

If the nature of the fast food industry reflects what’s happening to U.S. jobs, the shape of the fast food campaign reflects the challenges unions face in fighting back.

Since 1935, federal law has promised workers who want a union the chance to hold an election and force their boss to negotiate. But that promise has proven pretty empty. Among the obstacles: The government-sponsored election process is rife with opportunities for intimidation and delay. Companies that fire workers for organizing risk only meager penalties, after what can be a years-long process. Even when workers win a unionization election, they’re as likely as not to be left without a union contract a year later, because companies can stall or stonewall negotiations.

So even though the law says that it’s up to workers whether to bargain collectively with their boss, it’s really up to bosses whether to bargain in good faith with their employees. To succeed, union campaigns have to mount enough pressure against companies to make the costs of holding out greater than the benefits. But courts and politicians have made that harder to pull off, by making one of labor’s key weapons – the strike – harder to effectively use. Many of the most effective strike tactics – from sit-down strikes that physically occupy a workplace, to solidarity strikes that spread through a supply chain – are now generally illegal. And “permanently replacing” striking workers – de facto terminating them by refusing to let them have their jobs back after a strike – is generally kosher under the law.

“It’s important to recognize that labor law is set up to prevent exactly this type of organizing,” Joe Burns, the author of "Reviving the Strike," said of the fast food campaign.

The Fast Food Forward campaign reflects some of the ways unions are taking on this challenge: finding alternative leverage points against corporations, and reimagining the strike. NYCC executive director Jonathan Westin told Salon that the campaign “is taking on all of the different avenues that we can, to engage workers, community, clergy, elected officials, and allies, to do everything we can to change the conditions within the industry. And if that’s through labor law, great. If it’s through other avenues, where community folks are stepping up and doing things differently, that’s great.” As Salon reported, when a Wendy’s worker was told she’d been terminated the day after the November strike, clergy, politicians and other supporters won her job back within an hour by rallying inside and outside her store.

In recent decades, as strikes have declined, unions have increasingly turned to “comprehensive campaign” tactics designed to compel companies to budge through a combination of political, consumer, community and media pressure. Tactics in such campaigns can range from digging up dirt on management, to calling on customers to boycott, to lobbying against a company’s zoning application. Each of these can pack a punch. But unless the campaign is really engaging workers, companies can often just wait out the bad press while forcing employees to attend that many more anti-union meetings. Just look at Wal-Mart, which withstood a well-funded union-backed air war in the 2000s without really breaking a sweat.

Simply put, few things engage customers, threaten management and transform workers like a good strike. And so, with organized labor nationally very much playing defense, labor organizers have been grappling with how to make strikes work for non-union workers. Today’s fast food strike, the fall strikes by Wal-Mart retail and warehouse workers, and a February strike by janitors who clean Twin Cities Target stores all share a few apparent tactics in common.

Because it’s legal to “permanently replace” workers who just strike in order to win union recognition or higher wages, workers announce that they are striking in protest of violations of labor law by management (if the government finds this to be true, then permanently replacing them becomes illegal – though that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen anyway). Because modern U.S. strikes are often more about humiliating management than shutting down business, workers go out on strike for a single day rather than walking off the job indefinitely. And rather than waiting until a majority of workers are willing to take the risk of going on strike, organizers mount strikes with a minority of the workforce, in hopes that their courage – and their safe return to work afterward – will inspire more of their co-workers to join in the next time.

If organizers’ estimates (400 to 500 strikers today) hold true, that’ll suggest that such “minority unionism” is paying off for NYC fast food workers, at least so far. McDonald’s employee Stephen Warner told Salon that when he heard about other workers going on strike in November, “it gave me hope for a better future … I was very surprised.” He’ll be out on the picket lines himself this time, he said, “hopefully to set an example for the rest of the people in fast food, so that they know that change is possible.”

But can these efforts ever develop the clout to compel a company like Wendy’s to foreswear union-busting? Labor campaigns have won some victories against fast food giants before. As I reported for the Nation last month, a strike by 15 immigrant guest workers led McDonald’s to cut ties to a franchisee that had allegedly subjected them to shifts of up to 25 hours straight. Consumer pressure campaigns by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (a non-union labor group) have gotten chains like Taco Bell to sign agreements requiring improved conditions for Florida tomato workers. And members of the Industrial Workers of the World, a union that generally eschews legal union recognition, say their workplace has forced improvements in discipline, scheduling and pay in some Minneapolis Jimmy John’s stores. But getting industry giants to drop their opposition to collective bargaining would be a tall order, one that would likely require much larger strikes, in many more cities, to even be conceivable.

“The franchise structure makes it easier for McDonald’s or the other food chains to just cut a franchise loose and say they’re not responsible,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, who directs labor education and research at Cornell. That’s because it’s the thousands of individual store franchisee-owners who legally employ workers, but it’s the corporate headquarters that actually calls the shots. On the other hand, Bronfenbrenner told Salon, “unlike Wal-Mart, McDonald’s is much more vulnerable to consumer pressure, in that they have competitors.” While some labor campaigns focus all of their firepower on making an example of a single company, Bronfenbrenner said that this campaign’s strategy of mobilizing against all of the major fast food industry players could pay off if one chain decides to make a deal with the union in hopes of getting a competitive advantage by escaping labor strife.

Burns, a negotiator for an airline union, called the fast food workers’ willingness to walk off the job “a very positive sign” of “a major shift in organizing strategy” after years in which unions largely neglected strikes. But he predicted that the constraints of labor law -- including the laws limiting “representational strikes” designed to win collective bargaining, and repeated “intermittent strikes” against the same boss -- will come to pose a major obstacle. “In the long run,” Burns told Salon, “it’s hard to see a successful strategy organizing fast food that doesn’t involve violating labor law.”

While that hasn’t happened so far, the fast food strikers are drawing inspiration from a group of workers who famously mounted an illegal strike. Today’s strike date was chosen because it marks 45 years since Rev. Martin Luther King was gunned down in Memphis, where he was supporting striking sanitation workers who were demanding union recognition. At a New York City meeting last Thursday, two veterans of that strike met with fast food employees just before a secret meeting where workers voted to authorize today’s strike. “In order for you all to win anything, you’re going to have to stand up,” Memphis striker Alvin Turner, now 78, told the crowd. “You’re going to have to stand up and be counted … If you don’t stand up, you can kiss it goodbye.”

By Josh Eidelson

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