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Fast Food Workers: The new U.S. working class vanguard?

Wed, Nov 13, 2013

Early in the 21st century’s second decade, the fast food industry may very well represent the future of U.S. jobs for many workers. After decades of losing relatively well-compensated jobs in manufacturing, there has been tremendous growth in service sector jobs, many of which are low paid and require few skills. Although the Great Recession officially ended in June 2009, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, for many labor market participants the bad economy continues. Only 21 percent of jobs that vanished during the Great Recession were low-wage jobs. However, since the recession’s official end, 58 percent of newly-established U.S. jobs have been in the low-wage sector; the highest job growth rates were in the food service and retail industries, which pay $9 to $11 per hour. On a national scale, 40 percent of U.S. workers earn less than $10.64 per hour, which is the equivalent of the inflation-adjusted 1968 minimum hourly wage of $1.65.

In the fast food industry, according to a National Employment Law Project report, 89.1 percent of all employees are front-line workers who make a median hourly wage of $8.94. Supervisors comprise 8.7 percent of industry employees earning $13.06 per hour while only 2.2 percent occupy managerial positions.

While many believe that teenagers dominate industry-wide employment of some four million people, the average age in the industry is 28 years old. Women (mostly those of color), comprise 2 out of 3 people in the fast food work force. Their average age is 32 and most support children on their low wages. They have no benefits and work part-time hours (less than 32 hours per week).

With more and more U.S. workers relegated to low-paying jobs, with little chance to advance into better compensation due to higher unemployment rates over the last five years, Minneapolis fast food workers attempted to improve their work situation through union organizing. In October 2010, employees at 10 Jimmie John’s sandwich shops in the city sought representation with the Industrial Workers of the World. They barely lost a certification election when 87 workers voted against the union and 85 were in favor; there were two challenged ballots.

The problem is that industry turnover is more than 75 percent per year ,so organizing on a shop-by-shop basis is exceedingly difficult when there are 160,000 U.S. fast food restaurants.

Inspired by the nonunion Walmart employees’ one-day strikes in October 2012 and on Black Friday 2012, 200 New York City (NYC) fast food workers who were employed by Burger King, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Wendy’s and other restaurants, struck for one-day at the end of November 2012. And in early April 2013, 400 NYC workers from 60 to 70 fast food restaurants walked off the job again for one day. Later in April, the fast food strikes spread to Chicago; to Detroit, St. Louis and Seattle in May; to thousands of fast food workers in New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Kansas City and Flint (Michigan) over four days at the end of July. The culmination was massive strikes of fast food workers in 60 cities at the end of this August.

In all strikes the demands were to raise wages to $15 per hour (“Fight for 15”) and the right to unionize without employer intimidation. The Service Employees International Union has been funding these campaigns and providing organizers; the United Food and Commercial Workers and the United Electrical Workers have provided support as well. The campaigns often differ from city to city. Those in Chicago appear more like a unionization campaign while others have a more social movement flavor in pushing for legislation that would increase fast food workers’ wages through state referenda. Finally, the fast food workers have obtained crucial support from community organizations and other progressive groups, which have helped workers get their jobs back when they have been fired.

These strikes have resulted in several gains for workers. For example, in Chicago, the April 2013 strikes, which included retail workers, resulted in a $2 an hour pay increase at Whole Foods in East Lakeview while workers employed at the downtown Nordstrom Rack (State Street) received a 25-cent per hour raise. Additionally, some McDonald’s workers obtained 10-cent per hour increases.

Although less than a year old, the developments to date have been exciting. These workers have revived the use of the strike as a key tactic for U.S. labor, which has been largely dormant for years. Moreover, fast food employees have publicized the detrimental effects of extreme levels of economic inequality, first introduced by the Occupy Movement two years ago, while putting the fast food corporations on the defensive. Finally, the democratic participation of fast food workers in attempting to improve their workplace conditions is nothing less than inspiring. While it is unclear what the future holds for the fast food worker movement, this just might be the shot in the arm the U.S. labor movement needs in strategizing for its future.

By Victor Devinatz
StreetWise Contributor

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