This morning marks the start of what will likely be the largest fast food worker mobilization in U.S. history, with a New York City walkout today kicking off strikes in seven cities over four days. These work stoppages by non-union workers are the latest escalation in an embattled labor movement's unprecedented challenge to the overwhelmingly non-union industry, whose ranks are growing and whose conditions are spreading elsewhere in the U.S. economy.
"I know you're tired of suffering," KFC employee Naquasia LeGrand told fellow workers gathered with clergy and politicians at a rally last Wednesday announcing that New York City worker-activists had voted to strike this week. "I don't want to see the next generation suffering and suffering. I don't want my kids suffering. I want to make sure they have a better future than I do." Looking out on a crowd of about 150 at the entrance to Brooklyn's Prospect Park, LeGrand added, "So if I want that to happen, I need you guys to stand with me just as long as I'm standing with you."
As Salon first reported, the fast food effort went public last November, with a strike by about 200 employees of various chains in New York City. Over the past four months, that walkout has been followed by similar work stoppages in five other cities, and a second New York City strike roughly twice as large. Each of those strikes has been backed by the Service Employees International Union and local allies, and each has shared the same demands: a raise to $15 per hour, and the chance to form a union without intimidation by management. This week's strikes will include five of those six cities – New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, and Milwaukee- and two new ones: Kansas City and Flint, Mich. (A spokesperson for the campaign in Seattle, where workers struck in May, told Salon to expect "a series of escalating direct actions" there this week.)"I might be doing the work of three people" due to under-staffing, McDonald's employee Kareem Starks told me after Wednesday's rally, "but still getting paid one wage." Starks, a 30-year-old former Parks Department employee, said it's "been hard trying to live off the minimum wage, $7.25, and support my two kids plus pay rent." As we spoke, a fellow fast food worker walked over to introduce himself, congratulate Starks on the speech he'd just delivered, and show him a scar on his arm. "I got burned too myself," he told Starks. "But my manager doesn't care."
Interviewed last month while joining members of Congress to kick off a national "Raise Up America" campaign, St. Louis Jimmy John's employee Rasheen Aldridge told Salon that there "was a whole lot of nervousness" when he and three co-workers at his store first went on strike in May. "There was a big chance that I could of got fired," said Aldridge, "because that's just how, you know, fast food operates." But when they returned to work in one piece, he said his co-workers' reaction was "You know, you guys sort of took the step we all need to do."
McDonald's and Wendy's did not respond to Friday requests for comment. Asked about the strikes, Domino's vice president Tim McIntyre e-mailed, "Opportunity exists for everyone in our system who's willing to work hard and focus on rising to the next level. For that reason, we don't focus on an individual, specific wage issue." For reasons including the "tremendous upward mobility" at Domino's and the fact that "we are often people's second job," McIntyre said, "we don't believe unions are necessary for our brand…"
In a paper released last week, the progressive National Employment Law Project disputed such mobility claims. Based on a review of census data, NELP wrote, "Opportunities for advancement in the fast food industry are significantly limited compared to other industries: only 2.2 percent of jobs in the fast food industry are managerial, professional, or technical occupations, compared with 31 percent of jobs in the overall U.S. economy…" NELP noted that front-line fast food jobs pay an average of $8.94 an hour.
Whether workers can transform that industry – rather than just hoping to rise within it – has big implications for labor's future. First, because fast food jobs are increasingly representative of US work: poor compensation, little job security, a constant expectation to put on a happy face for customers, and virtually no unions.
And second, because – following a decades-long economic, judicial, and political attack – the campaign's strategy represents some of the ways organizers are attempting to break free from a strategic box labor's been left in to die. Among them: Given the law's failure to meaningfully compel companies to bargain collectively even when workers want to, and the limits of slick anti-corporate P.R. campaigns that don't deeply involve workers, some low-wage non-union workers are taking up the strike. Facing changes that have made strikes more risky and less effective, they're mounting short-term strikes by a minority of the workforce designed to ignite further activism, embarrass management, and engage the public, while reducing (but not eliminating) the risk the workers will lose their jobs.
Those strikes anchor and amplify a range of other comprehensive campaign efforts, from criminal charges filed by Seattle workers over alleged "wage theft," to a full-court media press to embarrass McDonald's over the budget calculator it offered its low-wage workers. Jonathan Westin, who directs New York's Fast Food Forward campaign, told Salon he doubts that national TV outlets would have lingered on the budget story if workers hadn't forced a debate about the industry by repeatedly going on strike. "The more and more workers continue to take action and continue to publicize their fight," said Westin, "the more and more it starts to get at the fast food industry's biggest asset, which is their name brand. And I think that's what we're beginning to see in a very real way."
This week's wave of strikes got an early start Friday night, when workers walked out at a Brooklyn Domino's to protest the firing of an activist co-worker, Gregory Reynoso, following their April strike. Striker Jose Cruz told Salon that about 90% of the workers on the busy evening shift joined the work stoppage, forcing cancellations of deliveries. (Workers at two other Domino's locations, a Papa John's, and a McDonald's also took part in Friday's prequel strike.)
While the fast food efforts have mostly avoided publicly emphasizing retaliation, workers' well-founded fear of illegal punishment for organizing remains the greatest challenge for this campaign and others like it. Friday's strike echoes fast food work stoppages over lack of air-conditioning the week before, which also mobilized workers around a store-specific demand, and the occupation of a Wendy's the day after the November strike, which also used direct action to challenge management's alleged attempt to fire a striker (unlike Reynoso, who's now working as an organizer on the campaign, that Wendy's worker was quickly reinstated).
In an e-mail to Salon, Domino's' McIntyre denied retaliation and said that Reynoso was fired because he "grabbed his crotch several times, ignored a directive to stop and used profanities." Reynoso told Salon that a Domino's human resources official had told him after the April strike that he wasn't allowed to discuss the union with his co-workers, and that when he disagreed, the official suspended him on the spot. "They fired him because he was a main leader in the union," said co-worker Cruz. Reynoso expressed confidence that the National Labor Relations Board would ultimately agree.
Reynoso said the doubling of participation between New York's November and April strikes showed him the effort "was literally growing up." "Of course we need support," he added. "We need a lot of support. But it depends on the workers. If we keep standing up, we can make it you know. It depends on us."
"As a consciousness-raising strategy for the United States, it's really great," said City University of New York labor expert Ruth Milkman. "This campaign by itself can't change the enormous obstacles to winning union recognition today in any private sector union workplace…" Milkman told Salon yesterday. "I don't see any path forward on that front." But given the high profile of the fast food industry and increasing consumer focus on food, Milkman argued the effort – if it grew big enough – could shame the industry into raising its standards in order to protect its brand. "If it were ever successful," she said, "it would affect so many more people than any living wage law we've got."
Another scenario would be for a single company, facing a critical mass of disruption, embarrassment, and legal liability, to defect from the industry's so-far united front and sign a deal paving the way for collective bargaining by some number of its employees – perhaps with a trigger requiring some competitors to sign on first, perhaps requiring SEIU not to organize its stores outside a certain geographic area, perhaps agreeing in advance on how much an initial contract could cost. Where unions have reached such deals in other industries – sometimes involving controversial concessions – they've increased pressure on hold-outs to follow suit. But given the size and clout of the fast food industry, and the centrality of low costs and management control to the way it does business, expect any cave-in or compromise to require explosive escalation first.
Interviewed following Friday night's strike, Jose Soto framed this week's seven strikes as an incremental step. "Little by little, we're getting closer…" he said. "We won't settle until we get what we want. We're gonna keep on."