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Strike wave shakes up US fast food chains


Since April, workers campaigning for better wages and the right to unionise have shut down hundreds of restaurants in one-day strikes across five cities.

The low paid workers, many earning state minimums as low as $7.25 (£4.26) an hour are demanding a wage increase to $15 an hour and the right to set up unions without reprisal.

So far, hundreds of McDonalds, Burger King and Wendy’s franchises have been hit by walkouts in New York, Detroit, St Louis, Chicago and Milwaukee.

The strikes follow on the heels of a strike by hundreds of fast food workers in New York last November during a unionisation drive by the Fast Food Workers Committee.  In the same month retail giant Walmart was hit by hundreds of strikes at stores in 46 states.


In an industry traditionally dominated by high turnover and part time and temporary jobs, the difficulty in building viable trade union organisation has left bosses free to cream off huge profits by paying poverty wages.

US Fast food workers earned a national average $9.05 in March – after a below-inflation increase of just 2.7% in three years. The only group that earns a lower hourly rate in the US is farm workers.

Contrast that with the wages of McDonald’s CEO who rakes in almost 1,333 times what his average restaurant employee makes.

Can’t Survive on $7.25 is the name of one of the campaigns, referencing the New York state minimum wage – a wage that tells the employee ‘if we could pay you less, we would’. This wouldn’t be a living wage anywhere in the USA.

While low wages form the basis of the industry’s record profits, bosses are always looking for new ways to get more for less from their workers.

84 per cent of New York fast food workers are victims of wage theft, according to activist group Fast Food Forward.

This includes a whole range of infringements, which were formerly common practice, are at last beginning to be challenged. From working overtime without getting time and a half, to being denied pay during breaks, to not being paid for the time spent counting up the till before and after shift, a whole array of infringements adds up to the average low wage worker losing 15 per cent of their annual wage.

The latest scheme involves rearranging shift patterns to fall below the 30 hours threshold which would require employers to pay health insurance for their employees, due to come into effect in January 2014.

This is money which is sunk straight into fat cat pay or the billions doled out in dividends to parasite ‘shareholders’.

 Why now?

The strike wave is causing ripples in a labour movement which has seen only rare outbreaks of industrial action during the economic crisis – notably the mobilisations by teachers in Wisconsin and elsewhere against privatisation and attacks on collective bargaining.

This should not be a cause for surprise since Marxists like Leon Trotsky have always pointed out that trade union struggle, especially when it ignores broader political and social issues – will tend to be at a low ebb during the trough of a recession. And the trough of this Great Recession has lasted for years.

While the recession has barely dented the profit margins of the fast food industry, it has shaken up its workforce. If the ranks of industrial and service workers on full-time, permanent contracts have been decimated the numbers of part time or temporary workers – has grown massively.

The ranks of the 3.8 million fast food workers have swelled by 11.5 per cent since February 2010. At twice the rate of all private employees, this shows that such insecure jobs are often the only option for workers in a country with a pitiful welfare safety net.

But where previously these jobs would be dominated by young people and women passing through or supplementing a partner’s income, the recession has created the rise of a section of fast food workers who are supporting families or trapped with unaffordable rents – the so called precariat. In Wisconsin, a fast food worker on a 40-hour week would earn more than $400 under the state poverty line. With wage theft, shift reductions and other arbitrary costs, employees complain that ‘they can’t survive’ on such meagre wages.

These “precarious” workers are not, as some claim, a  “new class” but a part of the working class, and one whose struggles can inspire other sections of workers to organise and take action.

Building a union

With more and more workers having to stay in fast food work for significant periods of time, the incentive to organise has been driven by the twin pressures of rapid impoverishment and lack of alternatives.

While pressure for an increase to a living wage (still a low wage) has come from community and activist groups, the demand to form a union has come in large part from the workers directly involved.

Until now, organisers have emphasised the local nature of their strikes. But, sharing a common theme and with awareness spreading, many groups are now taking the initial steps of communication and coordination.

The Service Employees International Union has lent material support and organisers to the campaigns; this active solidarity is vital to demonstrating the power that collective organisation can deliver.

The fast food workers are right to pick up the demand that the chains accept their right to freely organise a trade union – such an organisation is the only means workers have of defending themselves in the workplace.

In an industry where trade union activity is summarily punished with reduced shifts and arbitrary sacking, winning the right to unionise is the sole guarantee that any wage increase will be maintained.

Without a union which can fight back and hit the bosses where it hurts, any promises of improvements in pay and working conditions are worthless.

Where next?

In New York City, more than half of the 70 restaurants hit by strike action have raised wages. This shows that determined action can force concessions from the most anti-union bosses. It shows these bosses have been super-exploiting their workers and there is plenty of room for short-term victories on wages. But the franchise nature of the industry means winning sustainable collective bargaining rights across chains will be a difficult task.

To achieve longer term more permanent gains  – significant reduction of hours with no loss of pay, permanent contracts, a living minimum wage in every state, union recognition and rights in the workplace will be a harder struggle. It requires democratic unions where the rank and file exercise real control and initiative. They will need all the support from the communities workers come from, plus solidarity from other sectors of workers and students too.

With echoes of the ‘Leagues for the Eight Hour Day’ which mushroomed across the USA more than 100 years ago, the spread of ‘Can’t Survive…’ networks has the potential to organise common action amongst one of the largest sections of the modern working class. Around the world the growth of these precarious jobs has created similar layers of workers. They can take enormous inspiration from their sisters and brothers in the USA.

 By KD Tait

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