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Retail workers escalate fight for fair pay in the USA

By KD Tait / Saturday 10 August, 2013

Last week retail workers’ campaign for $15 an hour and the right to unionise took another step forward with thousands joining strikes in seven cities.

What began as a one-day strike by 200 fast food workers in New York last November has spread to several states and retail chains including Macy’s and Victoria’s Secret.

‘We can’t survive on $7.25’ is one of the campaign’s slogans. This is the New York state minimum wage, the equivalent of £4.67. Low waged US workers have seen the cost of living rise while the minimum wage has become a poverty wage.

Fast food workers, many of them migrants and women, earn an average $9.50. This would not be a living wage anywhere in the United States. In many states, a 40-hour week would still leave a worker hundreds of dollars below the official poverty line.

McDonalds recently published an online ‘budget guide’ to ‘help’ its workers. Its plan helpfully did not include budgeting for heat, childcare, or clothing. It budgeted $600 for mortgage payments – half the national average. Even this budget which had no bearing on reality still required working two minimum wage jobs for 72 hours a week.

As full time jobs in the rest of the economy are decimated, the fast food workforce has risen 11.5 per cent since 2010. The competition for jobs lets bosses keep wages low. Manipulation of shift patters lets bosses avoid paying health insurance and is used to discipline the workers.

Workers in the fast food industry regularly suffer from burns and other work related accidents, but have no health benefits or sick pay. Those employed in the service industries have little job security, often employed on temporary or zero hour contracts.

The retail outlets, which are generally franchises, are extremely hostile to any attempt to form a trade union – a legal democratic right. Those who do attempt to organise often find themselves summarily sacked. With their co-workers duly intimidated and without the resources to mount a legal challenge, the retail sector remains a haven for union busting bosses.

Nevertheless out of 70 New York restaurants hit by strike action, more than half have conceded a wage increase. This shows action works, but making the victories permanent will be a tougher task.

The way retail chains, especially the food industry, operate using franchises makes winning union recognition across a whole chain very difficult. Chains like McDonalds, whose executives keep all the profit made at the counters, are able to stand at arms-length from any dispute.

Migrant workers in Chicago join the strike for $15 an hour

Migrant workers in Chicago join the strike for $15 an hour

The trade union struggle

The struggle for union rights and fair pay, which is directed by the Service Employees International Union with the grassroots support of campaigns like Fast Food Forward and Fight For 15, must develop a strategy for overcoming this obstacle.

Some supporters of the campaign have criticised the influence and apparent ‘top-down’ approach of the SEIU. They contrast it to the grassroots dynamism of the Occupy movement.

While the official unions are heavily bureaucratic, the nature of the fight to organise precarious workers requires particular tactics. The concrete demands – for $15 an hour and the right to unionise – provide the campaign with a focus. The Occupy movement by contrast had very few, vague demands.

In a sector noted for its determination to suppress union activity, this struggle needs the ability to mobilise experience and resources for a prolonged campaign that a union provides.

The security provided by a collective union organisation is vital to prevent the witch hunting and victimisation of militants in the workplace. Equally, since it’s these militants and their co-workers who are risking their jobs, they should fight for democratic control over every aspect of their struggle – from its aims and methods to its conclusion.

Britain’s no different

This goes for the struggle against Zero Hour contracts in the UK. Although primarily found in the retail sector, around 300,000 care workers are employed on these terms.

While it has traditionally been difficult to organise the mainly young workers in this sector, the economic crisis may offer new opportunities. With youth unemployment at 20 per cent and a decline in student numbers, more and more people are forced to stay in precarious jobs because they have no other option.

Zero hour contracts are used by bosses to maintain a large reserve workforce on the cheap which is used to put downwards pressure on wages and discipline workers who know that any wrong move could see their hours cut. If necessary you can be given literally zero hours, and effectively sacked without the company having to go through the legal hassle.

This lets the bosses get away with exploiting their workers to the hilt. Most retail workers are expected to turn up early (unpaid) and stay late to cash up and clean (unpaid). Bullying and sexual harassment is common and those who complain are replaced with employees more concerned with keeping their job than enforcing their democratic rights.

The courage of US workers making a stand for fair pay and union rights is an example that we should emulate in Britain.

Retail workers here whose minimum wage jobs don’t meet the official poverty line have just as much need for a Living Wage and the right to organise unions without intimidation by management.

We can start by fighting for the London and national Living Wage, or the trade union rate for all workers.

To challenge zero hour contracts we need to challenge the bosses’ control over setting shift patterns. Instead of making someone work a 50 or 60 hour week, share out the hours amongst all those who need them, and pay a living wage regardless of how many hours are worked.

This will go some way to challenging insecurity and low pay in the workplace, but it won’t end exploitation, poverty or unemployment.

To do that we need to go further and fight for full democratic control of the entire economy.

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