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Fast Food workers supersize their strikes

The struggle for a living wage has gone national, hitting 1,000 shops in nearly 58 cities across the USA. KD Tait reports

On 29 August thousands of workers walked out in the biggest wave of strikes to hit the US fast food industry. Workers are fighting for $15 an hour and the right to unionise without intimidation or victimisation. The 24-hour strikes, kicked off in New York City last November, have spread to Denver, Los Angeles, Houston and Seattle.

In an industry that employs 2.4 million workers, the total number of strikers is low, but this is the largest wave of industrial action ever seen in a sector infamous for its union-busting practices.

Fast food workers, many of them migrants and women, have every right to be angry. They earn an average $9.50 an hour. The average pay for workers on the counter is just $8.94 an hour – compared to the widely derided national minimum wage of $7.25.

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.

For this workers have to put up with regular workplace injuries, and most franchisees skew shift patterns to ensure workers are employed just below the threshold that requires employers to pay health insurance.

Poverty pay is big business

From wage theft to erratic schedules and arbitrary sacking, workers face a host of attacks while the bosses are making very big profits.

In 2011 McDonald’s made $5.5 billion, Burger King $625 million and the parent company of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC took $458 million – a 73 per cent spike on the previous year.

McDonalds recently published an online “budget guide” to “help” its workers. Its plan helpfully did not include costs of heating, 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 a total of 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 patterns is also used to discipline workers.

Industry bosses have no intention of conceding to workers’ demands, insisting they offer “competitive” rates. Yes indeed! But this competition is between workers to see who will work for less – a race to the bottom. And this is inevitable if workers are not allowed to organise in trade unions.

Poverty wages and insecure working conditions, which make family life and saving or planning for the future very difficult are strong incentives for workers to join the unionisation drive. The spiralling cost of living, which sees hundreds of thousands of workers forced to go without health insurance and supplement their wages with food stamps, only fuels their anger.


Small victories build momentum

More and more workers have been joining the strikes – which have now spread to retail chains like Macy’s and Victoria’s Secret. Behind this lies the small victories won by workers in individual franchises. These range from greater control over shift patterns, to restoring tip jars and even small wage increases.

Although fear of victimisation remains a powerful disincentive for many workers, the example of workers and union activists in St Louis shows that workers can fight back; when a manager sacked a union member, supporters turned up, blockaded the drive-in, occupied the counter and forced the manager to reinstate the worker on the spot.

The movement has a long way to go to winning $15 an hour but so far workers empowered by taking on the bosses show no sign of giving in until they win a living wage – and the right to organise to defend their jobs and conditions.

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