Fast food strikers teach some important lessons

St. LOUIS – Over the past few months thousands of low-wage fast food workers have walked off their jobs at Hardees, Jimmy Johns, McDonalds, and dozens of other fast-food restaurants – at hundreds of locations – all across the country.

In New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit and other major cities – most recently, Seattle – they have demanded “$15 and a union.”

In most cases, fast food workers are making minimum wage. Some make $8, maybe $9 an-hour. Almost all work without benefits, sick time or paid vacation. They are some of the most exploited workers in our increasingly service sector driven economy. In fact, many work two or three jobs, while the industry as a whole rakes in billions in profits every year.

Additionally, “dignity and respect” is a major demand of all low-wage fast food workers. Favoritism, racism, and sexism are common practices in the industry, an industry with very high turnover and very little, if any, third party, independent mediation.

Remarkably, due to the overwhelming community, clergy and labor support, as well as the unity of the fast food workers themselves, very few have faced retaliation or reprisal from management. And where reprisals have occurred the community response has been swift and decisive.

The strikes and the communities’ response of support are important for at least three reasons.

First, the strikes have forced recalcitrant managers, franchise owners and restaurant CEO’s to take note and come to the realization that the community – labor, clergy, student, academic, etc. – intends to mediate low-wage fast-food worker grievances regardless of union recognition and in-spite of the relative ineffectiveness of the NLRB.

The significance of this should not be understated, as it demonstrates the power low-wage workers have when they are unified and working side-by-side with the broader movements for social and economic justice, especially the labor movement.

As someone who walked into a St. Louis area Jimmy Johns and a McDonalds with clergy, labor, and community representatives to deliver letters of intent – notifying management of the employees right to strike and informing them that we will not tolerate reprisals or retaliation – I am optimistic that this tactic of community third-party mediation is not only an exciting development, but is also an empowering one.

Second, the strike wave has hit the fast-food industry in its collective pocket book. If for no other reason, the strikes are important because managers, franchise owners and corporate CEOs are beginning to address at least some of the grievances brought to their attention, due to the loss in profits and bad publicity.

For example, here in St. Louis one local Jimmy Johns manager was forced to transfer to another store due to his treatment of employees. And at a Domino’s Pizza, the local manager called striking workers and asked them, ‘How much would it cost for you to never do this again?’ Their response was ‘$15 and a union.’

Which brings me to the third and possibly most important item: worker empowerment. The strike wave has empowered a whole new section of the working class to the possibility of collective action as a means to redress grievances.

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, in 2009 the service sector accounted for 79.6 percent of U.S. private-sector gross domestic product, or $9.81 trillion. At that time, services jobs accounted for more than 80 percent of U.S. private-sector employment, or 89.7 million jobs. Undoubtedly, the service sector’s dominance in our economy has continued to increase since 2009.

Empowering this sector, especially the lowest paid and least represented workers in this sector, is a key task of the labor movement and all of its allies moving forward, as upward pressure in the low-wage fast-food industry will raise wages in all service sector jobs.

Also significant is the fact that most service sector workers generally and low-wage fast-food workers specifically are women and people of color, people who have been historically denied the promise of the American Dream.

An offensive attack on the low-wage fast-food portion of the service sector is also objectively an attack against racism and sexism. Some commentators might miss this fact, but it should be widely understood that we cannot raise the working class into the commanding heights – politically or economically – without raising women, people of color and other specially oppressed groups out of poverty-wage jobs.

Empowering low-wage fast-food workers helps to accomplish that goal.

There will likely There will likely be more strikes as we move forward. New and different tactics and strategies will likely be used. The work isn’t done. But even in its infancy the fast food industry strikes have already taught us some important lessons.

Photo: Tony Pecinovsky/PW


Tony Pecinovsky
Tony Pecinovsky

Tony Pecinovsky is the author of "Let Them Tremble: Biographical Interventions Marking 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA" and author/editor of "Faith In The Masses: Essays Celebrating 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA." His forthcoming book is titled "The Cancer of Colonialism: W. Alphaeus Hunton, Black Liberation, and the Daily Worker, 1944-1946." Pecinovsky has appeared on C-SPAN’s "Book TV" and speaks regularly on college and university campuses across the country.