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USA: Strike wave shakes up fast-food chains

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Strike wave shakes up fast-food chains

Since April, workers campaigning for better wages and the right to unionize 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 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 unionization 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, part time, and temporary jobs, the difficulty in building viable trade-union organizations has left bosses free to cream off huge profits by paying poverty wages.

Fast-food workers in the USA 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 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 isn’t 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 labor movement that has seen only rare outbreaks of industrial action during the economic crisis – notably the mobilizations in Wisconsin and elsewhere against privatization 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 meager wages.

These precarious workers are not, as some claim, a “new class” but a part of the working class, one whose struggles can inspire other sections of workers to organize 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 organize 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, organizers have emphasized 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 organizers to the campaigns; this active solidarity is vital to demonstrating the power that collective organization can deliver.

The fast-food workers are right to pick up the demand that the chains accept their right to freely organize a trade union – such an organization 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 firings, winning the right to unionize 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 more long term and permanent gains – i.e., 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 much harder struggle. It requires democratic unions where the rank and file exercises 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 organize 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.