Today, thousands of Fast Food workers across the nation are going on strike, protesting the exploitative conditions that are standard practice in the industry. I am one of those workers, existing at the point where the gears of the capitalist profit machine grind together. Today, I am striking with my fellow workers to try and effect change at the Jimmy John’s store where I work, but also to stand in solidarity with fast food workers around the nation who experience a variety of injustices in their work places every day.
The Responsibility Rests at the Top
This national strike is a dramatic statement against the practices of the fast food industry, but also an indispensable tactic for fast food workers to create change. The size and scope of this demonstration is alone enough to ensure that it will raise national awareness of the plight of fast food workers. Already, the movement has begun to change the public discourse about these workers’ struggles and, with election season approaching, many politicians have become attracted to the issue.
However, this national strike is more than just a way to attract publicity. In fact, a national movement is the only way that workers can hope to make changes in an industry controlled by national and multinational corporations. The conditions we experience as fast food workers are systemic; imposed almost entirely by the corporations that control us, not by owners or managers at individual stores. Franchise owners and managers — good and bad — may alleviate slightly or (more often) exacerbate poor working conditions, but it is the corporations that create the conditions that result in worker exploitation so that they can profit from it.
Corporations that own fast food brands keep their franchises on a short leash. They set the operating procedures that franchises must follow, set the prices on supplies and store decorations that they force franchises to buy from them, and reap a significant portion of the profits that their franchises produce. In other words, “Corporations that back fast-food restaurants add significant costs to franchisees’ operations. McDonalds makes almost a third of its annual revenue from franchisees.” <http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505124_162-57599405/fast-food-workers-urged-to-stage-nationwide-strike/>
These corporations enlist franchisees and store managers to insulate them from the workers, whose labor power is exploited for profit, and from the media. Storeowners and managers serve as both executors and as unwitting apologists for the exploitative practices of the corporation. These managers insist to their workers and the media that their stores run on very thin profit margins that leave no room to pay their workers more than the minimum wage, much the less the living wage of $15 per hour that workers demand. This is a reality created by the corporation, which siphons off much of the surplus value created by the workers, leaving just enough to pay for the modest bonuses enjoyed by managers and some returns on the investment of the franchise owner. When managers force or encourage workers to work through breaks or secretly adjust downward the records of hours worked, they do so often to meet the demands imposed on them by the corporation. Even if the corporation explicitly denounces these practices, their policies ensure that these instances of wage theft will continue to occur, and that much of these stolen wages will become their profits.
Unfortunately, the practices of these corporations are emulated by some smaller, local chains as well. Sometimes, violations can be even more egregious, since smaller chains have less to lose and fewer employees, meaning a smaller risk of workers speaking out and exposing these practices. In Seattle, for example, workers at small coffee chains exclusive to the city have reported that their experiences are similar or worse than those of workers at the mega-chain Starbucks.
The Experience of Striking
Though it’s hard to say what real changes this strike will bring about for fast food workers, these efforts have already been successful in helping fast food workers begin to advocate for themselves more effectively. The high turnover rate in the fast food industry is one of the greatest challenges for organizers, as well as one of the strongest weapons for managers. After working at Jimmy John’s for a year, less than half of the staff I knew when I was hired still work at the store. This makes it very difficult to build the relationships of trust that are the needed groundwork discussions about injustice and eventually organized action. High turnover also fuels apathy among workers, who ask themselves “I won’t be in this job for long, what’s the point of taking action?” This nationwide strike is an opportunity for fast food workers to see that there are others who share their plight and are willing and able to take a stand against it. Furthermore, with the recession continuing, income rates stagnating, and austerity measures taking effect, there’s no reason to expect that many fast food workers won’t remain in low wage jobs. This strike will help many workers realize that it is possible even for fast food workers to take collective action effectively and to organize across franchises, paving the way for a more organized labor force.
For me, preparing for the strike has facilitated some big steps forward in organizing my own workplace in a very short time, and engaging in conversations with fellow workers that I was unsure I would ever have. I had been following the movement as it spread across the nation after fast food workers in New York went on strike last November. But even when workers went on strike in May in Seattle, where I live and work, I was still unable to build a network of workers who were interested in participating.
I finally got involved with the movement at the end of July when I saw posters for a demonstration against wage theft in downtown Seattle organized by an advocacy group called Good Jobs Seattle. I attended the demonstration and participated in blocking off a downtown intersection for about 15 minutes before assembling on the street in front of a McDonald’s where fast food workers were given the opportunity to address the crowd. Workers spoke about being forced to work through breaks, having managers falsify their time clock records to meet labor cost projections, being unable to afford rent in Seattle on minimum wage, being limited to part time work by their employers and so on. Josh, a Jimmy John’s worker, lamented his employer’s lack of concern for his basic needs both inside and outside the workplace, proclaiming, “We deserve to be treated with the same respect as the owners of the businesses that employ us.”
While the words of these workers were inspiring, the best outcome of this action for me was being able to network with organizers from Good Jobs Seattle and other workers who were forming their own grassroots organizations. This network helped me get the resources and information I needed to participate in the August 29th strike and encourage others in my workplace to participate as well.
Whatever results from the strike, preparing for it with some of my fellow workers in my store has left us with a foundation for a network of advocates for change in our workplace.
SEIU Involvement and The Unexpected Outcomes of Venture Syndicalism
While this strike presents an unprecedented opportunity for fast food workers, in some ways it is problematic. Although there is a huge amount of grassroots enthusiasm and participation from workers that has fueled this movement, the spark was supplied by funding from the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU). The major actions thus far, including the August 29th strike, have been underpinned by planning and organizing carried out by a variety of groups, all of which are funded by money that originated from the SEIU.
The ways that SEIU involvement is problematic are neatly summed up by the experiences of workers who attended a conference funded by the SEIU to prepare for the strike. The conference brought workers from around the country to meet in Detroit, ostensibly to network and to obtain a consensus for the goals of the strike. However Seattle workers who came back from the conference reported that the program left little time for networking between workers and did not include opportunities for workers to develop ideas collectively or even to vote in an authentic way on the proposed plans for the strike. Instead of using the conference to get feedback from workers and create new ideas collectively, workers came back with a sense that they were simply force fed information and enthusiasm from the strike funders, which they were expected to regurgitate on strike day.
Despite the tendency of union influence to create a hierarchical structure in the movement, the trade union bureaucracy’s control over the movement is by no means total. Therefore, it is vitally important for radicals to continue to participate in the movement. The SEIU has created the fertile soil in which worker leaders and truly grassroots, democratic worker groups can grow that may defy the traditional structure of a union.
It is the job of the IMHO and its allies to use this opportunity to connect with workers and supply them with the theoretical understanding necessary for them formulate their own grassroots organizations and become leaders. As this campaign has raised awareness and has changed the discourse about fast food work in the public sphere, it is also raising workers’ awareness of the systemic nature of the conditions they face and of the fact that their experiences and frustrations are shared by many other workers in their communities, across the nation, and around the world. Now is the perfect time to employ the concept of a unity of theory and practice by allying with worker groups who are ready to form organizations that will last long past the day of the strike. I hope that this will be the legacy of today’s nationwide fast food strike.