Fast Food Workers to Go on Strike Across U.S. – by Eric

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newsToday, 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.

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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.

 

2 comments


    Dan Beltaigne

    August 29, 2013

    To the IMH Readers,

    What strikes me most profoundly about this article is what appears to me to be a similarity between what workers are experiencing with the SEIU and what workers experienced here in Wisconsin in their efforts to undo Gov. Walker’s anti-union legislation. In my view, what doomed such efforts was that all such activities became focused on the single goal of recalling Gov. Walker and his Republican legislative cohorts. The blame for the disaster this turned out to be here in Wisconsin lies squarely in the lap of the Democratic Party and their cohorts in the union bureaucracies. A movement cannot be built on a one shot recall election any more than a union can be operated like your ordinary everyday business. Unions like movements grow and succeed because of the relationships those individuals and groups of individuals establish between themselves. It is this that labor leaders have completely lost sight of, and, more importantly—because it is so important—want rank and file to lose sight of.

    My take from Eric’s article is that SEIU labor bureaucrats are only interested in narrowing the activities and creativity of rank and file to singular events like this big one day strike. What is evident is that rank and file is striving to exercise the very creativity the bureaucrats are trying to stifle. The struggle that all workers face, union and non-union alike, is not only the bosses but their own labor leaders. This, of course, is nothing new, but the situation today is wrought with so many unprecedented challenges that the most important activity that workers can engage in is thinking of new ideas—the one thing, it seems, that the union bureaucrats don’t want out of their rank and file.

    Eric

    August 29, 2013

    Dan,

    Thank you for drawing this parallel between the experience of union workers in Wisconsin and that of fast food workers who the SEIU has mobilized for this strike. Your points on the importance of workers exercising their creativity and building relationships among themselves are well taken. This is something that workers, at least in Seattle, are actively working to do, in spite of the lack of encouragement, and, in some ways, discouragement coming from the SEIU and the groups it is funding.

    However, I would like to clarify a point that I may not have emphasized enough in the article; that this strike and the events leading up to it would not have happened without the support and funding of the SEIU. As a fast food worker I am thankful for the SEIU’s great gift to the cause, but I believe workers should IN NO WAY feel indebted to the SEIU or its agenda. Instead, we should take this opportunity take more radical action than the SEIU could hope to even conceive of. I would like to think that this was at least a part of what the union intended by sparking this movement. The SEIU is concerned about its self preservation, but we workers, whose wages are not enough to survive on, have nothing to lose.

    Because I had planned a trip to see my family before I was informed of the strike date, I participated in today’s strike along side workers in Oakland, while allies in Seattle submitted the necessary paperwork to my employer. The action shut down a McDonald’s drive-through, and passionate voices were heard in both English and Spanish, from speakers young and old, proclaiming their right to a fair wage and workplace policies that respected their human dignity. But further action was possible that was not taken. Had the strike been organized more democratically, if the mic had been opened for workers to speak, we might have occupied that McDonald’s and prevented it from doing business that day. We might have entered all the fast food restaurants in that area (there were many) and offered the workers in them a chance to hand their boss a strike form with one hundred other workers at their backs. We might have formed small working groups and brainstormed ideas for further actions and other ways to organize and resist oppression in our workplaces.

    These were things I did not see at the strike today. But what I did see was incredibly valuable. I saw a diverse group of workers of different ethnicities, from different stores, even from different cities and their allies meeting one another and experiencing the power and possibilities of collective action. The value of this must not be underestimated. If we act now, we will find that this strike and the actions leading up to it have created a strong foundation for us to stand on to pursue future grassroots organizing. And as we continue to practice these types of actions, we will need the help of theoretical experts to help give them meaning and ensure these actions are moving us in the right direction, towards freedom and, most importantly, justice.

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