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Fast Food Strike

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Read Josh Eidelson’s piece on fast food strikes. Fast food workers in seven cities will engage in one-day strikes over the next 4 days, starting with New York today. Among other things, they are arguing for a hike in the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Eidelson includes a lot of good stories from workers about their struggles. I want to focus on his larger implications though:

Whether workers can transform that industry – rather than just hoping to rise within in – has big implications for labor’s future. First, because fast food jobs are increasingly representative of US work: poor compensation, little job security, a constant expectation to put on a happy face for customers, and virtually no unions.

And second, because – following a decades-long economic, judicial, and political attack – the campaign’s strategy represents some of the ways organizers are attempting to break free from a strategic box labor’s been left in to die. Among them: Given the law’s failure to meaningfully compel companies to bargain collectively even when workers want to, and the limits of slick anti-corporate P.R. campaigns that don’t deeply involve workers, some low-wage non-union workers are taking up the strike. Facing changes that have made strikes more risky and less effective, they’re mounting short-term strikes by a minority of the workforce designed to ignite further activism, embarrass management, and engage the public, while reducing (but not eliminating) the risk the workers will lose their jobs.

Those strikes anchor and amplify a range of other comprehensive campaign efforts, from criminal charges filed by Seattle workers over alleged “wage theft,” to a full-court media press to embarrass McDonald’s over the budget calculator it offered its low-wage workers. Jonathan Westin, who directs New York’s Fast Food Forward campaign, told Salon he doubts that national TV outlets would have lingered on the budget story if workers hadn’t forced a debate about the industry by repeatedly going on strike. “The more and more workers continue to take action and continue to publicize their fight,” said Westin, “the more and more it starts to get at the fast food industry’s biggest asset, which is their name brand. And I think that’s what we’re beginning to see in a very real way.”

Maybe.

I am significantly less optimistic about the ability of these strikes to transform the labor movement. Wasn’t Wisconsin supposed to bring collective bargaining rights back into the public conversation? Didn’t Occupy have the potential to usher in a new workers’ movement? Wasn’t the WTO protests in Seattle the beginning of a new era of environmentalists and labor working together? You can find a lot of articles from the time saying all of these things.

It’s a positive development, no doubt. But I’d really need to see some concrete results before thinking that a few workers engaging in one-day strikes across the country has much meaning to the nation as a whole.

Still, you never know what spark is going to change the world. These strikes are wholly positive and eventually my pessimism will be shown incorrect. Or at least I hope it will.

That doesn’t mean the fast food strikes are not beginning to scare companies though. The Employment Policies Institute ran this full-page ad (PDF) in today’s issue of USA Today to attack the idea of raising the minimum wage. What made me laugh about it was the text suggesting that a higher minimum wage would force employers to replace workers with machines, which they are already doing anyway. This is the minimum wage version of environmental job blackmail, when employers look to scare workers by saying that environmentalists will steal the jobs that employers are already planning to eliminate. Of course, the companies aren’t ready to replace all their workers with machines yet and so a $15 minimum wage does scare them enough to advertise in national newspapers.

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