Fast Food Workers in 236 Cities Pull Off Largest Strikes Yet as Other Low-wage Workers Join Fight

David Moberg

(Milwaukee Teachers Education Association / Flickr)

A hand-lettered placard, reading McDonald’s: Stop Fooling Around, $15 and a union,” caught the spirit of the crowd of at least 3,000 protestors in Chicago for a march to a McDonald’s restaurant in the downtown Loop area connected to the Chicago Board of Trade. In 236 cities in the U.S. and roughly 100 more around the world from Sao Paulo to New Zealand and from Glasgow to Tokyo, according to protest spokespeople, fast food and other low-wage workers joined together to pressure employers like McDonald’s to raise their workers’ pay.

Organizers claimed that it was the largest protest by low-wage workers in U.S. history. And it may very well rank as one of the broadest global worker protests ever undertaken against multinational corporations — one reinforced by recent investigations and lawsuits in Europe against the company for violations of labor, health, safety, tax and other laws.

With its intense public relations campaign, the campaign amplifies the actions of fast food workers — some of whom walk off their assigned shifts as in a traditional strike. For brand-sensitive consumer product companies, many organizers believe, such bad publicity can cost companies greatly — and potentially open up new organizing possibilities.

These protests have also changed the political climate, both locally and nationally. Seattle and Sea-Tac in Washington and San Francisco have raised their minimum to $15 an hour. The same change may be possible sometime soon in both Los Angeles and the District of Columbia. In Chicago, politically embattled Mayor Rahm Emanuel agreed under political pressure to raise the minimum to $13 over several years — far above what he would have contemplated a short while ago. The movement is likely to keep pressure over the coming year on Democratic candidates, even presidential aspirant Hillary Clinton, to advocate the higher pay levels.

Some established unions have played key roles in building this movement over the past two and a half years, most notably the Service Employees International Union — which has largely staffed and bankrolled the Fight for $15, but also by unions such as the United Food and Commercial Workers, the initiator of OURWalmart, and in Chicago, the small but militant United Electrical Workers, who founded Warehouse Workers for Justice. WWJ members — including some from a warehouse/​assembly plant in the Chicago suburbs that makes paper cups for McDonald’s — joined in the April 15 rally.

The ranks of the April 15 rally expanded with the participation of workers from many industries beyond fast foods, such as home care and day care workers, student and college campus workers, airport workers and many more (many of them existing or potential SEIU members). Raising the minimum to $15 an hour would help nearly all of them. But conditions for workers in many of these low-wage industries are also worsened by management practices, such as employing many part-time workers, some of whom have erratic schedules and income. 

For example, full-time UPS workers typically start at around $18 an hour, but part-timers usually make only around $11 an hour, even though they all belong to the Teamsters union. Indeed, as the Fight for $15 movement expands, it is picking up support from many workers who have low-wages despite having union contracts. Even starting assembly workers or parts plant workers in a traditionally high-wage and unionized industry such as automobile manufacturing would benefit from setting a $15 benchmark for pay.

Darrel Tucker, 52, started work part-time for UPS at $8 an hour in New York when he was recruited by a temp agency from his temporary home in a shelter. Now he has advanced to a full-time slot at close to $19 an hour. One of the reasons I’m involved is I understand what it’s like to struggle to make ends meet,” he says, although he still relies on publicly subsidized housing in high-rent New York.

Indeed, one of the reasons that the demonstration was called on Tax Day” was to emphasize how much low-wage workers rely on public services provided by taxpayers as a result of employers, such as McDonald’s, not paying adequately, as a recent report from the University of California at Berkeley revealed. 

Work should pay enough for a decent life, SEIU president Mary Kay Henry said at an early morning protest in the San Francisco bay area, and protesting workers found allies joining them in mutual support from religious groups, community organizations, and social justice movements, such as #BlackLivesMatter.

Tim Sylvester, president of Tucker’s Local 804 of the Teamsters and a candidate for the international union presidency, says he encouraged his members to participate on April 15 because member-to-member mobilization is the best way to show corporations we have the power.”

Fight for $15 is still largely a movement of workers without a formal and legally recognized union structure. But they are a union in deed if not name by virtue of their direct, collective actions and their ideas. Indeed, their daring act of setting what seemed an implausible goal of virtually doubling most of the country’s base wage in one giant leap, not with timid incremental steps, inspired workers around the country. 

The worst-paid workers in America have been the mainly silent and most extreme victims of the rising inequality and wage stagnation for the past 40 years in America. Their occupations have also been — and are projected to be — the fastest growing part of the workforce. According to recent research by the National Employment Law Project, around 42 percent of all workers earn less than $15 an hour. 

Disproportionately young, female and people of color, they are both the least unionized workers in the country and typically the most sympathetic to the idea of forming a union, even if they have little direct experience with organized labor. They have also long been seen as a fluid, unstable workforce that would be extremely difficult to organize.

But many have shown that they are willing to act, even if they don’t have a majority with them, and through those actions win support not only from co-workers but also from the general public. They are putting the passion and impulsiveness of youth behind a moral project that has inspired widespread recognition of the legitimacy of their demands. 

They have had to overcome the skepticism of many and the inaccurate dismissal of their work as simply temporary, unskilled, and teen-ager, entry-level work that didn’t deserve decent wages. For example, one ex-military colleague of Tucker’s said that McDonald’s workers should not be paid wages that would be higher than many more experienced and skilled workers, especially since many of them couldn’t even take his order correctly.

But don’t tell that to Nancy Salgado, 28, single mother and college student studying psychology, and a long-time McDonald’s worker in Chicago. She witnessed how year after year the corporation makes lots of money but workers don’t. So you don’t notice it when you’re living in your own little world. But seeing other workers and understanding their struggle is my strength. After all, $15 an hour is not a rich life, just a way to pay the rent and bills.”

For many years, there has been a widespread sentiment that fast-food and other low-wage service workers would be impossible to organize. SEIU, later AFSCME, and a few other unions have made progress, especially with those whose pay comes from government sources (such as home health care givers). Serendipitously, on April 15, Good Jobs Nation was also formally demanding that Congress act on the federal government’s shameful record as the largest direct or indirect employer of low-wage workers in the country, as huge numbers of its contractors pay minimum wage.

The question is still open for debate in the private sector. For example, the Communications Workers have started a drive to organize bank workers, whose jobs are unstable and poorly paid in the U.S., but unionized, more skilled and much better paid relative to national standards throughout most of the world. Yet it is unquestionably difficult in the U.S. as the long-running campaign of the UFCW to organize Walmart has found.

Organizers are by necessity wildly hopeful and prepared for the worst at the same time. One continuing question arises about campaigns such as Fight for $15: Can the labor movement make the conversion from a populist movement to a self-sustaining workplace organization? Is there an endgame” to the very effective but also very expensive campaign, an endgame that results in unionization? That, after all, is the oft-forgotten half of the Fight for $15 — and a Union (without management interference).

A union is very important,” Salgado says. We’re not only fighting for $15 an hour but also to form a union without retaliation. Having money without a union means we’re still not protected, because we don’t have any security.” She expects McDonald’s to fight back, but says the recent raise won’t fool many workers. They’re just trying to calm us down.” 

Salgado is not easily calmed partly because she recognizes that even after she graduates from college, she might still have difficulty finding a job in her chosen field and may have to rely on jobs like those at McDonald’s. And the mutual support she found in the movement helps to give her greater understanding of the importance of what she and others are doing. 

We’re all leaders in this fight,” she says. We are all committed to change our lives.”

David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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