More than 1,300 fast-food workers gathered in Chicago last weekend to strategize ways to win a $15 an hour minimum wage and the right to form a union without harassment by their employer. Yesterday, the National Labor Relations Board’s general counsel issued a ruling that could greatly help those workers and their peers form a union — if the courts do not reverse it.
The counsel, Richard Griffin, ruled that McDonald’s could be considered a co-employer alongside the franchisee who licenses the right to run a restaurant under McDonald’s corporate guidelines. Companies like McDonald’s have long argued that the franchisees alone are the employers, making them responsible for any resistance to worker organizing, policies on pay, and other personnel practices. According to David Weil, a former economics professor at Boston University and author of The Fissured Workplace, this strategy allows the corporation to profit at the expense of staff and franchisees — and to exercise power without being held responsible for what happens to workers.
If the ruling stands, workers will have stronger legal grounds for pressuring McDonald’s to remain neutral — and, in turn, keep franchisees neutral — on allowing workers to decide on a large scale whether they want a union. It could also hold McDonald’s liable for management decisions made at standalone restaurants around the country.
The NLRB decision gave a boost to the actions taken last weekend, when hundreds of fast-food workers arrived in Chicago for the first-ever Fight for 15 convention. They had traveled from metropolitan areas all over the country to affirm the movement’s two goals: a $15 hourly minimum wage and the right to form a union without retaliation. And over the course of Friday evening and Saturday, they hammered out a strategy for the future that includes expanded organizing, increased focus on corporate operations and acts of civil disobedience.
From its beginnings nearly two years ago in New York, the Fight for 15 campaign — one of several names for the fast-food worker movement — has generally relied upon short strikes to draw public and managerial attention to their demands. These guerrilla disruptions have not attempted to organize one workplace at a time; rather, workers want to use them to change their industry. And while convention attendees vowed to continue the strikes if necessary, the group also promised in an overwhelmingly approved final resolution to “step up our campaign to build a better future … Like those who came before us, we are ready to engage in non-violent direct action if it is necessary to make large corporations hear us.”
Such “direct action,” which could include blockading roads around CEOs’ houses or other forms of disruption, may lead the campaign to resemble the Civil Rights movement as much as a push for labor rights.
Fittingly, the Fight for 15 convention was not a typical union gathering. Indeed, the movement is not yet an official union. Though there are some citywide organizing committees, regional organizations and a national organizing committee, it has no dues-paying members, contracts, locals or other familiar features. The Service Employees International Union has heavily supported it with money and staff, but it is not technically part of SEIU.
The energized workers present — men and women in roughly equal proportions — were young and predominantly African-American, with a strong Latino contingent. Instead of parliamentarians keeping order, there were hip-hop enthusiasts keeping the beat. Most were veterans of at least one local strike, who spoke with their counterparts from around the country about how they had been inspired by the budding movement to take action on their own behalf.
Las Vegas resident Kiersten Varrette, a recent high school graduate working at KFC, told In These Times that his first thought when he saw fast-food workers striking was, “Wow, this is amazing. Why haven’t I heard of this?”
“I didn’t know anything about striking then,” he continued. “Now I believe we actually can take on $15 for fast food workers and win.”
That slogan — “I believe that we will win” — was frequently invoked throughout the weekend, as was “Whatever it takes.” Strategists wanted to use the convention to turn these enthusiastic participants into more active leaders and organizers, and to help them develop a political, historical, economic and even moral perspective on their work.
“We are focused on getting workers to be leaders in their own establishments, to talk to co-workers and to get them to join the fight,” said Armando Moreno, 21, a Jack-In-The-Box worker from Houston who is part of the national organizing committee. Leaders at the convention encouraged those present to expand an existing strategy among the movement: once they gain supporters at one fast-food operation, employees should “adopt” a nearby store and spreading the word.
Like most fast-food workers, the emerging leaders meeting in Chicago said they often have trouble paying their bills when their hourly rates are at or slightly above the minimum wage. Research from Demos and other think tanks shows that fast-food chain employees, like associates at big-box stores such as Walmart, rely heavily on public subsidy programs to make ends meet.
But many of those in the movement are motivated by a vision that goes beyond their immediate needs. They are conscious of how much money executives make in the companies where they’re employed — how, for example, it would take each of them more than 1 million hours of work to earn what McDonald’s pays its CEO in a year. And they often recognize that they are responsible for taking in hundreds of times as much in sales each hour than they earn in wages.
“They’re making money on top of money,” one speaker said during a floor discussion of leadership development. “Why can’t they pay me more? That’s not hurting the economy.”
Indeed, as SEIU president Mary Kay Henry told the crowd, most fast-food restaurant workers in Denmark earn the equivalent of $21 an hour; Australian workers, who have union contracts with U.S.-based fast-food corporations start at the equivalent of $15 an hour. These franchises flourish, charging prices comparable to those on American fast-food menus. Still, fast-food franchise owners and managers have raised doubts among even some Fight for 15 workers by claiming they would close or replace humans with robots if wages went to $15 an hour.
To develop stronger personal ties and effectively combat doubts like these, organizers encouraged convention attendees to sit at tables and talk with their peers from other parts of the country. Speakers reminded them of their global influence, encouraging them to see their fight for others as well as for themselves. Henry told them that 2.1 million SEIU members supported them, adding that their fight was taking on a rich elite who were worsening the lives of all working people.
“You know and SEIU members know that while the super-rich are rigging the system to their own selfish benefit,” she told the crowd, “working-class families are getting crushed.”
One delegate, speaking from the floor during a discussion, said, “I’ve got three kids and a wife who’s very sick, and we have no healthcare. We’re fighting for our kids. We have to have the mindset that we’re willing to crush these corporations for our kids.”
Other attendees, too, told In These Times that they’ve been inspired by their families during the struggle. Yadira Rodriguez, 21, now works in a McDonald’s in California where her mother has been employed for seven years. As a daughter and women’s right advocate, Rodriguez has been pained by how the managers mistreat her mother. Now, though, her previously deferential mother has joined her in the Fight for 15 and a Union — pleasing Rodriguez immensely.
Rodriguez is also motivated, she continued, by the goal of working for a sound employer. “I want to feel human in my job,” she said, “that my voice is going to be heard, and that when I feel sick and worry about my customers getting sick, that I can take the day off.”
As increasing numbers fast-food workers publicly hold their industry to higher standards, many see their struggle as taking on a character that holds lasting social weight.
To that end, the convention also provided a historical framework for workers to understand the context of their fight. A documentary film made for the Saturday morning session showcased past civil rights and labor struggles; “Moral Monday” leader Rev. William Barbour gave an impassioned speech linking their battles to a rich past of social movements.
“The denial of your rights is morally indefensible, constitutionally inconsistent and economically insane,” he told the gathering. “That’s why this meeting is so important: You’re trying to teach America how to live, and to regain a moral compass.”
This more complex class-consciousness can become a reservoir of strength for the movement and for individuals. After Chicagoan Nancy Salgado was arrested at McDonald’s corporate headquarters last May, she said that she “felt powerful.”
“It was like Martin Luther King,” she continued. “We are willing to do whatever it takes to win — and that means whether or not I want to be part of history.”
“I want people 40 years from now to look back at the stuff onscreen and say I was a part of that,” 18-year-old Corey Donaldson said. “Is this history? Will my kids read about it?”
To be determined.
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. 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 has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.