On November 29, workers at dozens of fast food restaurants in New York City walked off the job, formed pickets outside, and raised demands for higher wages, better hours, and union rights. It was a truly inspiring moment to see workers who suffer silently in the margins come forward to speak up for themselves.
Many people think that fast food jobs are just for youth looking to make some extra cash, but there are nearly 50,000 fast food workers in New York City, and for many its their only means of earning income for themselves and their families.
Fast food work is more than just flipping burgers. Workers in fast food kitchens have to deal with workplace hazards like hot grease that often burns them, and most have the scars to prove it. They work for minimum wage at $7.25 per hour, and many depend on food stamps and other government assistance. With so little weekly take-home pay, some are forced to live in shelters. In fact, McDonalds is reported to have recruited workers at homeless shelters.
In Midtown Manhattan, where workers from Burger King, Wendys, KFC, and other restaurants walked out, the super-exploitation of fast food workers stands side by side with all the glitz and glamour of New York Citys high-end commerce, shopping, and tourism.
But now these heroic workers are taking a stand, and socialists give them our unconditional support. Its part of a campaign called Fast Food Forward, backed by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and New York Communities for Change (NYCC), and it is the biggest attempt ever to organize fast food workers.
One of their demands is for pay of $15 per hour. This is significant, as many low-wage battles have called for much more modest pay increases. By asking for $15, theyre saying much more than that they want a little more. The message is: We deserve a living wage. In truth, $15 per hour in New York City is not enough to live on for many, especially those with families, but its an enormous step in that direction.
And they are not the only ones taking bold measures to fight for better conditions. On Black Friday, there were actions at upwards of 1,000 Walmarts across the country, with workers demanding union rights, no retaliation for speaking up, better hours, and $13/hour pay. These actions were also not just one-off events but were part of an on-going campaign of Walmart workers.
Fast food companies are expected to bring in $200 billion in revenue this year. Walmarts revenue in 2011 was $477 billion, with $15.7 billion of that as pure profit. The Walmart family alone now owns as much wealth as the entire bottom 40% of families in the U.S. This obscene wealth is not made by smart businesspeople making smart business decisions; it comes off the backs of their workers, who are rewarded for their hard work with poverty wages.
Here in New York, there have also been a number of battles recently to organize low-wage workers, predominantly among immigrants. Six grocery stores have been organized in Brooklyn. There are now four recently unionized car washes, as well. They are fighting for higher wages and back pay. Also, recently workers at a Hot & Crusty Bakery staged an occupation and 55-day picket to win union recognition. These are examples of the new self-organizing of workers for action with the support of the community. Their employers caved because of their bold action.
But fast food companies and Walmart are much bigger employers and enormously powerful corporations that have fought and will continue to fight tooth and nail to prevent a union from forming. The actions received media attention all across the country and even forced McDonalds to issue a statement saying they were committed to dialogue to be an even better employer. Do they really expect us to believe that? But winning will take more than just bad publicity.
Need for Broad, United Action
A strategy is needed for highly coordinated actions on a truly massive scale if were going to bring these corporations to heel. Well need strikes and walkouts at hundreds of fast food stores with visible pickets outside everywhere, backed up by Occupy and trade union activists and other supporters. This will require preparation and the workers themselves taking ownership of their struggle by forming their own workplace committees and linking them together to develop a strategy and coordinate action.
The struggle at these massive companies should be linked to the local campaigns in a united fight-back. Imagine if there were rolling walkouts at hundreds of restaurants, shops, grocery stores, and retail outlets all across the city demanding an across-the-board wage increase and union recognition for all!
We can also have no faith in the Democrats, who, like the Republicans, are a party of Wall Street and big business. Mayoral hopefuls, like Democratic City Councilor Christine Quinn, may make gestures of support for fast food workers but, like Quinn, theyre deep in the back pocket of rich business owners.
We need action in the streets and a voice in the electoral arena. Another way to take this struggle forward would be to run slates of independent working-class candidates for city council seats and mayor in 2013 who will run on a platform of living-wage jobs and union rights for all and use the campaign as a collective voice for defending the struggle of low-wage workers.
Despite the corporate character of the Democratic Party, the defeat of the right wing in the 2012 elections gives workers confidence. None of the underlying problems that gave birth to the Occupy movement has been solved, and 2013 is likely to be a year of renewed and potentially explosive struggles in the U.S.
The army of the low-wage workforce is a sleeping giant that, when roused, could strike a mighty blow at the 1%. These younger, energetic class fighters could also provide fresh blood to revitalize the labor movement as organizations of class struggle instead of class collaboration.
It may be too early to say that were on the cusp of a low-wage worker rebellion, but one thing is for certain: This type of resistance is the music of the future. Right now, low-wage workers struggles should be a rallying point for Occupy activists looking to fight for the 99%, for trade unionists who are seeking to reinvigorate the labor movement, and for everyone who is ready to fight for the interests of working people and youth.