2013 Introduction

For most people in the U.S., the Occupy movement may be a fading memory, but the tremendous gulf between rich and poor that Occupy brought to the surface only continues to grow. No one knows more about the depths of poverty in the U.S. than the sprawling low-wage work force: serving food, stocking shelves, cleaning buildings, washing dishes, ringing up customers, and all the other basic services which keep this country running.

If minimum wage today had the same buying power as the minimum wage in 1968 it would be $10.55 an hour. Yet one in four workers in the U.S. are paid less than $10 an hour and most have no benefits or job security.1 The last three decades have seen a steady erosion of medium-income jobs with basic benefits, and the Great Recession that began in 2008 has destroyed millions more of these jobs.

But the fast food industry weathered the economic storm just fine. Yum! Brands (Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and KFC) and McDonald’s are the second and third largest employers in the country after Walmart. In the last four years, they saw profits increase by 45 percent and 130 percent, respectively.2 But while their shareholders’ banks accounts ballooned, their employees didn’t see an extra dime of those profits.

These days, fast food work is not done simply by teenagers who are looking for some extra spending cash, as is commonly believed. The median age of fast food workers is 28 years, and 32 years for women, who make up two-thirds of the fast food industry. And it’s more than just flipping burgers. Workers in fast food kitchens have to deal with hazards like hot grease, which often burns them, and they have the scars to prove it. Many depend on food stamps and other government assistance, and with so little weekly take-home pay some are even forced to live in shelters. In fact, McDonald’s is reported to have recruited workers at homeless shelters.

Because of the deepening crisis of the capitalist system and the drive of big business to defend their profits at the expense of the working class, low-wage jobs are becoming a bigger portion of the total economy. The vast majority of sectors expected to see job growth are low-wage, so there’s little to no hope of escaping poverty by climbing the ladder. For thousands if not millions of workers, this is the only work they can find. They struggle to make ends meet and it’s nearly impossible to raise a family on these low wages especially if you only make the federal minimum. Put simply, they “can’t survive on $7.25,” which is the main slogan of the new Fast Food Forward campaign.

Fast Food Workers in New York Fight Back

On November 29, 2012, 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 as part of the Fast Food Forward campaign. It was a truly inspiring moment to see workers who suffer silently in the margins come forward to speak up for themselves.

These heroic workers are taking a stand, and we, as socialists, give them our unconditional support. Fast Food Forward, backed by New York Communities for Change (NYCC), UnitedNY.org, the Black Institute, and SEIU, is the biggest attempt ever to organize fast food workers, and this is only the beginning in New York.

One of their demands is for $15 per hour in pay. This is significant, as many low-wage battles have called for much more modest pay increases. By asking for $15 they’re going beyond saying 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 some, especially those with families, but it’s an enormous step in that direction.

Fast food workers are not the only ones taking bold measures to fight for better conditions. On November 23, 2012, Black Friday, there were actions at upwards of 1,000 Walmarts across the country, with workers demanding no retaliation for speaking up, better hours, and $13 per hour in pay. These actions were not just one-off events, but are part of an on-going campaign of Walmart workers.

Taking On Corporate Giants

Fast food companies were expected to bring in $200 billion in revenue in 2012. Walmart’s revenues in 2011 totaled $477 billion with $15.7 billion of that being pure profit. The Walton family alone now owns more wealth than the entire bottom 42 percent of families in the U.S. This obscene wealth is not created by smart business people making smart business decisions; it comes off the backs of their highly exploited workers, who are rewarded for their hard work with poverty wages.

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, in September and October, 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 into action, backed by 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 and will continue to fight tooth and nail to prevent a union from forming. The fast food walkouts in November received media attention all across the country and even forced McDonald’s 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 it will take more than just bad publicity.

The Fast Food Forward campaign is a step in the right direction. Rather than organizing a single restaurant or chain, the campaign is aiming to organize the entire industry in New York City at once. If New York were organized it would set a major precedent for organizing fast food workers all around the country.

A dynamic strategy is needed to organize highly coordinated actions on a truly massive scale if we’re going to bring these corporations to heel. We’ll need strikes and walkouts at hundreds of fast food stores, with visible pickets outside every one, backed up by thousands of 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 a broader struggle to mobilize millions for a living wage and rights for all workers. Imagine if there were rolling walkouts at hundreds of restaurants, shops, groceries, and retail outlets all across the country demanding an across-the-board wage increase and union recognition for all!

Organizing Unions

By oneself, no worker, or even small group of workers, has any chance of taking on the bosses and these powerful corporations. But by uniting together in collective mass action, and by being prepared to walk off the job on a massive scale, workers can hit management where it really hurts: in their pocketbook. The strike as a tactic to pressure the bosses and force them to make concessions remains an essential weapon in the arsenal of workers’ struggles.

In order to make this a reality, workers need to form their own organizations which can collectively discuss strategy and carry out actions to defend their interests and take on the bosses. This is the basic idea of a union, and the history of the union movement has shown that when workers have unions they can win higher wages, benefits, job security, and a voice in the workplace.

There’s no question that the union movement today is saddled with problems. In the private sector, only 7 percent of workers have unions, and unions have been ineffective at defending workers against the decades-long onslaught on wages and rights. But this not a problem inherent to unions; it is a failure of the leadership of these unions. Most unions today are led by over-paid bureaucrats with six-figure salaries, who maintain their cushy careers by cutting rotten deals with bosses. This approach also extends to the political plane, where they weaken unions by supporting political parties following a corporate agenda: the Democrats, and at times Republicans.

The union leaders keep the membership largely demobilized instead of relying on the tremendous potential power of bring out their millions of members for bold action. When they do mobilize their members, it’s often only as an auxiliary to their usual strategy of negotiating with the boss, rather than seeing the power of conscious and mobilized members as the main weapon in the struggle to force the boss to concede to the demands of the members.

At times, the union leaders also redirect the energy of the union members in a vain attempt to make the corporate-funded Democrats into “friends of labor.” Fast food workers, while energetically participating in campaigns to fight for higher wages and linking up with unions, should at the same time be somewhat wary of the union leadership using some of these actions as a launching pad for supporting Democrats in the 2013 local elections and 2014 midterm elections.

The key to building strong unions is for the workers to build strong local organizing committees where they discuss issues and make the key decisions – not giving up that power to top-down decision-making by union leadership. Low-wage workers should also reach out to seek assistance from existing unions and union-backed organizations, prioritizing linking up with their rank-and-file members. But at the same time, they should insist on organizing their own workplace committees and having a democratic say in how their fight is waged.

Equally important will be mobilizing wider support from workers in other workplaces and industries, community members, labor activists, and Occupy activists. This can build much-needed solidarity with the broader community and working class in order to build a truly massive movement that is strong enough to take on the powerful fast-food corporations.

The Role of Democrats

Workers can only rely on their own collective strength. Working-class movements should have no faith in Democrats, who like the Republicans are a party of Wall Street and big business. In New York City, for example, the mayoral hopeful and current Democratic city councilor, Christine Quinn, has made gestures of support for fast food workers, seeking to tap the support of workers for her 2013 election bid. But Quinn is deep in the back pockets of rich business owners. She even opposes legislation requiring employers to give all workers sick pay. So how can she be trusted to support a living wage? This method of operations employed by Democratic Party politicians is repeated in city after city.

In 2008, Obama made an election promise to raise the minimum wage to $9.50 by 2011. $9.50 an hour is still not enough to get by, but even that modest promise was broken. The federal minimum is still $7.25 and there’s little indication that Obama plans to do anything about it in his second term.

Workers need to rely on their numeric strength and the social power that comes with their role as the true wealth creators, as the economic foundation of the capitalist system. This power should not be delivered to corporate politicians at the ballot box. A far better way to impact government policies would be to run independent candidates who publicly challenge the corporate agenda. Slates of independent working-class candidates need to be run across the county as a step towards building a new working-class party in the U.S.

A Sleeping Giant

Despite the corporate character of the Democratic Party, the defeat of the right wing in the 2012 elections is likely to give workers some confidence. The struggles in Wisconsin and the emergence of Occupy Wall Street in 2011 show a new mood of struggle emerging among the 99%. None of the underlying problems that gave birth to the Occupy movement have been solved, and 2013 is likely to be a year of renewed and potentially explosive struggles in the U.S.

The huge mass of low-wage workers is like a sleeping giant that when roused could strike a mighty blow at the 1% and help radically transform U.S. society. These young, energetic class fighters can also provide essential fresh energy to revitalize the labor movement as organizations of class struggle, not class collaboration. Having been through the experience of what capitalism in the 21st century means – i.e. low wage jobs and miserable working conditions – their growing confidence and class consciousness can also provide increased support for democratic socialism as an alternative to this failing capitalist system.

It may be too early to say that we’re 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, and right now low-wage workers’ struggles should be an important rallying point for Occupy activists looking to fight for the 99%. Trade unionists looking to reinvigorate the labor movement and others looking to fight for the interests of working people and youth should join this struggle to help build a powerful movement among fast food workers.

Lesson of the Past

There is no blueprint for organizing unions and fighting for better conditions, but there is a rich history of workers’ struggles and many lessons learned. This pamphlet is about an experience of workers attempting organize a Pizza Hut store in Tacoma, Washington in 2003. Though this took place over 10 years ago, and while it was eventually defeated by a vicious anti-union campaign by Pizza Hut, Socialist Alternative is republishing this pamphlet because the lessons drawn out from this struggle still hold true and are perhaps even more relevant today.

Manifesto of the Fast Food Worker includes a description of the history of the fast food industry and how major companies get away with paying such low wages while raking in such huge profits. It discusses the need for unions and how to organize them while answering the lies that bosses will inevitably tell their workers to scare them away from organizing.

At the end of this pamphlet, there is also a chapter on how the root cause of low wages and poverty is the whole system of capitalism itself, and thus the need to link a struggle for union rights and higher wages to a struggle for democratic socialism. We’ve also added a short piece in the beginning written by Ryan Mosgrove, a young worker whose experience in the low-wage service sector led him to become an activist and a socialist in order to fight not only the boss, but also capitalism itself.

No experience is exactly the same, but many of the ABCs of union organizing in fast food and the low-wage service sector in general can be found in the pages of this pamphlet, and we hope that low-wage workers and activists will find this useful in arming them with a strategy to win.

Jesse Lessinger
January 2013


  1. http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2012/07/24/573671/one-in-four-private-sector-workers-earn-less-than-10-an-hour/?mobile=nc
  2. http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/11/mcjobs-should-pay-too-its-time-for-fast-food-workers-to-get-living-wages/265714/