Fast Food Workers Organizing

The creation of low-wage jobs in the fast-food industry is only a recent development. It is not unusual to see low wages being forced on workers in new industries when they first develop. This was the case in the coal mines, the steel industry, the textile industry, the auto industry, etc.

Large-scale exploitation in the fast-food industry has created a few super-rich millionaires and a small number of huge corporations. These corporations, like McDonald’s and Yum! Brands, Inc., were extremely vigilant in preventing workers from organizing unions to change these conditions. In the other industries we mentioned – mining, steel, etc. – workers eventually built up enough organized strength to form powerful enough unions to force those company millionaires to pay higher wages, improve benefits, and provide workers with some security in their lives.

The fast-food industry will be no different. Workers in British Columbia and Quebec have forced McDonald’s to accept a union. The same has happened in Germany. Workers in Australia and France have mounted organizing drives at Pizza Hut. During our organizing campaign at Pizza Hut/Emerald City in the Tacoma/Seattle area, we have found widespread support for the idea of a union. As we mentioned earlier, we have also met groups of workers in Domino’s, Papa John’s, and Pizza Time in Tacoma and Olympia who are looking to build a union. One Pizza Time in Olympia even went on strike!

In attempting to organize, we are following the traditions established by previous generations of workers, our grandparents and great grandparents. They stood up to the robber barons of their days and demanded a living-wage job with decent benefits. To achieve this, they organized dynamic unions which were able to stand up to corporate giants like General Motors, Ford, Bethlehem Steel, General Electric, etc., and force them to start to offer higher wages, guaranteed work shifts, better working conditions, and improved benefits out of the profits of the bosses.

That’s the task we face as workers in the low-wage, fast-food, service economy of today. Unlike many manufacturing jobs, service jobs cannot be outsourced. In today’s world of two parents working, there will be a demand for delivered food. Some company will need to produce and sell fast food. They cannot deliver it from Mexico. They can’t even deliver it from Seattle. That means that if we organize well in Tacoma we will have the leverage to force these companies to start to address our needs as workers.

Should We Be Afraid of Unions?

Fast-food companies are determined to make their product at the lowest possible cost. That means keeping our wages down. That is their guiding light. McDonald’s, as the pioneer fast-food company, set the trend. The others followed.

These huge corporations have used their muscle to systematically lobby Congress to scrap the minimum wage, to introduce a sub-minimum wage, and they have continually broken federal and state work and safety laws to keep wages as low as possible.

For example, in 1997 a jury in Washington State found that Taco Bell – a Pizza Hut sister company also owned by Yum! Brands, Inc. – had systematically coerced its crew members into working off the clock to avoid paying them overtime. It found that the bonuses of Taco Bell restaurant managers were tied to their success at cutting labor costs.

Whenever workers at these fast-food companies have begun to organize a union, they have faced a ferocious response from management. In the recent libel case brought by McDonald’s in Britain against Greenpeace activists, it was documented how the company hired spies to follow activists. Sydney Nicholson, UK vice president of McDonald’s, said, “If every single member of a crew in a particular restaurant joined a union, McDonald’s would still not negotiate with the union.”

Despite such threats, these companies have been forced to accept unions in a number of countries. Very often, they will spend more money fighting a union than it would cost to accept the union’s demands. They know that once a new trend starts it will encourage other workers to step forward and follow suit.

Despite the scare stories spread by the corporate-owned mass media and the scare stories told by company executives, there is widespread support for unions in the U.S. A 2002 poll showed that over 50% of workers who are not union members would join a union tomorrow if given the chance.

The reason more workers are not in unions is the refusal of management to negotiate with workers, their tactics of intimidation, the firing of activists, and their ability to subject their workers to anti-union propaganda sessions. Because the corporations control both major political parties, the laws in this country give workers who want a union fewer rights than in any other country in the industrialized world.

Emerald City has followed this well-worn path. They have spent tens of thousands of dollars attempting to defeat our organizing drive, renting banquet halls, paying fees to union-busting companies, and paying for us to watch anti-union propaganda videos. They have threatened workers with firings, refused workers the right to give out material at work, driven away activists from outside their stores, and even called the police to stop workers from giving out pro-union fliers.