What Happened with the Fast Food Worker Protests, and What’s Next?

Over the past year, low-wage workers in the fast food industry began a wave of high-profile strikes across the nation. The effort started last November with a single protest in New York and affected as many as 1,000 stores in 58 cities on August 29th.  Why did these actions come about, what is the campaign seeking, has it generated results, and what are the prospects for long-term success?

Why did the fast food campaign come about?

While some of these actions arose from store-specific or local concerns, generally they have reflected frustration with poverty-level wages and few workplace protections in an era of shrinking union penetration in the private sector. Several workers and organizations have highlighted the fact that fast food giants like McDonald’s tell their own workers that they should probably enroll in federal programs that assist individuals in poverty. In fact, two recent academic reports (in part funded by labor groups involved in the protests) have revealed that “the majority of families of front-line fast food workers use public assistance, at a taxpayer cost of nearly $7 billion a year, while seven publicly-traded fast food corporations made $7.4 billion in profit last year.” Specifically, these studies found that “52 percent of families of workers employed at least 27 weeks a year and 10 hours a week in rank-and-file fast food jobs are enrolled in Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, food stamps, the Federal Earned Income Tax Credit, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.”

Yet, the fast food service industry is particularly tough to organize, as the franchise model can inhibit unions’ ability to pressure or negotiate with big corporations like Burger King, as they technically do “not make hiring, firing or other employment-related decisions for [their] franchisees.” Nonetheless, it is an attractive sector for unions because of the rapid growth in fast food jobs in years following the economic crisis and its potential to affect workers across the country.

What are the organizers of the fast food campaign seeking?

There are two basic, concrete demands common to all of the actions under the “Fight for 15” umbrella: workers are demanding a raise to $15 an hour and the chance to unionize without intimidation. Yet, particularly in light of millions of dollars in support from unions like the SEIU, some organizers are thinking much bigger. According to SEIU’s President Mary Kay Henry, the fast food efforts may help unions “shift things in the entire low-wage economy.’”

What precisely would that entail? Participants in the strikes and planning efforts for more actions have discussed two additional, broader objectives:

“First, escalating pressure on fast food corporations – McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s, in particular – with the goal of reaching a joint agreement under which the corporations would cover the costs of improved labor standards in their stores. And second, a legislative push for local living wage laws requiring improved compensation for fast food workers.”

The legislative push would likely need to include statewide measures, as many cities do not have the authority to raise the minimum wage on their own for all private sector jobs. Moreover, these are not the only options: activists might pursue a legal challenge to the franchise model or an agreement with major fast food corporations to permit union organizing provided that unions agree to exclude certain topics or geographic areas.

What results has the fast food campaign achieved?

Trish Kahle, a leader of Fight for 15 who works at Whole Foods in Chicago, admits, “the organization is extremely uneven—across the country and even in Chicago,” the ground zero of the campaign. Yet, the highly visible and highly dispersed protests have been “deepening the organizing and developing rank-and-file leaders,” and workers have succeeded in achieving “a high level of worker organization” in some large, well-known companies, “like Whole Foods, Subway and Dunkin Donuts.” At a basic level, Kahle says, “Fight for 15 is giving people an idea of how organizing works,” and showing workers that agitating can – at least sometimes – generate some changes.

In Chicago, for example, workers have achieved some tangible results. After April protests, “the organizers at [Whole Foods] and many other stores got raises . . . and other people got small promotions.” The protesters convinced “management to agree to a new attendance policy” and, according to Kahle, “a water cooler and a place where we can take breaks.” Further, workers who strike are “going back to work with impunity, at least initially.” Others report “incremental store-specific victories” as well, “from scheduling changes, to raises, to the restoration of a tip jar.”

What challenges or limitations does the fast food campaign face?

Yet, there is reason to think these specific gains might be short-lived and the hope for broader changes might be overly optimistic. One union leader, Peter Olney, organizing director of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and a former SEIU organizer, has pointed out that striking workers may not get fired right away, but—as unions have seen in campaigns at WalMart—“firings [will occur] six months later for absenteeism or some other trumped-up infraction.” Without a fully functioning organization to protect activist workers from this type of retaliation, Olney worries it will be difficult to “prevent a chilling effect on the rest of the workforce.”

Further, “some seasoned pro-labor observers,” like City University of New York’s Ruth Milkman, argue that despite impressive initial successes or some improvements in industry standards, the fast food campaign is unlikely to surmount  “the enormous obstacles to winning union recognition today in any private sector workplace.” In other words, the labor movement simply does not have the power or influence it once did to leverage this type of activism into effective, widespread unionization efforts. This seems especially true in the fast food context: as Olney observes, “[u]nlike SEIU’s previous victories with janitors—where the union already had a mighty fortress of organized commercial janitor locals in [New York], Chicago and [San Francisco] as a base to organize from—and with homecare workers— where you had public financing and could mobilize public power—in Wal-Mart, or the fast food industry, you’re starting with a blank slate and doing pure private-sector organizing.”

Finally, in the Atlantic, Derek Thompson points out larger patterns that suggest that the fast food campaign is unlikely to succeed in achieving broad changes. He examines post-1990 trends in three major industries that “historically attract young, low-educated workers:” manufacturing, retail, and food services.  Thompson notes that while manufacturing’s “share of all jobs fell by nearly 50 percent,” and retail “flat-lined,” food services “[s]hot up by 25 percent.” He argues that this data “suggest that the collapse of middle-income stalwarts like manufacturing has left a glut of young low-skill workers who are rushing into to fill local service-sector needs at big-box stores and fast-food chains.”  More bluntly, “there are more people willing to do these jobs than there are people willing to strike,” and there does not appear to be “a threat from consumers demanding higher wages for their fast-food clerks by not buying burgers and fries” at huge chains like McDonald’s or Burger King.

Confronted with this skepticism of the fast food campaign, SEIU President Henry has highlighted recent successes in organizing janitors and homecare workers, emphasizing that many observers were pessimistic about those efforts too.  Not mincing words, she has said that she can “get a little pissed when labor academics” predict that organizing efforts will fail, noting that the labor movement has “made the impossible possible time and again.”

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