Fast Food Strikes: Unable to Unionize, Workers Borrow Tactics From ‘Occupy’

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Employees and supporters demonstrate outside of a Wendy's fast-food restaurant demanding higher pay on Monday in New York City.

Hundreds of fast food workers in seven cities across the U.S. walked out on their jobs Monday demanding a “living wage,” or double what many are making now. More strikes are expected this week in what’s become one of the biggest pushes to organize the industry’s historically disjointed workforce. And this time they’re using a different playbook.

For decades, fast food employees have essentially been unorganizable in any traditional sense, thanks in part to two factors: extremely high turnover and the industry’s ownership structure.

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The National Restaurant Association estimates that “quick-service restaurants” (a.k.a. fast food) have 75% employee turnover rates, meaning that three-quarters of its workers are completely new, year in and year out. Many fast food restaurants are also owned by franchisees, which can complicate things for workers seeking employer concessions. While often responsible for determining employee wages, franchise owners are still held on a tight leash by the companies themselves in terms of what they can pay. Those factors have largely prevented even the most basic efforts to unionize within the industry, which in turn has kept wages low.

“Industries with the worst conditions and wages, and therefore with the greatest need for unions, rarely have been sites of unionization,” says Peter Rachleff, a labor historian at Macalester College. “Workers just quit and seek other jobs, perhaps with a little better pay, perhaps with slightly less onerous conditions.”

The workers walking out this week are demanding their wages be doubled from the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour to $15. But they’re going up against a corporate structure that has been able to keep any sorts of unionization efforts from creeping into the workplace for decades.

“It’s very easy for management to intimidate workers under the current structure, to run an aggressive campaign” to discourage unionization, says Richard Hurd, a labor relations professor at Cornell University. “Why put up with management pressure and try to hold out and get union recognition if you know realistically that you’re not going to be there that long?”

This week’s walk-outs seem less about truly unionizing (even though the workers’ efforts have received support from the Service Employees International Union) and more about building public momentum for a higher minimum wage. Instead of taking the traditional route of trying to reach some sort of collective bargaining agreement, they’re betting that an Occupy-style public awareness campaign, based on the idea that their wages are inherently unfair, perpetuate inequality and fail to move them up the economic ladder, will lead to change at either the state or federal level.

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Nelson Lichtenstein, a director at the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says this week’s strikes are similar to those before the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, also called the Wagner Act, which established the right of private employees to organize. Before the law, employees targeted entire industries, like restaurants, saloons or building trades, instead of specific employers to achieve better working conditions.

“In that sense, there’s a return to that,” he says, citing recent protests against wages for Walmart employees. “There, the focus is on Walmart. But I think these walk-outs, because they’re targeting the entire fast food industry, are turning out to have more progress.”

So far, the fast-food strikes have taken place in New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Detroit and Flint, Mich. While most of them involve the big fast-food chains like McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s, retail employees have also joined in from Victoria’s Secret, Dollar Tree and Macy’s.

Several studies show that raising the minimum wage would have minimal effects on the industry as a whole. One letter signed by more than 100 economists and published by the University of Massachusetts said that raising the minimum wage to $10.50 would increase the price of a Big Mac by a nickel. Another study shows that doubling the salaries and benefits of all of McDonald’s employees would add 68 cents to each Big Mac.

But a living wage would have more long-lasting effects on the industry than just the price of its menu items. Lichtenstein says it would likely create permanent employment in the industry, meaning more of its workers would stay for two to three years, likely leading to further demands on working conditions.

“From the company’s point of view, if they know their employees are going to be there for three years, then there’s also this informal pressure on the managers to accommodate the workers,” he says, citing the possibility of  wage creep and further increased labor costs for employers. “Managers then can’t just move people around all the time. Firing gets more difficult. So they don’t want a permanent workforce.”

In the short-term, however, Lichtenstein says that the tactics the fast food workers are taking to generate public awareness likely won’t lead to a new era of organizing in the industry but could be successful in pushing elected leaders to re-examine the minimum wage.

“Will it create a stable, permanent organization?” he asks. “Probably not. Will it create enough oomph to raise the minimum wage? Maybe.”