Fast food workers on the cutting edge

fast food group with banner2

The recent mass actions of the fast food workers and other starvation wage workers in New York City and many urban centers across the country are the latest developments in the unfolding struggle of a new and key section of the working class.  This new section is to a large degree based in service, retail and fast food with worse wages and working conditions (a large percentage work only part time) than we have seen in recent times. These conditions are imposed by the same ruling class that brought us NAFTA and similar international trade deals. The export of good, formerly unionized production jobs overseas to new areas of super exploitation has put U.S. and all workers on a race to the bottom.

Although in the long run, workers in basic industry have the key role to play in the fight for more deep-going social change, the struggles of the most oppressed, poorest section of the working class and its integral connection to our urban centers and communities is crucial at this point to combating the all-out attack on the working class that the 1% has unleashed.

Low wage, service sector workers have often been on the front lines of organizing and political action and have been a major factor in the revitalization of the labor movement providing new leadership.  An early example is hospital and health care workers beginning in the 1960's with Local 1199 in New York.  This was fully supported by Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement and an important role was played by progressive youth including Communists in militant actions during the organizing drives.  Of course the whole world knows about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in the midst of the hard fought sanitation workers strike in Memphis, Tennessee.  More recent examples are Justice for Janitors with SEIU in Houston and many other cities in the South, hospitality workers in casino centers like Las Vegas, and other tourist destinations, with the hotel and restaurant employees (now UNITE-HERE).

May 5th, 2014 was a global day of action, a global strike, of the fast food workers led in New York by Fast Food Forward and backed by New York Communities for Change and other community organizations and supported by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).  Support among clergy and the faith community was highlighted the week before by a brief march and rally of over 2,000 at the historic Riverside Church in Harlem which was addressed by a wide variety of clergy from the entire religious spectrum.  The assembly was also addressed by the heads of the New York City Council and the New York City Central Labor Council and inspired by the testimony of several of the worker-leaders in the organizing drives at KFC, Domino's and McDonalds among others.  The NYC Labor Chorus sang labor songs of struggle.  The connection between the victory of the progressive coalition in the City Council and the DiBlasio candidacy in the New York elections five months earlier was quite visible at the rally.

The May 5th action itself consisted of several marches and roving picket lines at various sites where organizing is ongoing, mainly centered in New York City's commercial center in Midtown Manhattan moving uptown and downtown and east and west and involving hundreds of workers and their supporters from the religious community, labor and students.  It started very early and continued most of the day. Months later on September 4th Fast Food workers led another 1 day national strike, over 20 fast food workers participated in civil disobedience demanding, "$15 and a Union, Whatever it takes!"

  The Context

The latest heightened activities at big box stores and fast food chains are an outgrowth of years of struggle, which include many other categories of underpaid and underemployed workers.  Often the companies will only hire part-time in order to squeeze more profits from their workforce by avoiding the responsibility of providing benefits and to repress union organization.  The largest and most infamous of these corporations is Wal-Mart which subsidizes its billion dollar profits by relying on billions of dollars in public services such as food assistance and Medicaid to care for their workers instead of providing the required fulltime benefits and living wages.

These mass actions all are taking place as Wall Street and the 1% has declared war on the rest of the population starting with working families.  The Bloomberg and Giuliani administrations' two decade-long record of starving the public school budget, closing schools, harassing teachers, overloading class sizes and cutting art, music, and sports from the curriculum is a clear example of this racist, sexist and anti-working class attack.  The cynical drive toward privatization of public education through private charter schools is financed by hedge fund managers whose only concern is amassing wealth, not the education of our children. This group says it can not afford to pay rent for the use of Public facilities but puts five million dollars into film and TV ads for two weeks straight, indirectly undermining Mayor DiBlasio's efforts to fund universal pre-K by a modest tax on the wealthy.

The campaigns of low wage workers are also happening in the context of new electoral majorities and coalitions that have brought the possibility for more lasting victories for working people.  First there is the two-time victory of Obama against the thinly disguised racist and anti-labor hate campaigns unleashed by the ultra-right led by the Tea Party that now steers the GOP.  The coalition that led to Obama's election victories included Labor, African-Americans, Latinos, women, youth, students, the LBGT community, seniors and liberal and centrist capitalist politicians who oppose the ultra-right.

The inconsistency of this coalition in countering attacks by the ultra-right and mouthpieces for the 1% on labor's right to organize, on labor contracts, on public education, on much-needed social welfare programs, especially in the aftermath of the Wall Street-induced recession, only underlines the importance of building workers' and community forms of leadership in order for the coalition to move forward.  The victory of the DiBlasio candidacy and the progressive caucus, the election of Melissa Mark-Viverito, the first Puerto Rican woman to head the City Council and Letitia James, the first woman of color elected to city-wide office, was the victory of a similar but considerably more progressive coalition that is more conscious of its role and of the class nature of its demands.

The movements of labor and the people spoke with a much louder and clearer voice and their enemy was more clearly recognized not simply as the far right but as the entire one percent of real-estate moguls, developers and Wall Street managers who were the patrons and bosses of the Bloomberg and Giuliani administrations.  The strong voter support for a tax on the rich to cover pre-K was particularly revealing.  But here again we can see the need for a more conscious left component not only in the leadership but also in moving the grassroots.

There is a well-known saying in the labor movement that what is won on the picket line can be lost at the ballot box, but it also works the other way around.  The promises made during election campaigns can be easily dissipated under the pressure of reactionary onslaughts financed by billions of dollars from the Koch Brothers and other Wall Street managers and organized legislatively by outfits like ALEC.

But class-conscious leadership of the people's movements with strong grass roots involvement can mobilize elements of the progressive electoral coalition to beat back these attacks and advance the people's agenda.  Class conscious means understanding that the main power for political and economic change rests with working people, whether production or intellectual workers.  They produce and provide all goods and services.  They produce all profits and are the key force for social change, but they must begin to realize their special and powerful position in order to provide political leadership independent of the control of the 1%.

The movement of low paid workers has already had some success in advocating for the $15 minimum wage as a general social demand.  Even some (relatively advanced) companies like Moo Cluck Moo, Shake Shack and Costco have responded positively.  The largest chains have not, at least not yet, although they are starting to give some lip service to the recognition of the minimum wage issue.

If Costco can function, compete and turn a profit with higher wages, a union, and less exploitation then so can other companies.  If market competition pushes wages downward, then unions and organization can push wages up.  This is class struggle!

The demand for new labor laws to protect workers' right to organize and the need for aggressive enforcement of existing laws has also been put forward. Campaigns to advance minimum wage and other labor legislation, combined with union organizing, can change the equation by establishing industry wide standards.  Most low-wage jobs are found in industries that are fiercely competitive- food service, retail, carwashes, etc., with businesses continually opening and closing.  Establishing industry wide labor standards including the minimum wage, the right to full time employment and labor law protections removes these questions from the area of competition.  They will still compete in advertising, production and "efficiency," and there will still be constant opening and closing of businesses.  But whether a company, franchise or individual location survives or not will no longer be determined in part by how much management can cut their workers' wages.

Establishing standards, especially through militant class struggle, can over time create a different corporate culture that recognizes the advantages of the stability of relative labor peace.  That may only be temporary but it is of immediate importance to the lives of workers and their families.  The plain truth is that millions of low-wage workers are employed by multibillion-dollar monopolies like WalMart, Kohl and McDonalds that are not subject to the same fierce competition and going under that affects smaller businesses and franchises.  They are still subject to competition and market forces but are powerful and dominate the field in terms of wages, job conditions, and opposition to union and government regulation of industry.  This is state monopoly capitalism at work.  It is their ball game until working people organize and say no.  


Labor and Community Unity

The two defeats of the ultra right in the presidential elections has to be defended and extended on many fronts.  One of the most important is rejection of racist attacks including "stand your ground" murders, "stop and frisk" arrests (a key point of DiBlasio's campaign) and racist and anti-working class attempts at voter suppression. The continuing Giuliani/Bloomberg-type of racist and anti-people police repression, as evidenced by the anti-occupy Wall Street arrests and brutality, the Eric Garner killing in Staten Island and the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown killings nationally, show how much more is needed.

Key parts of the 1%'s attack on working people's lives are the mass incarceration and criminalization of poor people now called "broken windows" policing along side the slashing of the social safety net and downward pressure on wages.  This is particularly clear in the cases of police murders in the poorest most oppressed communities. In this light the speech Richard Trumka AFL-CIO President delivered to the Missouri AFL-CIO in St Louis during the Ferguson demonstration calling on those workers and their families to join in the marches for justice should be a call to action to all working people.

The clear cut progressive victory in the New York City 2013 municipal elections ousted a two decade republican regime while ushering in the progressive caucus as the dominant force on its council.  This can and must be extended in clear advances in living conditions for the people. Seattle, WA has led the way in raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and the coalition here can make City and State government follow that lead.  Raising the wage in New York City would have a tremendous national impact given the size of the city and the number of workers employed in fast food and other low wage jobs.  In words at least, the voices of most political leadership from the Mayor to the City Council all back this.

Public sympathy is clearly on the side of the workers.  It is almost impossible to deny the justice of their cause when anyone can see that it is impossible to pay rent for an individual, let alone a family on $8 and less an hour.  At that rate of pay the working class cannot even sustain life!  The 'middle class' and a growing number of people in wealthy communities are sympathetic to this fact.

It is estimated that over $7 billion annually of mainly workers' tax money is used to subsidize these starvation wages in the form of food stamps, public assistance and Medicaid among others.  We should demand that, when these industries are organized and wages raised to a living wage, that these billions be used for green jobs, infrastructure, schools, parks, libraries and community centers right in our neighborhoods.

Those who analyze progressive electoral victories only in terms of demographics miss the unity of the class, racial and ethnic character of the statistics.  In a city like New York, where racially and nationally oppressed people make up almost 70% of the population, particularly now with the effects of the recession still around, many communities that are largely Afro-American, Puerto Rican or immigrant have recently begun to organize their electoral strength.  Many of their political leaders realize the need for unity and struggle to achieve victories for their communities.

It is as natural as breathing that these communities become a base of support for the low paid workers' struggle, not just in symbolic ways around general demands at large events, but in the everyday struggle to organize right in the community where the stores are located and where many of the workers live and spend money.  A $15 per hour wage would spur such an increase in spending power by these workers that the entire community would benefit.

For small businesses that employ wage labor, especially more than 1 or 2 workers, there are conflicting pulls.  In the first place they don't want to pay higher wages or be subject to labor regulations, which would weigh more heavily on them than on larger business.  On the other hand a $15 wage floor would certainly increase demand and volume for these businesses.  It is an absolute fact that workers in general and the poorest especially spend the bulk of their money immediately on daily necessities.

Supporters of low-wage workers should also demand a program to subsidize small businesses.  In addition to the billions of tax dollars currently being used to subsidize the starvation wages of the big chains and other large corporations they receive corporate tax breaks.  These tax breaks should be redistributed to help support small local businesses that provide living wage jobs in the community.  This demand will help small businesses from restaurants and clothing stores to bodegas and supermarkets immediately feel the benefits of a wage hike and encourage their involvement in the fight to raise the wage.


Local Examples


A brief history of some local events in Washington Heights should help us see what is needed and possible.  In the summer of 2013 there was a spontaneous action of McDonalds workers on 181st Street when a worker passed out due to the heat and a defective air conditioner.  The bosses' response was to keep on truckin' - work without AC.  The workers walked out; there was a picket line and news coverage; local communists who live on the block saw and joined the picket line and met the workers.  The action was a success.  The AC was fixed and the workers went back to work.  Workers up the block at Dominos saw the publicity and heard about the victory and were encouraged.

In the next set of Fast Food Forward strike actions the following December, a large number of the Dominos workers participated.  After 24 workers participated in the one-day strike, management retaliated by putting a group of deliverers, who earn under minimum wage because they get tips, to work inside at the same lower rate even though they were not getting tips.  In response these workers walked out again and were locked out by management.

Local residents belonging to the CPUSA Washington Heights Club, worked with organizers from New York Communities for Change and Fast Food Forward, to successfully mobilize neighborhood friends, community organizations and local political leaders to join the picket line, which lasted a week.  They helped get press coverage, which included interviews and statements of support from Councilman Rodriguez and State Senator Espaillat.  They distributed informational leaflets to the neighborhood, walked and sustained the picket line and helped get the attention of Attorney General Schneiderman (who had been State Senator from the area).  His office informed Dominos that they would be committing "wage fraud" if they kept paying inside workers below minimum wage as if they were deliverers.

The action was partially won and the workers went back to work.  Many workers who had previously refused to join in actions including the walk out signed up with Fast Food Forward.  The workers who did walk out returned with more confidence in their cause, some even joined the Party. Among the workers and community partners there is a strong appreciation of the clubs' role in mobilizing the community and utilizing local political power to help the workers win this "scrimmage" in the class battle.

Other groups on the left came around to distribute leaflets inviting the workers to their more 'political' unrelated events.  This was at a time when the main task was to guarantee attendance on the picket line, which was beginning to dwindle.  These so called revolutionaries also criticized the CPUSA District Organizer Estevan for involving Democratic Party politicians and giving them 'photo ops'!  Since this had helped get the workers the support they needed to win, this lame smear was promptly ignored by one and all, particularly the workers involved.

In another instance more recently, a worker-leader at KFC in Brooklyn was given reduced hours for participating in the May 5th action.  Other retaliation included threats and harassment.  Fast Food Forward and New York Communities for Change mobilized staff and held picket lines and delegations to speak to management.  Members of the CPUSA Brooklyn Club joined in the effort, bringing friends from Brooklyn for Peace to participate in the actions. One club member wrote a letter explaining the situation in addition to her sending the letter out to elected representatives, a copy was made available to anyone who wanted to duplicate the effort. More local forces including the surrounding City council offices got involved and the retaliation was rescinded, at least temporarily.  


A Few Lessons

Due to weak and bad labor laws and the fact that many fast food workers are part-time, the employers have many means of retaliating against workers trying to organize and better their conditions.  The wages are so low and jobs so insecure that worker-organizers can't even afford a metro card to get to actions and meetings and must often get other jobs just to survive.

Yet obviously community/labor solidarity actions and organizations, whether ad hoc or more permanent depending on the level of community activity, can achieve much, both for workers' struggles and for a sense of community unity and political strength; whether the main issues in the community at a given time are jobs, youth centers, education, job training, tenants rights, anti-racism or even ecological issues or peace.


Political Independence

The idea is not just to get people of good will to support the most vulnerable and the most impoverished of all workers (as much as that does help), but for communities to see their own self-interest reflected in the demands of the workers who live, work and spend money there. This is equally true in white communities upstate and in western New York where large numbers of white younger people and some older people work in fast food and WalMart.  In New York City the low-wage workforce is mainly racially and nationally oppressed with the exception of certain predominantly white New York City neighborhoods.

A community/labor alliance must be more than a counterweight to boss retaliation, wage theft and other attacks against workers.  It can help both workers and their neighbors emerge and develop as leaders in local, grassroots struggle.  This can help develop independent political leadership and programs that serve the needs of the community and not those of the 1% that dominate our political life.

Our changing communities and new electoral majorities can help write a people's agenda which could help deepen and clarify the NYC electoral coalition and infuse it with the militancy of everyday workers' struggle.  This has already begun to happen around the new city administration and the de facto alliance that brought it into office.  We cannot really say "brought it into power" because that alliance has just begun to challenge the power and policies of Wall Street and the political system that serves it.

The recent reverses in the November midterm elections are a strong reminder of the weaknesses of electoral coalitions dominated by big businesses and electoral strategies that produce candidates that shy away from the issues that concern working families. The clearest example of this is the five areas that voted for a higher minimum wage even though they elected Republicans. This shows a disconnect between working people's consciousness of their needs and Democratic Party candidates running for office. This in part resulted in a failure to turn out that base which produced the previous electoral victories. The weak turnout was also linked to the lack of a consistent militant grassroots movement tied to labor--community issues and electoral campaigns.  The local community/labor committees that we are suggesting would help to remedy this both in terms of a more consistent and organized mass base and a more clearly stated and unifying agenda.


Some Special Problems

The semi-transient workforce, the lack of any union protection (none are really represented by union contracts although the organizing drive is aided both financially and in personnel by the SEIU), the impossible starvation wages and the danger of anti-immigrant legal and police action make the need for active community solidarity all the more urgent.  Active workers defense funds and committees at the neighborhood level are needed to strengthen and help to sustain this critical fight.

Industrial union worker-organizers of the past - whether militant trade union activists, communists or socialists have understood and utilized community/labor unity to help organize basic industry across the country.  Ethnic and neighborhood social clubs, churches and language federations played an important role in the organizing drives of packing house and steel workers, coal miners, textile, maritime and long shore from the 20's all the way through the CIO drives of the 30's and 40's.

This was true with the National Maritime Union in Chelsea and Hell's Kitchen in New York City in the 30's; with Lower East side and Brownsville in the garment and fur industries.  The Furrier Floor Boys - basically a young workers flying squad boasted that they could get 600 members from many neighborhoods around the city to any single hot spot in under an hour. In the grape strike and boycotts of the 60's and 70's whole neighborhoods joined workers in the fields to help counter the attack by Hells Angels and other thugs called in by the local Teamster leadership who at that time played a reactionary role.

The struggle of fast food and other low-wage workers is even more obviously linked to communities for the reasons already listed.  Community support and involvement is absolutely needed to win.

The International Labor Defense (ILD) initiated and supported by communist, socialist, militant trade unionists and a broad mass base of working people including huge support in the African American community led struggles both legal and political defending labors right to organize and against legal and illegal lynchings and jailings. This included cases such as the Scottsboro Boys, 9 young African American men riding the rails looking for farm work in 1931 who were framed on rape charges by the police and two white women, one of whom later recanted her testimony.  They were convicted anyway by an all white jury in Alabama, but their lives were saved and some were freed by the ILD's campaign to "Free the Scottsboro Boys".

The cases of jailed militant labor organizers all over the country like Tom Mooney, leader of the San Francisco Central Labor Council and the Street Car Workers strike framed in on a phony bomb charge, Sacco and Vanzetti Italian radical labor agitators framed as bank robbers and executed despite a confession from the actual robbers, Arturo Giovanetti and other Italian labor organizers saved from death by the mass actions of the ILD and Big Bill Haywood leader of the western federation of miners, were put in the public spot lite. Huge protracted battles for their freedom, at times for their lives, were waged. In total hundreds of prisoners of the class war were defended by the ILD including black leaders of the southern share croppers union, and multi racial leaders of the unemployed struggles including the case of Angelo Herndon, a leader of multi racial marches of the unemployed who was arrested for sedition in Atlanta, GA but successfully defended by the young Benjamin J Davis an African American fresh out of law school.

Solidarity with today's struggles can focus the whole city on workers' rights and get press and publicity to counter retaliation.  Community solidarity committees can help raise money to sponsor worker organizers, help distribute leaflets, sign up workers with Fast Food Forward and help secure legal defense.

Right now all this has been done mainly symbolically and only sporadically.  Those who understand the needs of the struggle need to devote the time and forces to make it happen, whether by leafleting, raising funds (dances, parties, etc.) or doing research to help the workers struggle zero in on the vulnerable pressure points of the fast food chains.  It's time to get moving. 

Ricky Eisenberg is a long time labor activist, a carpenter and a member of the NYC Labor Chorus.

Photo: Fast food workers' demonstration NYC.

This piece originally ran last fall (in November 2014). We believe that, in view of the ground breaking April 15 actions, it  is as timely now as when it first appeared.

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  • Many thanks for this valuable article which should be widely disseminated and discussed.

    Posted by Emile Schepers, 12/02/2014 10:06am (4 years ago)

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