The One-Day Strike: The New Labor Weapon of Last Resort

In the hourly wage economy, flash strikes are emerging as a way to fight for better pay

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Mike Brown / The Commercial Appeal / AP

McDonald's employee Antonio Cathey during a protest outside a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Memphis, Tenn., Dec. 5, 2013.

For nearly a century, labor strikes have been an effective tool to help unionized workers get higher wages, more benefits and greater workplace protections. But as declining union membership makes protracted strikes  increasingly rare, a new model of labor agitation is emerging, and it might involve the cashier at your local McDonald’s.

On Thursday, labor organizers say workers at fast food chains like McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King walked off the job or didn’t come to work in 100 cities. The strikes are the culmination of a year-long movement that began in New York last November and has spread through a series of three carefully coordinated one-day protests. The aim: an hourly wage of $15 per hour and the right to unionize. Currently, the average fast food worker earns $9 per hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some earn the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

The strikes are being organized by a patchwork of local labor activism groups who receive funding from the Service Employees International Union, one of the country’s largest labor unions. “The point of the one-day strike is really to show the power that workers have when they walk off their jobs and embolden more workers within the store,” says Kendall Fells, the organizing director of Fast Food Forward, the group coordinating strikes in New York. “That’s how we’ve been able to create essentially 12 months of momentum.”

With both union membership and traditional strikes on the decline, these flash tactics may be the only recourse left for labor organizers. The number of unionized laborers has decreased from 15.8 percent of the workforce in 1992 to 11.3 percent in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The drop in the private sector has been even more steep, with only 6.6 percent of private sector workers currently having unionized jobs. Last year 19 large-scale work stoppages involved 148,000 workers, an increase from the nadir of the Great Recession but down significantly from a decade ago.

In the past, workers in low-skill, hourly wage jobs have been particularly hard to organize because of their replaceability. It’s hard to convince workers to sign on to a lengthy walk-out when it would almost certainly cost them their jobs. A one-day strike allows fast food employees to call attention to their cause without losing employment. Many of the workers are compensated for their lost wages from a strike fund paid for by union groups.

“It’s a pretty viable model because formal unionization is pretty close to impossible,” says Jeff Cowie, a professor of labor history at Cornell University. “If you actually want to get something done, I think these are actually pretty effective routes.”

The one-day fast food strikes have generated headlines, but they’ve yet to do much for workers’ paychecks. News reports indicated that Thursday’s strikes were a minor inconvenience at worst at many fast food restaurants, unlikely to make corporations start sweating about their bottom line. Organizers have only been able to point to wage increases of less than a dollar for a few workers following past strikes. And labor experts say the franchisee model of fast food chains, in which most of the individual restaurants are run by independent owners, makes unionization next to impossible.

Meanwhile, the National Restaurant Association, the industry’s lobbying group, contends that the entire spectacle has just been a deceptive publicity stunt that has hardly involved fast food workers at all. “These demonstrations are a coordinated PR campaign engineered by national labor groups where the vast majority of participants are activists and paid demonstrators; relatively few restaurant workers have participated in the past,” the organization said in a statement.

Fells flatly denies the allegation that demonstrators are paid to show up. “Nobody was paid to support the thousands of fast-food workers who went on strike Thursday,” he said in an email. “The industry that’s putting out that lie is the same industry that told workers to sing away stress, get a second job to make ends meet and take two vacations a year they can’t afford to reduce the risk of heart attacks.”

The strikes have helped fast food workers and their allies in the so-called living wage movement earn mindshare, dispelling the idea that they are mostly teenagers flipping burgers for pocket money. More than two-thirds of fast food workers are adults above the age of 20, according to a recent study by the University of California, Berkley. Many have been squeezed into low-wage jobs following the recession.

“As bad as the economy is today, jobs are scarce,” Dearius Merritt, a 24-year-old working at a Memphis Church’s Chicken, told TIME when he participated in the last big set of strikes in August. “These companies make too much money to hand us the crumbs that have been scattered across the floor.”

Cowie says the fast food movement has more in common with the labor strategies employed before the union era, when short strike campaigns aimed to raise awareness around issues like workplace safety. “What it actually hearkens back to is sort of a pre-New Deal paradigm. There were a lot of events that were really trying to solve issues through these pressure points…and to raise people’s awareness and change the discussion of these issues.”

By this metric, the strikes could be viewed as successful. In a Dec. 3 speech, President Obama mentioned the struggles of fast food workers while calling for an increase to the minimum wage. Democrats are currently pushing legislation that would increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10. While that’s unlikely to happen, a number of states and municipalities have recently enacted higher wage floors. And the public is on board. A recent Gallup poll found that support for a minimum wage hike from $7.25 to $9 per hour now stands at 76 percent, a 5 percentage point bump from earlier this year.

If fast food workers’ efforts help lead to an increase in the minimum wage, it might serve as model for workers in other sectors. But it’s not clear how many more one-day spectacles will be effective for fast food workers and the unions backing them.

 “In the private sector, we usually don’t see these massive movements any more,” says Sylvia Allegretto, a labor economist at  the Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics at the University of California, Berkeley. “You don’t know if something like this is going to fizzle out or if it’s going to keep going and gaining steam and hit a tipping point where change can actually happen.”

13 comments
Jojolikewow
Jojolikewow

Why do fast food workers have to be lazy? You know most of those people are full time students that make barely enough to get by. 20,000 dollars is not middle wage it's poverty wage an most people don't even make that much money after taxes. Get your facts straight or keep your mouth shut because your voice is one that does not need to be heard.

ThomasHall
ThomasHall

Whatever it takes. Thanks to the GOP-Reagan-to-present failed "trickle-down economics," from 1979-2006-on, incomes for the top one percent went up 275% while the Middle Class shrank by 25% and wages for the 99% stagnated.

While the GOP attacks unionists, public employees, welfare recipients, undocumented workers, they ignore the fact that it was deregulated banks and rich Wall St. bankster fraud that took down Wall St., our economy, the job-screating housing market which has brought the US out of previous recessions along with $15 trillion taken from Americans' household wealth, 4+ million lost homes, 9+ million underwater, 9 million lost jobs on top of the five million manufacturing jobs shipped overseas or to Mexico while $400+ billion in taxes went uncollected from thousands of offshore corporate tax dodgers.

Notice like the last GOP-Hoover Wall St. bank fraud that gave us the Great Depression, back then the GOP response to the global economic calamity was to do nothing, sound familiar? The pro-rich, anti-poor, anti-worker GOP have deliberately sabatoged the weak job and economic growth in the hopes of unseating Pres. Obama while hurting the country all for partisan political gain.

PortDriverUnion
PortDriverUnion

There is an inspiring, growing movement of hard working people who are uniting for quality jobs. We work hard and are all asking for a fair days pay for a hard days work so we can both provide for our families and help the economy recover. We, port truck drivers, transport goods to and from America's ports are also faced with unfair working conditions and an employer scam where port truck drivers are misclassified as "independent contractors" even though we do the job of employees. This enables trucking companies to cheat taxes and other employer responsibilities, as well as push driving costs onto the drivers. After a week of work, a misclassified port truck driver may receive a paycheck of less than $0, actually owing a trucking company money!! In August and November of 2013, we went on two 24 hour strikes standing up for our rights and sending shock waves through the American supply chain. We stand in solidarity with fast food workers and all working people demanding dignity in their work.   


BryanBolser
BryanBolser

fast food workers have absolutely NO right making 15 dollars an hour. There should be no reward for being a lazy drop out that is generally incapable of holding a job that requires thought. These are the jobs that SHOULD earn minimum wage because they are minimum skill and minimum effort jobs. 

BruceStrong
BruceStrong

A blonde driving a car became lost in a snowstorm. She didn't panic however, because she remembered what her dad had once told her. "If you ever get stuck in a snowstorm, just wait for a snow plow to come by and follow it." Sure enough, pretty soon a snow plow came by, and she started to follow it. She followed the plow for about forty-five minutes. Finally the driver of the truck got out and asked her what she was doing. And she explained that her dad had told her if she ever got stuck in a snow storm, to follow a plow. The driver nodded and said, "Well, I'm done with the Wal-Mart parking lot, do you want to follow me over to Best Buy now?"

AdamMeddaugh
AdamMeddaugh

The only thing $15/hr is going to get is automated cashiers and a few cooks in the back.


Which come to think of it sounds more convenient anyways. Keep striking.

buckybone
buckybone

The only labor tactics that ever worked against a hostile government involved general strikes. That is most definitely not happening, as the majority of workers don't really know what it's like to be screwed over, not like what workers in the late-19th and early-20th centuries did. It isn't quite that bad...yet.

BruceStrong
BruceStrong

Fast food is not good for you anyway, so let's CLOSE them ALL down... How about that for a change, let's have government do something that's GOOD for us for a change!

BruceStrong
BruceStrong

OK, let's do the math shall we... 10 bucks an hour times 52 weeks equals $20,800 a year, right! You call that middle class, my advise is to get a real job and do something useful, please stop the liberal nonsense and let's all WORK together for a better future for our kids!

ashtontitan
ashtontitan

Dear Troll, 

First of all your not better than anybody so get over yourself.

Second of there not trying to get 15 dollars an hour its a negotiation strategy you idiot.

Third of all all fast food workers are dropouts? Are you truly that stupid my guess is yeah get your head out of your a** 

You try living off 7,25 per hour for a year and you see how that works for you uppity prick

I made 10.30 an hour at a job and that was tough

buckybone
buckybone

$20k a year is perfectly livable if you're on your own, and a household $40k is doable with a couple of kids. It might not be "middle class", but there has to be people below the middle for a middle to exist, that's just basic math.

cocoaharken
cocoaharken

You must be about as smart as those fast food workers who think that standing behind the counter of McDonald's should be a career.  They aren't supposed to live off of $7.25 an hour, they're supposed to get off their lazy a$$es and work to find better paying jobs.  You get paid what the job you are doing is worth, and fast food workers aren't doing anything that is worth more than about $6 an hour.  It's a brainless job, hence minimum pay for minimum effort.  I can only hope that one day the fast food companies put in machines where I can punch in my order, insert my money and then wait for my food.

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