Thursday, August 29, 2013

Josh Eidelson -- Largest fast food strike ever today: 58 cities will be affected

Largest fast food strike ever today: 58 cities will be affected
Work stoppage will hit about a thousand shops and several cities in the south today, as workers seek fair wages
By Josh Eidelson

That’s what the organizers of today’s strike are out to do. While workers say they’ve already achieved some incremental store-specific victories – from scheduling changes, to raises, to the restoration of a tip jar – it’s too soon to say if they’ll succeed. But they’re already drawing near-unparalleled attention from local and national media — and within organized labor. Though identified primarily with SEIU, which isn’t in the AFL-CIO, the fast food campaign gets frequent mention in a July report to the AFL-CIO executive council summarizing the pre-convention conversations that federation has been holding across the country.

Among the aspects of the strikers’ strategy: an attack on all the companies in the industry, executed in collaboration among a range of progressive groups, including political, media, consumer, and legal angles, all anchored by one-day strikes designed to maximize impact and minimize risk – most of them carried out by a minority of a store’s workforce, with less focus on shutting down business than on embarrassing corporations and engaging co-workers and the larger public.

“At first, I was nervous,” said Chicago Subway employee Felix Mendez, who’ll be striking for the third time today. Still, he told Salon he took the lead in getting all of his three co-workers to participate in the prior strikes, shutting down their store. “If we just sit back and do nothing about it,” he recalled telling them, “we’re never going to get what we want.” Mendez said he makes $8.25 an hour after working at Subway for three years. “Before, I wasn’t really too serious about anything…” said Mendez. “I have changed a whole lot since I’ve been part of this union.”

“Workers have really taken charge,” said Rev. Martin Rafanan, the community director for STL Can’t Survive on $7.35, the St. Louis fast food effort. “They’ve called for this strike because it’s an opportunity to continue to expand their numbers and expand their geography.” He expressed hope that today’s strike would “make a big splash in terms of folks beginning to see this as a national movement.” Rafanan, who co-chairs the workers rights board of the Missouri chapter of the labor-community group Jobs with Justice, said last week that about 200 St. Louis fast food workers were involved in organizing towards the strike. He told Salon that, beyond the sites where workers and others have been furiously organizing in recent weeks, “there’s a good chance” of workers in other stores or cities walking off the job today without any prior contact with the campaign.

Where will it all lead? A source present at a meeting SEIU held earlier this month with allies told Salon that potential strategies under discussion included a campaign for state referenda to allow cities to raise fast food wages, and a push for top burger corporations to jointly agree to eat the cost of increased labor costs. Asked whether the efforts could end in a deal in which corporations accept union negotiations and the union agrees before formal bargaining to cap new labor costs or carve out certain regions, SEIU strategist Scott Courtney answered, “It could be something like that.” SEIU President Mary Kay Henry said, “I think anything you know about traditional collective bargaining is possible, and then things we haven’t imagined.”

Asked about such a scenario, Rafanan said, “I’m for any tactic or strategy at this point which can move us forward, all right? And there are a lot of us, people have been discussing these things, a variety of these things. But where I’m standing, I’m a community ally, so my goal is to stand with workers. I believe that workers should make decisions about how they’re going to organize their industry.”

As an example of effective collective action, Rafanan related how the campaign had beaten back alleged retaliation against a St. Louis striker earlier this month. According to Rafanan, when workers returned from the work stoppage, a Popeyes manager fired one of them and “was very adamant that the person would not get their job back.” In response, activists “blocked the drive-through and had taken over the counter,” drawing several police cars. Before the situation escalated to arrests, said Rafanan, the franchisee owner arrived and, after a conversation with a local councilmember on the scene to support the workers, agreed to reinstate the employee. “This is the kind of thing we feel we can do when we don’t get a response,” said Rafanan.

Cornell’s Bronfenbrenner argued that having community allies escort workers back to work to ward off post-strike retaliation was the campaign’s most important innovation, and a testament to the deep community ties the campaign had built. “As long as they can keep the bosses from beating them down by having the eyes of the world always on them, keep the campaign in the sunshine,” she said, “they have a chance.” Because a national fast food corporation could simply cut off the franchise contract of any local store owner who started bargaining collectively with workers, noted Bronfenbrenner, winning unionization would require compelling corporations to forswear union-busting. “So it’s either going to be big,” she said, “or it’s not going to happen.”

Sociologist Stanley Aronowitz, who directs the Center for the Study of Culture, Technology and Work at the City University of New York, credited the campaign with “putting tremendous pressure, good pressure, on the fast food chains to raise their wages.” But he expressed concern that SEIU would be too quick to make a deal with corporations restricting future strikes. “They have gotten this far because they have taken direct action, and they have expanded their direct action efforts,” Aronowitz told Salon. “If they decide to settle down prematurely, I think they will duplicate what happened to the United Auto Workers, and what’s happened to the public employees unions, which is basically that they’re put permanently on the defensive.”

Today’s strike comes one day after the fiftieth anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. According to Rev. Rafanan, St. Louis strikers will honor the march, and a subsequent local protest in which civil rights activists chained themselves to the Jefferson Bank, by participating in a civil disobedience training this afternoon. Asked if that means we’ll see more fast food workers mounting civil disobedience, Rafanan said, “Certainly that’s where we’re ramping up to.”

Julio Wilson said the march’s anniversary “ties in perfectly” with the strikes’ spread south. Wilson told Salon the example of Martin Luther King “has inspired me personally to stand up for what I believe in, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.” Asked how many of his Raleigh store’s twenty employees would join the first-of-its-kind strike, he answered, “Hopefully all of them.”

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