The Year in Labor: Fast-food workers lead a new working class

Amid growing inequality and low standards, labor tries new tactics, but will they work?

A protester in front of a McDonald's.
Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

When the Rana Plaza factory collapse killed more than 1,100 garment workers, the seemingly vast separation between Bangladesh and the American heartland, between the then and now of industrial labor, shrank to the width of a pair of skinny jeans. The human costs of “cheap” clothing suddenly, violently came into view. A subsequent investigation by Al Jazeera America revealed that retail giant Walmart had not only relied on Rana Plaza labor but, through subcontracted suppliers, also engaged the nimble hands of 12-year-old workers.

Calls for accountability overseas amplified the demands for better wages and benefits for Walmart employees at home. The OUR Walmart campaign — started in 2011, funded by a labor union, carried out by community groups and targeting warehouses and retail stores — has focused on the gaping divide between Walmart’s haves and have-nots. While the company netted some $444 billion in sales in 2012, its low-paid retail workers rely more and more on public assistance. And this is not an isolated story. Since 1979, the top 1 percent has seen its incomes nearly triple; earnings of the bottom fifth gained just 18 percentage points.

OUR Walmart has provided the blueprint for the newer fast-food campaign, perhaps the biggest labor story of 2013. Fast-food activism went public at the end of last year, when workers in New York City demanded a $15-per-hour “living wage” from McDonald’s, Wendy’s and other fast-food restaurants, placing their concerns in the context of larger economic trends.

Since then, “fast-food strikes” — a mix of savvy public relations, pickets and brief work stoppages — have erupted in some 60 U.S. cities. The Fast Food Forward campaign is typical of contemporary organizing: backed by a traditional union but driven by nontraditional tactics; targeting all-American franchises; and intent on improving a historically short-term, minimum-wage job sector.

Until quite recently, few demanded that fast food or retail provide anything more than entry-level gigs for high school students. But the recession and jobs crisis — both of which compounded a shift toward temping, part-timing and piecework — have put parents and breadwinners in front of fryer stations and behind cash registers. That’s apparently why McDonald’s chose to advise employees on household budgeting: “Get a second job” and “Break your food into pieces.”  

As retail and food-service workers have been forced onto public benefits, their corporate employers have lobbied against hikes in the minimum wage. Raising the $7.25 federal minimum remains politically infeasible — opposition in Congress is strong — but 13 states will increase their minimum wages in 2014, to more than $9 per hour in some. States and municipalities have also had success legislating paid family and sick leave (though not without fallout), spurring Congress to introduce a federal bill for the same.

As new worker organizations proliferate and build, they will be measured for durability and scale.

Only a fraction of Americans today belong to the kind of unions contemplated by the New Deal–era National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), but this year’s street actions and strikes show that many more want co-worker solidarity, higher wages, health benefits and protection from discrimination, employer retaliation and unsafe working conditions. So while the term “labor movement” may still evoke midcentury images of blue-collar industrial organizing, today’s version proceeds outside the confines of collective bargaining agreements.

Put another way, labor now faces a kind of post-legal environment. Recent court decisions have further weakened the NLRA, which theoretically safeguards the right to organize, and Title VII, which protects workers from discrimination. And in cases of wage theft, corporations have leaned on a complex latticework of franchises and subcontractors to shield themselves from liability. It is harder today than ever before to speak with colleagues about working conditions, join a union or sue one’s employer for retaliation.

A few months ago, America’s largest union federation, the AFL-CIO, held a national convention prioritizing “inclusivity” and new organizing tactics. The labor movement has gradually warmed to such unlikely rabble-rousers as fast-food and retail employees, but also graduate-student teaching assistantsadjunct professorsinternsfashion modelscollege athletesbank tellerselder companionsnanniespedicab drivers and even the unemployed. Excluded by law and circumstance from the labor laws, they are in search of alternatives. Some have organized with long-established unions (though frequently through unexpected channels); others have formed their own collectives and community-based worker centers, often with union funding.

As new worker organizations proliferate and build, they will be measured for durability and scale. Are they shaping a movement or choreographing (a still useful) public theater? Will they win rights and better wages one employer and one sector at a time, or can they simultaneously lead national efforts for higher standards across the board? And will they succeed in keeping corporate accountability — and poverty and long-term unemployment — on the table?

Recent signals are mixed. The Volcker Rule, a key Dodd-Frank banking reform approved by federal regulators earlier this month, reflected the language and influence of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Conversely, just this week, Congress refused to extend unemployment benefits to the chronically jobless. These are related phenomena, according to Yale professor Robert Shiller, co-winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics: An untethered financial sector has pushed America toward a tipping point of inequality. How will workers and the working poor respond in 2014?

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