Paul Sancya / AP Photo

Fast food workers, other low-wage employees launch nationwide strike

Organizers say workers in roughly 190 cities are demanding $15 per hour and the right to form a union

Fast-food workers in roughly 190 cities nationwide are set to walk off the job Thursday morning, demanding an industry-wide base wage of $15 per hour and the right to form a union. Thursday’s strike, the latest in a series of day-long labor actions coordinated through a nationwide coalition of various fast food worker groups, may well be the largest work stoppage in the history of the industry, if early organizer estimates prove to be accurate.

This will also be the first strike since the campaign began in November 2012 to include work stoppages at businesses other than fast-food restaurants. Organizers say that some employees of dollar stores and convenience stores in about two dozen cities are also walking off the job, a sign that the campaign is extending its reach into other parts of the service and retail sector. By recruiting workers from outside the fast food business, organizers for the fast food campaign appear to be knitting together a broader low-wage campaign that crosses industry barriers.

Workers in roughly 150 cities voted by conference call on Nov. 29, the two-year anniversary of the campaign’s first labor action, to approve the strike date.

Andrew Ferguson, a Dollar Tree employee in Detroit, Mich., said he joined the strike after being approached by organizers from the local branch of the fast food campaign, Detroit 15 (D15). "The area where I live in Detroit, most people are struggling," he said. "I'm one of those people who's struggling. I would personally just love to make a livable wage, because I'm passionate about my job, I enjoy working in retail, and I enjoy working with people."

After two years on the job at Dollar Tree, Ferguson said he makes $8.30 an hour and has not yet been able to get a full-time position. Instead, he works four or five hours a day, sometimes for more than a week at a time without a day off.

"They don't promote anybody up to full time. There's no such thing as a full-time employee," he said. "If you're not an assistant manager or a store manager, full time is a joke."

Thursday will be the first time Ferguson has ever participated in a strike. Asked if he feared retaliation from his employer, he said he had faith that D15 would be able to use the power of numbers to prevent any retribution. (After the first fast food strike in November 2012, workers in New York were able to pressure a Burger King into rehiring a fired worker by picketing the store until the manager relented.)

"I believe that I have nothing to worry about, personally," he said. "I'm trying to stand up for the small people who don't get their voices heard, who are afraid to stand up for themselves." 

Home care workers, airport service workers, and service employees who work at federally contracted businesses – all of whom are currently engaged in their own labor campaigns for higher wages and union representation – are rallying in support of fast food workers in some cities, though none are expected to walk off the job themselves.

Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a major source of financial support for the fast food strikers, represents some home health care workers and airport workers. Good Jobs Nation, the campaign to unionize and raise wages for employees of federal contractors, is a project of Change to Win, the labor federation of which SEIU is a member.

The McDonald’s Corporation, one of the campaign’s main targets, has downplayed the size of the previous  labor protests against the company and claimed that they are not actually "strikes." Workers are protected by federal law from being fired as a result of a strike.

"These are not 'strikes,' but are organized rallies for which demonstrators are transported to various locations, and are often paid for their participation," a company spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement last week. "At McDonald's we respect everyone's right to peacefully protest."

The fast-food campaign does have a strike fund for workers who can’t afford to take a day off, but the campaign denies otherwise paying anyone to attend. In response to multiple requests from Al Jazeera to provide evidence to corroborate its claims that workers are paid to strike, a McDonald's spokesperson wrote in an email statement that the company would "only share information we know to be accurate," but did not provide any additional information. 

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter