Working Fast Food: Can Low-Wage Workers Be Organized?

 

Bill Barclay,

In 1962 I graduated from Raleigh, NC’s, high school for white kids. (African-Americans attended a different high school, although this was eight years after Brown v. Board of Education.) Two years later I dropped out of college and found a job at the Char-Grill, one of Raleigh’s earliest fast food restaurants.   I was paid $60 for a 48-hour week, the then federal minimum wage level. After four months I was promoted to “night manager” at the princely sum of $70/week ($525 in today's dollars).  I was a “front line supervisor” as they are called in official employment statistics. And for all intents and purposes my career ladder was at an end.  I could have stayed at the Char-Grill another ten years and still remained a shift manager, perhaps moving to the day shift but no further.

I had not thought much about this experience for some time, but the rolling one-day strikes by low-wage workers, with fast food workers in the lead, brought back a lot of memories. Yes, some things have changed since I worked at the Char-Grill. White males were the only employees at the Grill, while today the “food preparation and serving” occupation is almost 2/3 female and over 30 percent African-American and Latino. 

But much hasn’t changed in the occupation ranked 6th in projected job creation during the 2010-2020 decade.  The wages are still low at a little over $19,200/year, only a little over half the median wage for the economy as a whole.[i]  And the hours are long: on the night shift we were paid for eight hours, from 5:30 to 1:30 with serving ending at 1 a.m. But we had to stay until all was clean and restocked for the day shift. We were seldom done before 2 a.m. at the earliest. Since, as is the case today for almost all workers in this industry, we had no voice on the job (no unions), we simply provided unpaid labor to the owner. 

And the career ladders are still largely non-existent in fast food, as well as other low-wage work.  Only 2.2 percent of all workers in fast food are classified as professional, technical or managerial, compared to over 31 percent for the economy as a whole. Only 1 in 100 workers is an owner, in no small part because at the minimum wage it is impossible to accumulate the $500,000-$1,000,000 in capital to invest required by fast food companies of their franchisees.[ii] Thus, mobility remains virtually nonexistent despite claims such as that by the National Restaurant Association: “The restaurant industry provides opportunities for millions of Americans, women and men from all backgrounds, to move up the ladder and succeed.”

Further, somewhat prefiguring the role of the wait staff in many restaurants today was the public performance aspect of our work. The Char-Grill had two hooks to entice customers: you got a “free” bag of French fries with all orders (whether you wanted it or not) and we all worked in a glass house: the entire French frying, patty cooking, bun dressing and drink drawing operation was conducted in full view of the clientele. Whether this endeared us to the customers I’m not sure; but it did not endear the customers to us. Like workers everywhere and every time who are the business's face to the public, we had ways of retaliating at customers who angered us or were rude or impatient. 

With almost one in five workers paid less than the economy wide median wage, the U.S. has a much higher ratio of low-wage workers to the total labor force than almost all other wealthy countries. The conventional wisdom has been that these workers cannot be organized because of high turnover and low skills. At least on the surface these characteristics do describe much of the sector. Yet today low-wage workers  – somewhat like their 1930s predecessors in mass production industries – are demonstrating a combativeness and an organizational capability that defies that characterization. And fast food workers are consistently among the leading activists.  This suggests that, in fast food and other low wage work, there are features of the manner in which the work is structured that can be built upon to revitalize a labor movement that has largely failed organize the unorganized and, with a few exceptions, has been too slow to expand beyond the traditional areas of unionization.

For example, in the arena of food service, I think there is something missing in the discussion of skills and turnover that consigns these workers to the unorganized and unorganizable: food service, especially fast food service, requires a high degree of cooperation and interaction among workers. Even in the very simple menu of the Char-Grill, the French fries, the correctly dressed hamburger and the right drink had to be the cashier’s hands at the same time as the customer’s order sheet. It may sound simple but it isn‘t. I saw several new employees enter the Char-Grill’s workforce who failed to achieve the necessary level of fast, efficient and accurate interaction with the rest of the shift. They didn’t last.

A second aspect of most low-wage jobs that should suggest that organization is possible is the difficulty, actually in most cases, the impossibility, of outsourcing this work. You can ‘t provide the attention and care of a home health care aide (#3 in projected job creation) from Indonesia or the operating and recovery room assistance of an orderly (#11) from India. You can’t be a childcare worker (#12), providing day-to-day care for someone’s children, from Eastern Europe. You can’t be a stocker or materials handler (#9) from Thailand.[iii] And, of course, you can’t serve a five-star dinner or even a Big Mac from India or Pakistan. 

In many instances, the difficulty of outsourcing is not just a matter of technology, it is embedded in the interaction between people that is at the core of most of these jobs. This aspect has already been widely documented in health care, where face-to-face interaction between the patient (“consumer”) and the provider (doctor, nurse, aide) is essential to the success of the endeavor.

Yes, the struggle will be long and hard, and there will be both defeats and victories. But organizing the low wage sector is possible; it’s been done elsewhere. In Denmark even the McDonald’s workers are unionized. It’s also essential to the revitalization of U.S. labor as a movement and, I believe to the development of a mass movement against inequality and thus a popular progressive Left in the U.S. 

Thousands of fast food and low wage workers will go on strike on Aug.29 to push for a $15 per hour minimum wage. 

 

So what can you do?  When these workers walk out, wouldn’t it be great if they were joined by people in their community on the picket lines?  Maybe you could organize a delegation to visit management and express support for these workers.  Or, since various unions are involved in strike support, find out from the nearest local how you can support the workers.  Also, write a letter to your local paper or an op-ed in support of these workers.  To win, this struggle must become a community-labor coalition and we can make that happen. 

billcropped.jpgA Chicago DSA member, Bill Barclay serves as National Member Organizer. He also is active with Chicago Political Economy Group and Northern Illinois Jobs With Justice.



[i] See http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2012/01/art5full.pdf, p. 18, for the projected job growth by occupation and median salary.

[iii] See National Employment Law Project, “Going Nowhere Fast,”  http://www.nelp.org/page/-/rtmw/uploads/NELP-Fast-Food-Mobility-Report-Going-Nowhere-Fast.pdf?nocdn=1.

 

DSA Queer Socialists Conference Call

April 24, 2017
· 46 rsvps

DSA is in the process of forming a Queer Socialists Working Group. This call will cover a discussion of possible activities for the group, its proposed structure, assigning tasks, and reports on the revision of DSA's LGBT statement and on possible political education activities. 9 pm ET/8 pm CT/7 pm MT/6 pm PT.

 

Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

April 30, 2017
· 55 rsvps

Join Philadelphia DSA veteran activist Michele Rossi to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 4-5:30pm ET, 3-4:30pm CT, 2-3:30pm MT, 1-2:30pm PT.

DSA Webinar: Talking About Socialism

May 02, 2017
· 11 rsvps

Practice talking about socialism in plain language. Create your own short rap. Prepare for those conversations about socialism that happen when you table in public.

Join us for our latest organizing training for democratic socialist activists: DSA’s (Virtual) Little Red Schoolhouse.

This training is at 9:00pm Eastern, 8:00pm Central, 7:00pm Mountain, 6:00pm Pacific, 5:00pm Alaska, and 3:00pm Hawaii Time. Please RSVP.

Instructor:

Steve Max, DSA Vice Chair and one of the founders of the legendary community organizing school, The Midwest Academy

In Talking About Socialism you will learn to:

  • Have a quick response ready to go next time someone asks you about democratic socialism.
  • Create your own elevator pitch about democratic socialism and DSA.
  • Use your personal experience and story to explain democratic socialism.
  • Think through the most important ideas you want to convey about democratic socialism.
  • Have a concise explanation of what DSA does, for your next DSA table, event or coalition meeting.

Training Details

  • This workshop is for those who have already had an introduction to democratic socialism, whether from DSA's webinar or from other sources.
  • If you have a computer with microphone, speakers and good internet access, you can join via internet for free.
  • If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt <talt@igc.org> 607-280-7649.
  • If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt <schmittaj@gmail.com> 608-335-6568.
  • Participation requires that you register at least 45 hours in advance, by midnight Sunday.

 

DSA New Member Orientation Call

May 06, 2017
· 52 rsvps

You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  2 pm ET; 1 pm CT; 12 pm MT; 11 am PT.  

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 18 rsvps

Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.