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Fast-Food Workers Turn to Mini-Strikes

Fast-food workers are determined to make living wages a reality. Small concessions in Washington, California, New Jersey, and New York have done little to pacify the growing discontent of minimum wage earners in the fast-food industry. Indeed, they have captured the attention of the American public and do not intend to waste the opportunity.

In SeaTac, Washington, voters recently approved a measure requiring a minimum wage of $15 for employees in the airport and related industries. A recount paid for by opponents confirmed the results and the law is set to become effective January 1. Alaska Airlines and the Washington Restaurant Association have initiated a legal challenge, arguing that the city has no authority to regulate economic activity at the airport and that state law bars initiatives from packaging multiple laws (such as requiring a minimum wage and paid sick days). Judge Andrea Darvas is expected to make a ruling before the new year.

Spurred by the victory in SeaTac, labor groups are pressing even harder. On December 5, thousands of fast-food workers participated in a national strike. McDonald’s employees in the Smithsonian Museum walked off the job and were joined by others throughout the city. 100 protesters picketed restaurants in Kansas City, Missouri. In Chicago, protesters marched along Michigan Ave. with a large costumed Grinch. “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,” said Kendall Fells, director of Fast Food Forward.

Due to the franchise structure of fast-food chains and the conception of workers as replaceable, organization within the industry is difficult.  A one-day strike allows employees to call attention to their cause without the risks involved with extended stoppages. “It’s a pretty viable model because formal unionization is pretty close to impossible,” says Jeff Cowie, professor of labor history at Cornell University.

The one-day strike has emerged as a viable alternative in a country with declining union membership and traditional strikes. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012 the union membership rate was 11.3%. In 1983, it was 20.1%.  In 2012, there were 19 major strikes and lockouts involving 148,000 workers. In 1983, there were 81 strikes involving 909,000 workers. The number of annual work stoppages has not broken 30 since the year 2000. Conversely, from 1970-1979 the number of annual stoppages never fell below 219. A table of annual stoppages from 1949-2012 can be viewed here.

The National Restaurant Association has stepped up its own lobbying efforts and is not pulling any punches. “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. In any event, it appears that the National Restaurant Association will have its hands full going forward. In a November Gallup Poll, 76% of the American public indicated they would vote to increase the minimum wage to $9 an hour. This number is up from 71% in March.

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