Beyond Fast Food Strikes – Why the Left Shouldn’t Write Off Low-Wage Strikes


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"That weather really sucks," he said offhandedly. I nodded tersely. "But, hey," he continued, chuckling. "What are you going to do? Go on strike?"

It made sense that he found the idea of us striking absurd – strikes are at an all-time low, nearly nonexistent in shops like mine, and almost none of my co-workers have ever been in a union. But a month later, we did. Ten Whole Foods workers walked off the job to protest a draconian attendance policy and poverty wages, along with 200 fast food and retail workers across the city and thousands across the country.

Low-wage fast food and retail workers took center stage for the American labor movement this summer. The Fight for 15 (FF15) campaign went public last November, then erupted earlier this spring, as workers walked off the job in New York, then Chicago, then St. Louis, Milwaukee, Detroit, and Seattle. Seven cities organized a second week of one-day strikes at the end of July. Then, on August 29, 62 cities and more than 1,000 workers struck around two principal demands: $15 an hour minimum wage and the right to form a union without retaliation.

We are part of a new generation of workers rediscovering our strongest weapons: the union and the strike. In the age of austerity, we stood up. And we've done so with the backing of a union that many on the Left have (rightly) skewered in the past for its close collaboration with capital. Despite a recent history of eschewing confrontation, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has helped kickstart what could be a wave of militancy among 21st century low wage workers – a wave that, should it continue to spread, may go beyond anyone's expectations.

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raised concerns about the movement's potential and the limitations of its strategy – perhaps most notably about SEIU's history of settling concessionary contracts, cutting deals with employers that short workers, and most recently, in the health care wars in California. Others are concerned the workers aren't in control. Still others worry Fight for 15 isn't a real organizing drive, but a PR campaign.

SEIU's commitment and involvement in this campaign have been indispensable in terms of the organizing resources provided, the legal protection and services we otherwise would not have access to, and the direct connection to the broader labor movement and community organizations. For all of SEIU's past flaws – which are very real and need to be reckoned with – they deserve credit for taking up bold organizing campaigns while too many other unions are on the retreat, or are playing dead while being battered by right-to-work laws and other anti-union campaigns and legislation.

SEIU leadership is calling for the continued and escalated use of strikes, occupation, and direct action as means to resolving worker grievances. They are encouraging workers to organize on the shop floor. They are confronting issues of racism and sexual harassment in the workplace. This is an unquestionably good thing, and could help revitalize and transform the labor movement.

Certainly, there is a PR aspect of the movement, but to write off the campaign because of this is too cynical. The aggressive media campaign has spread the campaign to places where staff organizers have never set foot, including rural areas and the South. And the media campaign has made our struggle, and the struggles of many workers throughout the country, well-known in the mainstream. The "PR campaign" does not operate alone, but alongside a real project of movement building.

Is this a worker-run campaign that workers have conceptualized and carried out entirely by themselves? Not yet. But workers are being transformed into union leaders for the first time by participating in this movement.

SEIU has opened up space in the context of five years of economic crisis. That space may have possibilities far beyond what organizers and even workers ourselves have imagined. The campaign cannot necessarily be contained or molded by the union that initiated it. The FF15 is social movement unionism in embryo; it has the potential to clarify the questions about class struggle raised by Occupy. It can help re-link workplace struggles to communities. It can push for increased power for workers on the shop floor, but it can also demand that government institutions institute stronger protections for unions and all workers.

Radicals are in a position to shape this movement by rebuilding the tradition of radical unionism. We can, and already have, played important roles in shaping the campaign on the ground – in Chicago, for example, we helped initiate a women's caucus, and designed and led worker-run trainings on organizing basics and fighting retaliation from bosses.

The Left needs to move beyond conceptualizing workers' institutions like SEIU as monoliths incapable of change. It's difficult to change them, but not impossible. Anger over the betrayals of business unionism and bureaucracy should not trick us into seeing unions as completely and irreparably divorced from the membership. Rather, it should make all the more clear the need to organize new workers and rebuild unions from the bottom-up.

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Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago. 

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