Fast Food Workers: Giving Juice to a Revived Living Wage Movement

Fight For Fifteen - Workers rally in the rain in MemphisOn the morning of December 5th, 15 fast food workers and 30 supporters gathered outside the McDonald’s on Highland in Memphis, Tennessee. After some picket-line discussion of tactics and their risks, one worker, Reese, said “I didn’t come here to stand around outside, we’re taking over that store!”1 In the blink of an eye, 45 people, mostly in their 20’s and 30’s, mostly African American men and women, piled into the McDonalds. Another worker, Lee, jumped onto a table, joined by others, to the swinging bass rhythm of chanting: “We can’t survive! On seven twenty five!” Then, riffing on Drake’s hit, we switched to something new:

We started from the bottom, now we’re here
Seven twenty five, just ain’t fair!

Workers on the clock bobbed their head and put hands in the air while we danced on tables and in between the aisles. After 5 minutes we rolled out and headed to another McDonalds on Elvis Presley Blvd where the same thing happened again. We added exterior signs and an adjacent highway to our temporarily occupied territory, and rocked even harder: after all, it was Elvis Presely Blvd.

Photo by Daniel Arauz - http://www.flickr.com/photos/danielarauz/8701465434/

We in Memphis were part of a much broader day of action, the “Fight For Fifteen,” focused for the most part in cities across the Midwest and Northeast. The Memphis workers, along with workers from Nashville, TN, Columbus, Missouri, St. Louis, MO, and Lexington, Kentucky, had voted on the strike two days before at a regional meeting in St. Louis. Community supporters from Organization for Black Struggle, Jobs with Justice, and other groups took the stage, one after the other, to pledge support to a movement that was “picking up where MLK left off when he was struck down.” When Memphis workers took the stage they did it in a bumping group of two dozen people. From the lectern they broke into a spontaneous chant: “What do we want? More money!” while Carlos, a leading Memphis striker, bellowed “This is history in the making! History in the making.” The decision to strike was passed unanimously, 96 – 0.

Low Wage Workers and Non-Majority Organizing

The strike was a big step forward for living wage work in this country, and low wage workers in Memphis in particular. Living wage fights have dotted the US for 20 years, usually as a demand on city or county governments (or sometimes on universities) to require that direct and contract employees are paid at least the cost of living. But for the last few decades, even when they were won, these fights happened within a broader tide of workplace defeat, and rarely received lasting attention, from the media or organized labor. In the south what few living wage fights there were faced sharp local opposition and hostile state governments. In Memphis, for example, a municipal living wage ordinance passed in 2006 was outlawed last year from the capitol in Nashville, where the gerrymandered representatives of white rural Tennessee are gathered in force.

Today, however, it seems the tide is turning. The spirit that was given voice across the country in the occupy slogan “We are the 99%” has taken hold of this concrete demand for living wages. Historically, US labor has had about as much success in the south as Napoleon did with the Russian winter, but with a living wage demand the fast food strikes have made vibrant inroads into Memphis, Durham, and Atlanta. A month before the Dec 5th strike, Obama strongly broke from his weak and nonspecific position on the minimum wage announcing he would support bringing the pay floor up to $10.10. Many other democrats, looking for something to campaign on this cycle and wanting to ride the tide, are making the wealth and income inequality their hot button issue. As more forces and people jump on the bandwagon the public presence of the Living Wage struggle will likely reach new heights, possibly surpassing the initial burst of activity 20 years ago. (Hopefully this wave of living wage struggle will be distinguished by its rootedness among workers in the shop, rather than community groups and advocates). What we as radicals have to figure out is how we utilize this moment to build class struggle and not simply electoral scaffolding for the Dems.

In Tennessee, this upsurge in non-majority low-wage fight back intersects with a long history of struggle by workers who face similar conditions. For 13 years TN public higher education workers, thousands of whom are paid less than the cost of living, and none of whom have a right to collectively bargain, have been fighting for living wages and growing their union, United Campus Workers (UCW). UCW itself has its origins in a strong living wage campaign dating back to 1999. Since its inception the union has grown to 1500 members, despite the nationwide decline in density, and in the last three years won more than $10 million in raises from the state of TN for low wage higher ed workers. Bearing with them this history of struggle, UCW leaders immediately recognized the important potential of the Fight For Fifteen (FFF). When the fast food strikes came to Memphis, UCW made up the overwhelming majority of organized labor solidarity; nearly every other union was conspicuously absent. The local United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) chapter, which does a lot of work to support UCW, made up the majority of student supporters. Community solidarity came in its greatest strength from Mid-South Peace and Justice Center and Workers Interfaith Network.

Photo by Jeffrey Lichtenstein

Having actively supported UCW for several years, and having been fortunate enough to be involved in the FFF since it came to Memphis, I have a vantage point that I hope can contribute to the lively discussion that has developed around its character and direction.

Who’s in Charge? The Staff-Worker Two-Way Street

In his article Opportunities Present for “Labor Left” in Walmart and Fast Food, Ryan Hill echoed some concerns that had been raised about the FFF events being staff-saturated and staff-directed to the point of depriving workers of leadership. Whether or not this is true of some Northeastern and Midwestern cities, where staff resources have been focused, I can’t say. But those initial strikes in the north catalyzed something here in the south which is markedly not staff-driven. Workers here caught wind of what was going on elsewhere and jumped at the chance to get involved. Staff organizers are scarce in Memphis, Nashville, Durham, and as best I can tell, in all the southern cities the FFF has taken root. In Memphis, workers are asked to take on a lot of leadership, including deep group building and strike planning, in addition to the more common public speaking and co-worker organizing roles. With minimal staff support, the Memphis Fight For Fifteen has established an extensive list of interested workers, a very strong core of worker leaders meeting regularly, and a vibrant network of community support. It wouldn’t be a surprise if folks in other cities around the south, who face economic and social conditions similar to those in Memphis, also leapt at the chance to join the fight. If it’s true that SEIU has saturated some northern cities with organizers, they wouldn’t regret switching some of those assignments to unorganized southern cities.

Ryan Hill also named some concern for the ability of these exciting upsurges to be transformed into the less sexy and more protracted work of long-term organization building. From afar, it seems like this has begun happening in Milwaukee, Chicago, and St. Louis. In Memphis, too, our fast food workers have begun taking strides to build themselves into a sustainable organization, and, coming from my experience with UCW, I find this extremely exciting. Hopefully it indicates a vision of long-term power building for the industry (or even the class!) rather than a plan for controlled mobilization followed by controlled de-mobilization aimed at winning specific legislation (Alinskyism!). If indeed it does, folks will find, if they haven’t already, that building new organization from scratch ain’t no cake-walk. Reflecting on our experience with UCW, a handful of challenges come into focus that it would perhaps be worth these emerging organizing projects keeping an eye on.

Challenges of Organization Building: Lessons from the Front

  1. Tackling union myths. People bring with them preconceived notions about what a union is, and what it’s supposed to do for them. The reality is that neither in the fast food industry, nor in public higher education, are we situated to act like a business union, nor should wish to be. We’ve worked to meet this challenge by balancing the struggle to transform folks’ ideas about what a union is, with acting like the kind of organization folks expect (offering legal resource or other services, using Robert’s Rules, etc.) where possible.At the early stages of an organization’s growth, before it gets to the point of identifiably representing multiple social or economic constituencies, it can get type cast as something significantly smaller than it could become, as an organization for just one shop or just one type of person.
  2. Building united fronts when we are weak. Folks in social and economic justice movements, conscious of being weak and poorly resourced, can frequently be jealous of their turf. When they see new organizing projects, it can show up as a threat to their particular little zone of power, rather than as an opportunity to grow the power of the whole class. But we’re too weak to exclude potential allies. Building united fronts with these folks without sacrificing your sharp political line can be very hard, but it needs doing.
  3. Preventing burn out. It’s really hard to develop and sustain worker leaders in a way that doesn’t burn them out. The fight is hard and long, and often without much in the way of immediate material return. We have found that it really helps to have a long-term vision of deep social change to help push past the short term drain. That can look like building movement history and political education into the leadership development process and internal life of the organization. And it can also look like radicals with a long-term commitment to struggle choosing to rank and file jobs in the industry.Photo by Daniel Arauz - http://www.flickr.com/photos/danielarauz/8701476314/Some folks who have a long-term vision of change see organizing as something only done by paid staff. In reality there is no shortage of folks willing to make a career out of social justice work. There isn’t enough money, especially in new organizing projects, especially in the south, to pay them all; nor should wish there to be. There is a host of limitations and contradictions that attend efforts to offer a radical strategy and politics from a staff vantage. What’s missing are folks with that long-range vision for massive social change who are willing to make their home among the working class; to get a rank-and-file position and organize shoulder-to-shoulder with workers.
  4. Understanding the South to Organize the South! Ryan Hill, like others who have been writing about the fast food strikes, did not focus his comments on the potential of these strikes to be a spark in the much needed effort to organize the south, that region which has long been the Achilles heel of the labor movement. Unlike the north, the economy of the south was completely developed around the control and super-exploitation of enslaved African labor. The legacy of the plantation economy, despite the passing of time, legislation, and cultural and migration changes, still defines the region. The south is the place where the two necessary movements for transformation in this country, the movement of the working class, and the movement for Black liberation, can come together. While these strikes are an opportunity for movement building in the south, it will be no cake-walk.Again I hope it can be instructive to share some of the difficulties and lessons we have accumulated in the work with UCW.

A. Police and Vigilantism. If you have developed your sense of police responsiveness doing political work in the north or west, your intuition is going to be way off pitch. The police will come after you a lot quicker, and a lot more harshly down here than in the north, where democratic rights are protected. (For example: During the entire Wisconsin uprising there were fewer than 5 people arrested, for doing things that included yanking cordage from the back of a TV van. In the following month seven protestors in Nashville were arrested for chanting in a Senate chamber.) The police are also more likely to just out and out kill Black people, or let vigilantes get away with doing it for them. This has, after all, been an A1 strategy of rich southerners to keep folks from organizing for the longest. (The Memphis Police Department alone has killed over 24 African American people since last February.)

The thorough dismantling and erasure of prior generations of organization and fightback, combined with abject destitution, can make people damn skeptical about building new organization. When folks are hanging on by a thread, and don’t see a slew of examples of how collective action is going to improve their lives, they can be understandably leery. The flip side, though, is that folks have little to lose (but their figurative chains!), and just a few examples of successful fightback can spark a wild chain-reaction. It happened when
the CP prioritized the Black belt south in the ‘30s, and when SNCC and others did the same in the ‘60s.

B. White chauvinism still runs deep. You’re going to need to ally with northern labor, and white southern liberals, but once the situation reaches a point where those other folks are positioned to get what they want, they they are probably going to try to sell your ass down the river. White chauvinism continues to be the single greatest obstacle to working class power in this country, and it ain’t no different today just because our president is Black. What to do about it, I don’t know, cause if we had that figured out we’d be living in a very different world. But what we try to do is keep from holding back struggle for the sake of white folks’ comfort level and struggle against white chauvinism and privilege; respect the rights of Black folks to have their own organization and at least equal access to leadership in multi-racial organization, and preach the power of a united working class movement built on the honest basis of real justice and equality.

C. This is church country. During slavery the church was the only place where masses of Black folks could meet, socialize, communicate (social, political), get educated (learn to read) plan and strategize without the prying eyes of whites. Before and after slavery, violent political repression forced some of the energy and spirit of resistance against white-supremacy into new forms of culture, both in and out of the church. This legacy is key today. So, you gotta get down with the church. And singing. And dancing. And guns. And lots of those things that get lampooned about the south. Your organizational culture isn’t going to look like it would up north. Its going to take its cues from that submerged history of resistance we call southern culture.

D. All the south is low wage! Getting paid minimum wage isn’t going to shock or get the sympathy of many folks. Thanks to the legacy of Jim Crow in the form of anti-worker law, the historic abandonment of the south by the rest of the labor movement, and a capital’s shameless strategy of locating low-wage industry here, hardly anyone has a union, and nearly everyone is broke. “You are fighting for $15? Shit, least you have a job.” It’s true this sentiment is increasingly common in the rest of the country as well. As workers lose pensions and health care, the most common response is, “If I don’t have it, why should you?” Even so, the universality of low wages in the south has the potential to resonate widely with all workers, not just fast food folks. The the Fight For Fifteen and for a union could unite hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers across sectors, link with new organizing at VW, Nissan, and Mercedes, and spark widespread worker fightback throughout the south. Honest.


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E. Electoral work. There aren’t going to be quick electoral wins in the South. We don’t have progressive era ballot initiatives that make it possible to win many legislative victories. Our state legislatures, based heavily in the white rural zones, have taken to undermining progressive municipal legislation. The flip side is that struggle here could mean something really different than anywhere else. It could mean a chance for new organizational forms and initiatives: extending to union fights, but also linking up with the anger and outrage that erupted in response to the 21st century lynchings of Troy Davis and Trayvon Martin, and connect with exciting new projects like the people’s assemblies and the mayoral election of Chokwe Lumumba in Jackson, MS.

A labor movement that hopes to overcome its current morass, and become the weapon it can be, with a shot at breaking the back of neoliberalism and white-supremacy, needs to do plenty of things. Among them are:

  1. Organize the unorganized, but especially that growing segment of workers that must rely on mass mobilization and creative pressure tactics rather than NLRB elections and legal bargaining strategies.
  2. Build integrated strategies with the many organizations that make up the civic lives of workers outside the shop, as well as with the folks who consume that value produced by workers’ labor in the shop.
  3. Fight for demands that generate concrete improvements in the lives of working people and, because they are not immediately winnable, call into question basic concepts of the economy.

A campaign that builds militant non-majority organization, and surrounds itself with communities of solidarity, to fight for living wages and a union, does all these things. The Fight For Fifteen is building this kind of campaign. And in Memphis and St Louis it seems also to be taking up further tasks that are likewise indispensable for a renewed labor movement: developing deep worker leadership, looking to link with the independent struggles for Black liberation, and, in the case of Memphis, organizing the south. We need 2, 3, many campaigns of this nature across the country, in and out of fast food. With heat of this long moment, combined with the patient committed support of leftists, we might could see it.

Jeffrey Lichtenstein is a union activist in Memphis, Tennessee.


1 The names of workers in this stories were changed to protect their anonymity.
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