Today At Fast Food Restaurants Is Going To Be Very Interesting

December 4th 2014

Sandra Korn

Today, fast food workers across the country will go on strike—some of them for the sixth, seventh, or eighth time—demanding that their employers pay $15 per hour and give them the right to form a union. Although it’s unlikely this strike will result in true collective bargaining rights for fast food workers, the movement has helped changed the nation’s attitude toward minimum wage by drawing attention to the plight of low-wage workers.

The average fast food worker in the U.S. makes just over $9 per hour, well below a living wage. A report published by the UC Berkeley Labor Center last year found that more than half of fast food workers are on some form of public assistance, including Medicaid and food stamps.

Launched just over two years ago, the “Fight for $15” has received support from the Service Employees International Union, among other groups. Yet the workers leading the campaign are not waging a traditional union fight. For one, they don’t all work for the same employer—the fast food workers on strike have jobs at McDonald's, Wendy’s, Dominos, and KFC, among other national chains.

Also unlike a single-shop union battle, the Fight for $15 is taking place all over the country. Fast food workers plan to walk out Thursday in over 150 cities. Many of these cities will likely be the same ones where strikes took place last year on December 5—including a strong showing in the South. State governments in southern states like North Carolina, Kentucky, Georgia, and Texas have passed “right to work” laws and instituted other policies to cripple unions and hurt organizing work forces. Nonetheless, fast food workers in southern states represent a strong contingent of the national Fight for 15.

This strike will be the fifth national walkout organized by the #strikefastfood movement, and workers and organizers have prepared with promotional videos, signs, and chants.

What should we expect when fast food workers walk out on Thursday? At the last fast food workers’ strike, on September 4, nearly 500 striking protestors were arrested in civil disobedience actions outside fast food restaurants in dozens of different cities. According to Al Jazeera, at this strike, workers don’t plan to risk arrest. Yet they will walk out of work to form marches and picket lines in over 150 cities.

Fast food companies like McDonald's have tried to brush aside fast food worker organizing. According to Al Jazeera, following the one-day strike in September, a McDonald's spokesperson declared, "These are not 'strikes,' but are organized rallies for which demonstrators are transported to various locations, and are often paid for their participation.” It’s true that a one-day strike isn’t quite the same thing as the months-long picket line of labor history fame. When organized workers walk out to join a one-day strike, some of their coworkers stay on the job, which means that your local McDonald's will almost certainly still be serving up Big Macs. (In fact, many of the workers taking part in this week’s strike might not even be scheduled to work Thursday—after all, many fast food workers struggle even to receive full time hours.) 

But workers do put their jobs on the line by publicly taking part in actions like this one. For example, after organizing with OUR Walmart in Massachusetts, participating in one-day strikes and standing up with her coworkers, Walmart Associate Windy Edick was fired Friday. According to Edick, she was nominally fired for her alleged involvement in a parking lot accident near Walmart, although she says police have demonstrated she made no contact with the woman who fell. Edick assumes Walmart was searching for an excuse to get rid of her—retaliation is common against workers who vocally take part in organizing. (You can join Massachusetts Jobs with Justice in calling the Chicopee Walmart to ask for Windy Edick to be rehired.) Although it’s illegal to fire workers for organizing, the fast food workers who walk off their jobs on Thursday have to be ready for negative consequences.

Strikes are just one of many tactics that fast food workers can use in their fight for $15 and a union. This week’s #strikefastfood may not bring fast food magnates to the bargaining table or even shut down stores. Yet, according to both Slate and the Guardian, the fast food strikes are working: they have changed national discourse by creating political momentum around a $15 minimum wage. Perhaps more importantly, they have empowered fast food workers across the country to demand livable jobs and respect in the workplace.