In the midst of the brutal heat wave that hit the East Coast this past July, a group of McDonald’s workers in Washington Heights decided they’d had enough. On July 18, just as the temperature in Upper Manhattan was approaching triple digits, the store’s air-conditioning system began giving out. The AC had been a perennial problem, so much so that the staff had raised the issue with management many times before, but the independent franchisee who owned the store consistently refused to pay for the necessary repairs. This year was worse, though, and when the temperature soared to 110 degrees in the kitchen by 10:30 the next morning, Shelyz Mendez, a twenty-year-old college student from the Bronx, passed out from the heat and was rushed to the hospital. An hour and a half later, five of her coworkers walked off the job. They spent the sweltering afternoon picketing the restaurant with signs that read “No AC, No Peace” and were soon joined in their sidewalk protest by community allies and members of the state assembly and city council.
In retrospect, the most remarkable thing about this story may have been how unremarkable episodes like it are fast becoming. Fast food work has long been synonymous with bad working conditions and crummy pay—but beginning in the fall of 2012, it had also become synonymous with widespread labor unrest. That November around 200 New York City fast food workers at dozens of McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Burger King, and Wendy’s restaurants joined a one-day strike to protest low wages and employer intimidation. Since then, a wave of fast food worker organizing had swept across the country, sparking periodic protests in Chicago, St. Louis, Seattle, and many points in between. Ten days after she fainted from heat stroke, a rehydrated Mendez would join her coworkers in a rally in front of a McDonald’s on Grand Concourse in the Bronx, part of a nationwide one-day strike that saw coordinated walkouts at more than 1,000 stores in over fifty cities.
For a labor movement that has struggled to generate much national news since the Wisconsin state capitol protests in 2011, the actions of workers like Mendez and her colleagues were suddenly getting noticed not only in the usual places like Dissent but also in Forbes, the Washington Post, and CNN. And it was not only the unfamiliar sight of fast food workers marching through the local drive-through that made it a national story, but also the unfamiliarity of the tactic these fry-guys and burger-flippers were using: they were striking! After all, who actually goes on strike anymore?
In 1952 there were 470 separate strikes involving 1,000 or more workers. All told, nearly 3 million people—600,000 steelworkers alone—struck their jobs that year. But sixty years later, in 2012, there were only nineteen such strikes, involving a total of just 148,000 workers. The almost absolute disappearance of the strike has been one of the signal accomplishments of the legislative and juridical assault waged for the last half-century against American unions, which has greatly curtailed the potential effectiveness of the strike tactic while significantly increasing the individual and collective repercussions faced by striking workers.
Organizers and labor historians agree that the simultaneous decline in the frequency of strikes and the overall strength and membership of the American labor movement is not a coincidence. And so it comes as no surprise that the recent uprising in fast food—and its corollaries at Walmart and other low-wage service-sector employers—has been the source of much excitement in labor circles. There has been ample evidence in recent years of growing agitation within the notoriously quiescent American working class—from Wisconsin, to Occupy, to the annual May Day immigration actions. It is still premature to judge the long-term significance of the one-day strikes. But already it is clear that they have provided a shot in the arm, and perhaps more, to a labor movement that needed one.
By mobilizing a militant minority, it has already been able to press the issue of Walmart’s low pay and chronic labor abuses in a new and more forceful way.
Some unions and progressive organizations are banking that a targeted focus on organizing low-wage employers like McDonald’s and Walmart could turn them into the General Motors and U.S. Steel of the twenty-first century, with the same broad effects of the CIO organizing drives of the 1930s. Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, has said the fast food fight is about shifting “the entire low-wage economy.” Even if it falls short of that, managing to revive the use of the strike or deliver a living-wage floor in rapidly growing industries like fast food and retail, which account for a distressingly large share of the jobs created during our tepid recovery, would critically improve labor’s fortunes. Might the actions of Shelyz Mendez and her coworkers point the way out of labor’s decades-long swoon?
Answering that question begins with recognizing that, like many a good invention, the novel tactics at the heart of these recent organizing efforts were born of necessity. As the United Food and Commercial Workers know well from their unsuccessful twenty-year fight against Walmart, the challenge of bringing the world’s largest corporation to heel is a daunting one. The UFCW’s Walmart campaign has been a classic example of the union movement’s growing reliance on “comprehensive campaigns,” a strategy of combining jobsite and community organizing with various forms of political, legal, and economic pressure to compel an unwilling employer to recognize and bargain with a group of workers. Though there have been few private-sector organizing successes in recent years, many of the most notable ones, from SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign to UNITE HERE’s Hotel Workers Rising, have come as a result of highly sophisticated and effective comprehensive campaigns.
Comprehensive campaigns inevitably require significant investments of material and staffing resources and tend to play out over a long timeframe; unions must organize workers to adopt a “one day longer” approach to outlasting recalcitrant employers while bringing to bear successive waves of outside leverage until they finally buckle. In Walmart’s case, the company has shown no signs of buckling. And so in deciding to bankroll and staff OUR Walmart, the independent non-union organization that has been the driving force behind the rolling strikes of the last couple years, the UFCW was also conceding that, as Organizing Director Pat O’Neill put it, “the old way of organizing that we did didn’t work.”
Instead, OUR Walmart has borrowed a page out of an even older playbook. “Minority unionism,” the practice of providing representation to groups of workers without requiring them to first demonstrate an overall pro-union majority at their jobsite or employer, was a common practice from the turn of the twentieth century through the organizing breakthroughs of the CIO era. Both the United Auto Workers and the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) were practicing a variety of minority unionism when they first secured bargaining rights and contracts with GM and U.S. Steel. It was only with the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 that the majoritarian collective bargaining framework we are now familiar with was put into place.
In formalizing the process, the NLRA put a critical weapon in the hands of anti-union employers. If a union representing a group of workers could not first demonstrate majority support across a particular bargaining unit, the employer could now invoke the letter of labor’s own Magna Carta to justify its refusal to recognize and bargain with them. For a notorious union-buster like Walmart, which has intimidated and fired workers for trying to organize and even closed down whole stores rather than allow a majority of workers to certify the union, the arduous course of majority recognition has allowed the company to continually deny the UFCW’s legitimacy and right to represent any of its employees.
OUR Walmart publicly disavows any intent to operate like a traditional union for Walmart workers. But by mobilizing a militant minority, it has already been able to press the issue of Walmart’s low pay and chronic labor abuses in a new and more forceful way. Even more important, the organized minority is demonstrating to the not-yet-mobilized that they too can fight for a voice at work and live to tell the tale. By framing their actions not as economic strikes for higher wages (for which employers are legally allowed to hire “permanent replacements” to take the strikers’ jobs) but as unfair labor practice strikes against Walmart for punishing workers that try to organize (for which workers are protected against permanent replacement), OUR Walmart members and strikers have been relatively immune to retaliation for their actions. As such, instead of flaming out after the headline-grabbing Black Friday strikes in 2012, when some 400 Walmart workers struck in 100 cities across 46 states, OUR Walmart has been able to keep the pressure on—recruiting more members, bringing new workers out for job actions of various kinds, and keeping the spotlight sharply focused on Walmart’s low wages.
Like the UFCW at Walmart, SEIU has provided much of the financial and institutional support for the fast food industry campaign and has been the driving force behind member organizations like Fast Food Forward, which staged the first one-day strikes in New York City just a week after Black Friday in 2012. This kind of minority unionism allows a group like OUR Walmart to build a numerically powerful organization without having to first organize a numerical majority at any given store.
Clearly, the SEIU and UFCW—two unions whose long-term viability depends on figuring out how to organize new workers in the private sector—have calculated that the one-day strikes and minority union approach can chart a course to union growth. SEIU has been discussing plans to break into the non-union fast food industry in a “fast and furious” fashion since at least 2009, according to an internal organizing memo. But just how much groups like OUR Walmart or Fast Food Forward will be able to accomplish is another question.
Both organizations have identified as their primary objectives significant increases in wages and benefits, along with an agreement from employers to respect the rights of employees to organize. But as Joe Burns, a longtime union negotiator and labor lawyer whose 2011 book Reviving the Strike was a well-timed companion to the upswing in activity in fast food and retail, notes, “advocates of minority unionism have not been able to alter the wage structure in an industry,” at least not while remaining at minority status. The modern-day incarnation of the Industrial Workers of the World has had some success organizing Starbucks stores in certain areas, but barista wages still remain comparable to their non-union food service peers.
Worker centers like the National Domestic Workers Alliance have been more successful. By pursuing legislative solutions to the lawless conditions often experienced by nannies, housekeepers, and other caretakers not covered by the NLRA, the NDWA has thus far been able to secure passage of a “Domestic Workers Bill of Rights” in New York, Hawaii, and California. These state laws include mandated overtime pay, paid time off, protection against workplace harassment and discrimination, and even access to workers’ compensation insurance.
As Josh Eidelson has reported in Salon, the fast food campaign might pursue something similar, such as citywide living-wage ordinances that would mandate higher compensation for fast food work or a collective agreement with the largest companies to voluntarily establish a code of labor standards. Scott Courtney, SEIU’s assistant to the president for organizing, acknowledged there was “a whole package of things” on the table that the workers and the union might attempt. But there are complicating factors. The franchisee business model that prevails in the industry makes it relatively easy for fast food
The reason the early UAW’s brand of minority unionism accomplished something other minority unions have not was because its militant minority found a critical weak link in GM’s chain of production and held on for dear life.
corporations to deny responsibility for working conditions in their stores (think of the independent franchisee whose busted AC unit sent Shelyz Mendez to the hospital), while a legislative fix may prove equally challenging. Home care and other domestic workers often work for employers who are subsidized by public monies, but most municipalities are currently unable to legally regulate the wage standards in a private industry like fast food.
More difficult to resolve may be another issue Burns raises in his book. He points out that one-day “publicity” strikes have tended to be successful when “used against employers who are susceptible to public pressure,” most notably hospitals, universities, or public employers. It is hard to imagine McDonald’s or Walmart being similarly susceptible. Walmart, after all, has already survived fifteen years of heated public relations battles with the UFCW and progressive coalitions of various kinds, and it remains the world’s largest retailer. Otherwise, Burns argues, the only truly effective strikes waged by workers of any kind have gone beyond simply grabbing attention and actually halted production.
As Burns is at pains to demonstrate in Reviving the Strike, the idea that organized groups of workers must be able to shut down production to win improvements to their jobs is not some relic of radical cant. He mounts an impressive historical catalog of sober-minded economists and conservative trade unionists who say something along the lines of economist Jack Barbash’s assertion, in 1956, that “there can be no collective bargaining” if workers and unions are unable to bring a halt to a company’s business operations when negotiations break down. None of them, Burns suggests, would be surprised that as labor’s most effective weapon has been watered down by legal decisions (like outlawing the sit-down strike or allowing employers to permanently replace strikers) and legislative amendment (like the banning of secondary strikes or boycotts), so have workers’ ability to form unions and win gains from employers at the bargaining table diminished.
Impressive as they are for their current scale and persistence, the strike waves at Walmart and in the fast food industry are still a long way from actually disrupting the normal state of affairs for the companies they are targeting. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which are the currently slack labor market and highly replaceable nature of the low-skill work involved. Moreover, the relatively small capital investment in any particular fast food outlet or Walmart superstore makes it much easier to idle or even close a struck store than a factory, mine, or distribution hub.
But there is also a clear difference between the still-diffuse actions of groups like OUR Walmart or Fast Food Forward—which might involve as few as one or two activists at any given store, spread across hundreds of stores and dozens of cities—and the much more focused actions of the Flint sit-down strikers in 1936–1937. At the time, the Fisher Body plant where the strike began was the largest of its kind in the world and one of only two in the country that produced essential dies for Buicks, Oldsmobiles, and Pontiacs. Even if the McDonald’s strikers stayed out on strike indefinitely, Big Macs would continue to roll off the assembly line.
The reason the early UAW’s brand of minority unionism accomplished something other minority unions have not was because its militant minority found a critical weak link in GM’s chain of production and held on for dear life. And one reason Myron Charles Taylor, then president of U.S. Steel, settled with SWOC a few weeks after the resolution of the strike at Flint was not because SWOC had shut down a similarly vulnerable point in U.S. Steel’s business operations, but because Taylor was terrified they might.
It is unclear where the equivalent would be, or if there even is one, for the fast food giants and Walmart, but organizers would need to take into account the increasingly global supply and logistics chains upon which the companies depend. Members of the Change to Win–sponsored group Warehouse Workers United have organized similar one-or-two-day strikes over the last year at massive warehouses that Walmart uses in Mira Loma, California and Ellwood, Illinois, also in response to employer retaliation against workers for trying to organize. Syncing up the retail strikes with these and other ongoing efforts to organize port, warehouse, and other distribution workers involved with transporting goods to their final destinations would be a step in the right direction. Until that happens, and on a much larger scale and duration, it seems unlikely that the major retailers will experience a critical disruption in their flow of operations.
But neither Rome nor Flint was built in a day. If there is a historical corollary to the present moment, it might be not the sit-down strike itself but the many smaller, subtler job actions that led up to it, what Henry Kraus referred to in his famous first-person account of the Flint strike as “the secret ferment which continued ceaselessly to boil among the rank and file workers and without which no strike could have been successful.” Each coordinated slowdown, each act of illicit machine-breaking or tampering with the line, each wildcat strike in 1934 and 1935 made possible the major confrontation of 1936 and 1937, by making Flint workers bolder, more confident about taking risks, and finally more willing to defy authority and trust that their coworkers would do the same.
“To build solidarity is to engage in actions that build solidarity,” Burns writes in Reviving the Strike, and the wisdom of that phrase will be apparent to anyone who has ever tried to organize a group of workers into a union. Though it may sound hackneyed and outmoded in our current strike-poor moment, solidarity is a precious thing. Without it, no amount of ideological conviction or material desperation will provoke a group of people to do anything so dangerous as occupy an automobile plant for a month and a half while the National Guard waits outside—or even to walk out of work one unbearably hot summer day after the air conditioner breaks and a coworker passes out from the heat. Every such action builds more solidarity, emboldens the militant minority to believe more in its potential power, and makes the next action possible. As in Flint, the major confrontation may still be to come.
Max Fraser is a graduate student and organizer at Yale University. His writing on labor and culture has appeared in American Art, The Nation, New Labor Forum, and elsewhere.