This week’s piece comes to us Erik Forman, a contributor to Recomposition. Forman cut his teeth organizing as an IWW in different fast food establishments before the recent push by SEIU and other unions. The text is a repost from from Counterpunch’s Monthly Digital Exclusive. In Fast Food Unionism, he gives a broad background of the industry, business union tactics, and draws out some directions that an autonomous movement of fast food workers could take to remedy the issues he identifies. Drawing from his experience both as a worker and a direct organizer in the field, the piece brings a closeness that is often missing in many discussions.
Erik Forman- erik.forman [at ] gmail (dot) com
Fast food is America. First striking root in the economic hothouse of the long post-war boom, the industry took its place alongside freeways, suburbs, single-family homes, shopping malls, cars, and television as a thriving organism in the ecosystem of American consumer culture. From the dawn of the Cold War era to the dusk of the Great Recession, fast food was shaped by and in turn came to shape the core values of the United States.
Our lust for efficient instant gratification was satisfied with minuteman-like service with a (forced) smile at the drive-thru. A never-ending carousel of TV-advertised new-and-improved sandwiches and soft drinks fed and fed upon the American addiction to the latest- greatest- thing. Super-sized meals catered to our seemingly rational calculation that bigger is better. From Taylorized back-of-house operations to genetically-modified, pesticide-infused burgers and fries, corporate management garnished its product with a veneer of Science, titillating the American love affair with technologically-enabled predictability. Craving profits made possible by highly rationalized economies of scale, fast food executives colonized the landscape of the United States with the glowing emblems of their corporate empires from sea to shining sea. Nourishing and nourished by a culture that prefers representation to reality, appearance before substance, and short-term profit over long-term planning, Americans fall easy prey to the siren call of glossy burger porn advertising. US consumers will fatten the bottom lines of fast food corporations with a projected $191 billion in 2013. As the US fast food industry grew, so grew the dominance of its values in American society. We are what we eat. America is fast food.
In 1993, sociologist George Ritzer gave name to this “McDonaldization of Society” noting that, “the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as of the rest of the world.” Ritzer decried the gleichschaltung of an ever-widening swathe of institutions to four values foundational to fast food: the “efficient” speedup of human social activity, reduction of life to a “calculability” that conflates quality with quantity, the “predictability” of a standardized human experience, and a fixation on bureaucratic control through technology. Updating a diagnosis elaborated by Max Weber and the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School, Ritzer sums up the malaise at the heart of our McDonaldized society as the “irrationality of rationality”– the subordination of all other concerns to one overriding goal: corporate profit. Of course, McDonaldization could be Disneyification, Walmartization, or Coca-colonization… the signifier is irrelevant, at work beneath any of these corporate logos is the unfolding of the logic of capitalism a world scale.
Saturating the US market by the 1970s, the US fast food industry turned profit-hungry eyes to foreign shores, soon seeking to turn all six billion human gastrointestinal tracts on planet earth into engines of profit. The Golden Arches became the battle flags of the vanguard of corporate globalization. By the 1990s, a liberal sprinkling of McDonaldses, KFCs, and Starbuckses had washed up across the globe, capturing the zeitgeist of the triumph of free market capitalism as the happy ending of history. By 1997, McDonald’s drew more revenue from overseas operations than those in the United States. Neoliberal New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman heralded the arrival of this McWorld as the dawn of a new world order with liberty and justice for all, claiming that no two countries with McDonalds would go to war with each other (he was wrong). But what symbolized freedom for the apologists of global capitalism, had always meant a hidden slavery for a burgeoning service class of workers.
The world of exploitation behind every hamburger and fries is hidden no longer. Over the past year, a wave of telegenic one-day fast food “strikes” has exposed an ugly reality. It’s a reality I know personally. From 2006-2012, I was active in two union campaigns with the Industrial Workers of the World as a fast food worker at Starbucks and Jimmy John’s. I saw first-hand that the industry’s enormous profits are premised on the original sins of US society– racism, sexism, and worker exploitation. The fast food industry employs a disproportionate number of women and people of color in dead-end jobs with wages hovering around minimum. To our bosses, my coworkers and I were commodities, just like coffee beans or cold cuts, to be supplied when business picked up, and then tossed aside when things slowed down. Our hours fluctuated wildly from week to week based on the dictates of the company’s computerized scheduling system, making budgeting and planning impossible. The job combined all the repetitive joy of a factory assembly line with all the charm of ritualized emotional abuse by customers. At Starbucks, chronic understaffing turned our shifts into a blur of ceaseless motion to produce lattes and Frappuccinos for a never-ending line out the door. Our boss showed his gratitude for our hard work by paying us around minimum wage. On busy days, he “asked” workers to stay past the end of their shifts, and then deleted the overtime hours from the payroll. Adding insult to injury, he made frequent sexually explicit remarks to my female coworkers. My boss at Jimmy John’s made a habit of peppering her dictates with death threats: “I’m gonna stab you” if you don’t spread the mayo more smoothly, or “Ima bring in a shotgun and shoot you” if the sandwich line was moving too slowly. But even though these were bad jobs, they were hard to keep. In a ludicrous Catch-22, one coworker at Starbucks lost her healthcare coverage because she was too ill to work enough hours to qualify to buy insurance. Unable to afford medical treatment, she missed a shift because she was immobilized with pain. She couldn’t afford go to the doctor’s office to get an excuse note and was fired. Two of my coworkers attempted suicide in the six years I worked at Starbucks, driven to wit’s end by the stress of demanding managers, disrespectful customers, and the agony of watching their dreams slip out of reach as they slid deeper into poverty.
Despite deplorable conditions for the industry’s 3.6 million workers, mainstream unions were until this past year uninterested in organizing fast food. The “Senior Vice President” of the Minneapolis UNITE-HERE union local told me in 2008, “It’s not like we’re going to just organize any group of McDonald’s workers who come to us.” He then declined to support our DIY organizing efforts at Starbucks. Former SEIU President Andy Stern even said he would “applaud Starbucks” for paying tens of thousands of workers a few cents over minimum wage. How did a labor movement that once led the starving masses into battle against the corporate autocrats who rule the United States come to turn its back on those hungriest for change?
Over the course of the post-war era, just as churches became megachurches, and mom-and-pops gave way to megamalls, most American unions metamorphosed into business unions, adopting corporate structures that mimic those of their ostensible adversaries. Like corporations, business unions are run by small cliques of high-paid presidents, vice presidents and directors of this or that- union bosses, in short- who pass directives downward through a hierarchy of often exploited staffers to the rank-and-file. Rather than empower members through involvement in their own struggles, union bosses implant the toxic logic of careerism directly into the heart of the labor movement. SEIU and UNITE-HERE in particular (ironically, generally seen as the most “progressive” unions in the US) tend to hire a staff of idealistic fresh-out-of-college middle class kids to do their organizing. Lack roots in the communities they are tasked to organize, young staffers typically rapidly get burned out by the demands– and contradictions– of the job, and move along to grad school.
Staff-centrism is the tip of the iceberg. The rise of business unionism in the United States is one moment in the much longer evolution of a tension simmering below the surface of the labor movement. In the words of Solidarity Federation’s Fighting for Ourselves, it is “possible to identify two distinct meanings bound up in the term ‘union’. The first is simply that of an association of workers…” and the second is “that of the representation of workers vis-à-vis capital.” As an association of workers, unions have a theoretically limitless power to shut down or transform the economy. As an institution “representing” workers, unions behave like an “interest group” jockeying for influence using the same tools of lobbying, litigating, PR, and dealmaking as any other corporate entity.
Rather than relying on the associational power of their members expressed through production-halting strikes, business unions are often heavily dependent on the provisions of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which sets up a bureaucratized process for workers to vote a union in as their “representative.” The NLRA is imbricated with a politics, stated most clearly by its preamble: “It is declared to be the policy of the United States to eliminate the causes of certain substantial obstructions to the free flow of commerce and to mitigate and eliminate these obstructions when they have occurred by encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining….” It bears repeating: the purpose of US labor law is to sustain the “free flow of commerce,” a goal wholeheartedly adopted by post-war union leaders who happily disarmed the rank-and-file, trading direct action for bureaucratic grievance procedures and no-strike clauses. C. Wright Mills dubbed them the “New Men of Power,” labor statesmen eager to act as the junior partners of capital in the Cold War against Communism. Taking a running start toward our own era’s “end of history,” these partisans of business unionism purged radicals from the labor movement, jettisoned visions of qualitative social change for a narrow focus on quantitative bread-and-butter issues, and lulled themselves to sleep with the Keynesian fairy tale of never-ending virtuous cycles of rising productivity linked to rising wages negotiated by unions as a permanent fixture of American political-economic life.
The union bureaucracy received a rude awakening in the late 1970s. Employers began intensifying resistance to union campaigns leading to declining win rates in NLRB elections. As veteran labor negotiator Joe Burns has noted in Reviving the Strike, unions have not responded effectively to the challenge laid down by employers, eschewing the kind of associational confrontations with bosses that established the political possibility of the New Deal in the 1930s. Instead, they attempt to secure employer “neutrality” through carrot-and-stick wheeling and dealing, all too often behind the backs of workers. The carrot: union bosses may offer political support for the company’s legislative agenda and pledge not to organize other units or bargain over certain issues, or even accept sub-par wages and restrictions on worker’s rights. The stick: the union will interfere with the company’s political agenda or growth plans until they agree to neutrality. Campaigns for neutrality tend to rely not primarily on the associational power of workers, but on smoke-and-mirrors media stunts, friends in high places, and clever lawyering, in short- manipulation of our society’s system of representation. The task of the ‘organizer’ becomes getting a worker to do something that a union boss has decided they should do, rather than bringing workers together for collective decision-making. More often than not, worker involvement in campaigns for neutrality is restricted to photo-op meetings with politicians, or at most, made-for-TV one-day strikes. Or worse, unions substitute “community supporters” engaging in faux direct actions for the activity of the workers themselves. Generally, union bosses seek out campaigns based on a very businesslike calculation of how much they will cost, and how much dues money the new bargaining unit will bring in. For most unions, the odds in fast food seemed too long to merit an investment of organizing resources.
Fast Food Strikes
Many on the left have expressed hope that the current SEIU-directed mobilization in fast food and other ‘alt-labor’ formations represent a break with the logic of business unionism, or at least an opening to go beyond fast food strikes and build a more transformative movement. It has been hard to assess how these hopes stack up against reality; SEIU bans staff from speaking with the media and leaves most rank-and-filers in the dark about the union’s plans. So I went around the official SEIU mouthpieces and spoke with workers and staff in the campaign to find out what’s really going on.
To hear top SEIU officials Mary Kay Henry and Scott Courtney tell it, fast food workers virtually organized themselves, beating down SEIU’s door asking for help organizing. In truth, the strikes for $15 are hardly a spontaneous upsurge. According to inside sources, the $15/hr demand itself was thought up not originally by workers, but by consultants at the Berlin Rosen PR firm working with the SEIU brass. SEIU’s plans for a fast food campaign have been in the works since at least 2009. According to another inside source, the initial cities for the strikes were selected based on areas where the union thought it could translate a splashy media hit into political capital to push through legislation. The one-day protests were conceived of not as an economic weapon to win gains, but as a juicy hook for a “march on the media,” as Adam Weaver has noted. Many activists have used the term “wildcat strike” to define these one-day protests. A wildcat is a strike organized by rank-and-filers against or without the bureaucracy. These were its exact opposite- mobilizations directed from above by bureaucrats inside the beltway. In a through-the-looking-glass twist, this means that SEIU planners knew that workers would be going on strike before the workers themselves did. Thus, the task of the organizer became to get workers to buy into the media-centric plan decided on by union bosses, often laboring under an unrealistic quota system that forces staff to instrumentalize their relationships with workers or fudge the numbers to keep their jobs. Likely reflecting this dynamic, I spoke with workers in three cities who stated that the actual number of strikers was substantially lower than SEIU claims. Given the inefficiencies of communication (aka lying to your boss so you don’t get fired) inherent in any corporate hierarchy, it’s entirely possible that SEIU itself doesn’t actually know how many workers participated in the strikes.
Taking a page from the corporate playbook, SEIU outsourced its fast food organizing to “community based organizations”- a Jobs with Justice chapter, a couple ex-ACORN affiliates, and others, partially in order to reduce expenditures on organizer salaries. One fast food worker in the campaign told me, “The organizers are working 12 hour days for weeks at a time. When you calculate their wage, it’s less than minimum.” One former staff organizer was ordered to abandon one group of fast food workers shortly before a strike, shifting focus to another site that union bosses thought would get more media coverage. The same organizer was fired shortly before the holidays based on an arbitrary decision by a high-level SEIU staffer, forcing them to scramble and scrape put food on the table for their young child. Unsurprisingly, in at least one city, organizers have moved to form their own staff union to combat the SEIU-inspired high-turnover model of labor union management.
The shabby treatment of hard-working organizers points to a deeper deficit of democracy in SEIU’s model. Speaking on condition of anonymity, workers in the campaign reported having their arms twisted into support for the strike strategy decided on by SEIU union bosses, with no room for discussion of more sustainable, transformative, long-term alternatives. One source close to SEIU informed me that some high-level staff on the campaign reject organizing for immediate gains in the workplace because they think victories would remove workers’ reasons for wanting a union. While some cities have adopted a more rank-and-file-oriented approach, the overall strategy has remained beyond question by the rank-and-file. SEIU packed a much-vaunted national meeting in Detroit with workers who had been convinced to vote “yes” on the August 29th National Day of Action, regardless of whether it would serve to build organization for the long term in their communities and workplaces. The risk of the quick-and-dirty organizing demanded by the SEIU international to stay in the headlines is that workers are pushed to risk their jobs to meet quotas decided by bureaucrats atop the command economy of business unionism, without regard for building the relationships that form the basis of any successful social movement.
Ryan Wyatt, a worker at a Potbelly’s in Chicago, was recently on strike. He says. “I believe that because of that my manager is starting to retaliate. Just recently, after the last strike, they told me to go home and not come back for the next five days because I was five minutes late from lunch.” Ryan’s manager did not return his calls after five days, a de facto firing.
The Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago is fighting the retaliation, but such stories are likely to multiply absent a strategy of involving more workers in the organizing before parading isolated workers from different shops before the cameras. Given the recent evisceration of OUR Walmart through the firing of over 60 worker-activists, one would think that the prospect of mass retaliation would have prompted SEIU to take more care in building up a base before going public. Corporate management hardly needs to train or tell managers to union-bust or blacklist. Every fast food manager knows how to tighten and selectively enforce rules in order to weed out a worker they want to get rid of and keep troublemakers out. Absent a shift in strategy to change the power relationships against fast food companies to stop firings in each city, subtle retaliation will eventually take a heavy toll on the organizing.
It could be that SEIU just doesn’t care. After all, the union already got its 15 minutes of fame from the campaign. An SEIU spokesperson voiced a disturbingly cavalier attitude to the price workers will pay for this strategy, telling me that workers could easily go across the street and get a job at the next fast food place after getting fired.
With all the major decisions in the hands of the SEIU international, the staff-driven nature of the campaign has taken on a troubling racial dynamic. I spoke with multiple participants who were dismayed by the recurring spectacle of mostly white staffers shouting marching orders through megaphones at mostly black and brown fast food workers during the strikes. In New York, a white SEIU marshall actually physically pushed several workers of color, seeking to prevent them from occupying a McDonald’s. All too often in the United States, hierarchies are color-coded. SEIU and its surrogates are no exception.
And the words that SEIU has put in workers’ mouths? While “$15 and a Union” makes for a good slogan, the problems plaguing our fast food nation will not be solved by a dollar increase in wages. In another capitulation to the needs of the campaign’s media narrative, the Fight for Fifteen has replicated the narrow economic focus of post-war business unionism. This is all the more unfortunate because the food industry stands at the crux of the complex of capitalist consumerism. Workers in fast food can speak and act directly against the horrors of industrial agriculture, the dehumanization of Taylorized production and absurd workplace hierarchies, corporate monoculture, the scourge of working class hunger amidst plenty, and myriad other ills that flow from their workplaces. Imagine if a fast food worker union advanced a vision not just of better-paying work in a fundamentally inhumane economy, but for a worker-controlled food system operated in the interests of all of humanity and the earth? Such a turn is unlikely while the campaign narrative is dictated by union bureaucrats who see themselves not as capitalism’s gravediggers, but its doctors.
An honest appraisal of the campaign thus far forces us to an unavoidable conclusion- the corporate logic of fast food is alive in the SEIU union effort itself. From the decision to prioritize quantity of strikers over quality of worker empowerment and democracy, privileging of flashy media events and legislative pushes over substantive organizing to build power, to the simulacra of cookie-cutter PR consultant-designed messaging, to the centralized command-and-control modus operandi of the SEIU International, to the ugly reality of institutional racism inside the campaign itself, to the reduction of campaign goals to a dollar number while accepting the fundamentals of class society, this is a true fast food unionism.
Is there hope for the workers, staff, and supporters in the campaign to turn SEIU’s fast food unionism into a broader long-term movement for more substantial change, as several on the labor left have suggested?
SEIU is no monolith. There are competing visions inside SEIU about the direction of the Fight for Fifteen, and a certain level of autonomy (albeit under constant threat of trusteeship) in certain locals. There is a higher level of worker participation and democracy in some cities than others. There are hundreds of courageous workers and dozens of principled, hardworking staff active in the union, seeking to do the best they can to move from a transactional to a transformative organizing model within SEIU’s confines.
It may be possible for rank-and-filers and radicals on staff to articulate a strategy that breaks with the logic of fast food unionism, but it certainly won’t come from the SEIU International, and it won’t come without a fight with the bureaucracy. The union’s track record, the tendencies inherent in its brand of neo-business unionism, and frank off-the-record views from SEIU staff give us hints about what rank-and-filers and their allies can expect. A 2010 article in the Nation summed up SEIU’s modus operandi under former President Andy Stern, “As growth became his all-consuming passion, Stern came to rely heavily on back-room deals with employers and other shortcuts, perpetuating an illusion of robust growth that has obscured SEIU’s failure to devise a viable long-term strategy for reversing labor’s decline. Along the way, Stern’s go-it-alone leadership style alienated rank-and-file members and isolated the union from former allies.”
As the bills for the high-priced PR consultants and small army of staff on the Fight for Fifteen pile up, pressure will mount on SEIU’s union bosses to broker a deal that can be painted as a victory. As with any business transaction, it will involve a quid pro quo. Steve Early’s research on SEIU’s machinations in “The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor” offer a glimpse of what this typically looks like. Over the course of 339 pages, Early pulls a seemingly endless parade of skeletons out of SEIU’s closet, many marked by the fingerprints not just of Andy Stern, but also Mary Kay Henry and the current crop of SEIU bosses.
Driven by a growth-at-all costs rapacity on par with the corporations it faced across the bargaining table, SEIU turned to a strategy of “partnerships” with employers and raiding other unions to secure new dues streams, worker democracy be damned. In most cases, new organizing took the form of getting employers to sign on to “template agreements” that trade away workers’ rights to speak out or take action to resolve problems on the job, abandon control of the shopfloor to management by allowing for few or no shop stewards, and restrict the parameters of collective bargaining– all without any input from workers. Even worse, in order to get employers to agree with these “partnerships,” SEIU often backs legislation that benefits the employer at the expense of the broader working class. For example, in California and Washington, SEIU agreed to lobby for restrictions on patients’ ability to sue over medical malpractice at the hands of hospitals and home healthcare providers in exchange for an eased path to union recognition for healthcare workers.
Once the terms of the deal are negotiated by the labor and management professionals, organizers are tasked with getting workers to sign a card authorizing dues deduction from their paycheck. That might be the last time the workers see an organizer. Once unionized, SEIU keeps its overhead low by warehousing members in megalocals that span hundreds of miles. It becomes impossible for low-wage workers to attend a meeting where they would have a voice, let alone run for union office or get active on the job as a steward. That job is left for college-educated labor professionals. What do workers get instead? A 1-800 number to call if they have questions or concerns.
Early concludes that SEIU is a “deeply flawed, increasingly autocratic institution that doesn’t deliver as advertised, no matter who is in charge.” He seems to be right. While many hope that SEIU has made a new beginning under current President Mary Kay Henry, and that the Fight for Fifteen’s “strike first” tactic will be a real departure from business-unionism-as-usual, a look behind the media hype reveals the same old dynamics and patterns of behavior are already at play. An inside source reports that SEIU has already made overtures to the National Restaurant Association, offering to back tax cuts for corporate fast food chains in exchange for some kind of neutrality deal. This is likely the shape of things to come.
Beyond Fast Food Strikes
Aside from the principled critiques of SEIU’s neo-business unionism model, there is also the fact that it likely simply won’t work. We are now more than three decades in to US employers’ war of annihilation against the labor movement. As in the 1930s, employers will hold the line against any union incursion unless they are faced with an existential threat. The only lever long enough to move the mountain of resistance to workers power in the US fast food industry is mass direct action by workers on a scale of disruptiveness not seen since labor’s pre-WWII streetfighting years. The business unions aren’t likely to pull that lever. As former SEIU strategist Stephen Lerner has written, “Unions with hundreds of millions in assets and collective bargaining agreements covering millions of workers won’t risk their treasuries and contracts by engaging in large-scale sit-ins, occupations, and other forms of non-violent civil disobedience that must inevitably overcome court injunctions and political pressures.” We might add that even if they wanted to, the business unions have long gutted their membership base, alienating workers with high-handed top-down decision-making and years of stultifying doorknocking for Democrats. Unwilling and unable to take the road that could lead to a real victory, SEIU will begin watering down its “justice for all” slogan, bringing proposals for less justice, and for fewer workers (narrowing the focus to fewer cities, fewer companies, and demanding a smaller wage increase), to the bargaining table and the ballot. If this fails, SEIU will likely look for a way to walk away and save face. Ironically, that may mean giving workers more room to do their own organizing. More tragically, it may also mean leaving workers who have taken a risk to strike high and dry to face retaliation on their own.
Fortunately, SEIU’s fast food unionism is neither the first nor last word in class struggle in the industry. Fast food workers have battled the bosses who exploit them since the industry’s genesis. To give just a few examples, in the mid-1960s, McDonald’s was so concerned about the unionization of its Bay Area workforce that it forced potential employees to take a lie-detector test to weed out union sympathizers. The burger chain’s full-time anti-union specialist claims to have squashed “hundreds” of unionization drives in the early 1970s. In the early 1980s, ACORN launched a fast food workers union in Detroit that briefly won one of the only union contracts in franchised fast food in the US. In the UK, the enigmatic McDonald’s Workers Resistance waged a campaign of faceless guerrilla resistance to corporate bosses from 1998 into the early 2000s. While none of these efforts led to lasting organization, they all played a role in the long process of the growth of class consciousness in the global fast food industry.
In my time as an organizer at Jimmy John’s and Starbucks with the IWW, we learned from the experiences of those who had come before us and created an associational organizing model that works in fast food. Our model built on our own inherent strength as workers- our boss’ reliance on us to do the work. Instead of spending millions (which we didn’t have) on PR consultants and professional staff, we emphasized a long-term approach of training our own coworkers as organizers, empowering them to fight their own battles wherever they go, and making all decisions together democratically. And we won. We got the boss who was stealing our wages and sexually harassing coworkers fired, stopped unfair firings, got the company to install air conditioning and fix broken equipment, won improved staffing, won my reinstatement when I was fired by Starbucks for organizing, and even forced our District Manager to cut a personal check for a coworker who was owed back wages with a short strike. In another IWW campaign, we drafted a “Ten Point Program for Justice at Jimmy John’s” listing the ten most important demands identified by our coworkers, going beyond bread-and-butter issues to address fundamental questions of power on the shopfloor. Using escalating direct action, we won direct deposit pay, raises, holiday pay, the right to call in sick, a consistent discipline policy, and many other demands, detailed more extensively in the forthcoming New Forms of Worker Organization. Neither of these campaigns were perfect, and the labor movement still has a lot to learn about organizing the low-wage service sector, but our experience does make one thing clear: workers can declare independence from the business union bureaucracy, fight their own battles, and win.
In several cities, rank-and-filers in the Fight for Fifteen have already begun building their own organizations autonomous from the bureaucracy, connecting with community supporters who are free from the fetters of a paycheck signed by DC union bosses. Class struggle didn’t start with SEIU, and it won’t end once a contract is signed, a law is passed, the minimum wage increases, or the union bosses stop footing the bill for the campaign. The struggle will continue; fast food jobs are the jobs of the future– not just because 58% of jobs created in the post-2007 recovery are in low-wage occupations, but also more metaphorically- as George Ritzer noted, the corporate logic of fast food has come to permeate our society much more broadly. Whether we work at a McDonald’s, an office, a hospital, school, nonprofit, for the government, or in virtually any workplace, we have all seen our coworkers abused or unfairly fired, been forced to do more with less, been told to cut corners at the expense of the public, and been denied a voice on the job and in society. Millions of workers live lives of quiet desperation, watching their labor disappear into the machinery of the capitalist system, turned against them to perpetuate the very evils that they oppose: fast food workers watch the product they serve poison their communities, bank workers see their employer selling predatory loans to their neighbors, hospital workers bear witness to how profit is put before patient health, and teachers chafe under the dehumanization that standardized testing wreaks on their students. Collectively, workers produce all of the ills of our society; which means that collectively, we can strop producing them. And increasingly, we want to.
Ryan Wyatt, a striker at Potbelly’s in Chicago, says it best, “We’re asking not just for better working conditions for us. We’re asking to live in a better America.”
Fast food unionism cannot change a fast food nation, but it can be a step toward a movement that will.
Erik Forman is a labor organizer and writer. You can reach him at erik.forman (at) gmail.com. He tweets @_erikforman.