Evidence shows that the fast-food strikes are working not just to increase wages, but to reinvent unions and bolster long-dwindling membership
- Dozens of fast-food protesters arrested on strikes
- US gets failing grade in worker’s benefits and wages
A demonstrator is arrested during a protest at a McDonald’s Restaurant In Chicago, Illinois.Photograph: JIM YOUNG/REUTERS
Here’s the secret of fast-food strikes: they’re working.
Thursday’s national fast-food protests in 100 cities, with the scenes of workers marching through major cities including New York and Las Vegas, may look familiar – and that’s no coincidence. Labor leaders in major unions including the SEIU and AFL-CIO have been supporting one-day strikes for fast-food and hospitality workers for over nearly two years since November 2012.
From the first $15-an-hour protest in Seattle in May 2013 to a convention in July, 60 cities on 29 August 29, and Thursday’s first widespread act of intentional civil obedience in the movement, the development of the fast-food protests has shown evidence of a labor movement ready to re-make itself.
“The unions themselves are recognizing that the old system is broken and they need to retool and try new strategies and new things, and that’s what the fast food strikes represent,” says Professor Ruth Milkman of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (Cuny), who has co-authored a new report on the progress of the labor movement in New York and the rest of the US.
Today’s strikes are different from previous ones in a number of ways, demonstrating the willingness to innovate, said Milkman. The widespread civil disobedience – courting potential arrest by walking out on the job – is one aspect that has been widely mentioned. Other innovations: the addition of home healthcare workers, a separate industry that major unions like the SEIU have worked hard to unionize, but which has not received as much attention as fast food. Tying the two industries together is, for the unions, a way to widen their reach.
The biggest difference in these strikes: the major labor unions are trying to organize not just fast-food workers, but owners of franchises, to unite both against fast-food giants like McDonald’s, Burger King and others. “The franchisers themselves are tightly squeezed with costs,” says Milkman.
It seems to want to be, as the old cliche goes, not your father’s labor movement. So how do you measure success?
The obvious way is that the strikes and protests have succeeded in getting minimum-wage rises on ballots in cities including Seattle, Nevada and other states. The $15-an-hour minimum wage in a major city is an uncomplicated success for the SEIU’s “Fight for 15” movement.
The more nuanced evidence that the fast food strikes are working along with other strategies to boost worker pay, however, is this: the decline in union membership appears to be slowing, and even reversing in New York, the state that has the country’s second-largest population of unionized workers.
Demonstrators are arrested during a protest at a McDonald’s Restaurant In Chicago, Illinois.Photograph: JIM YOUNG/REUTERS
In New York City and the state over the past year “unionization rates risen, reversing a seven-year downward trend”, say two professors from the City University of New York in a new report this week.
Granted, there are multiple reasons for the reversal, including the addition of jobs in major unionized industries in the city, such as construction and hotel work. And the numbers are still small – around 24% in both New York state and New York City – but the turnaround of the “relentless decline” is significant, suggested Milkman.
Her co-author, Dr Stephanie Luce, called the reversal “a promising sign” for New York’s workers, and added “the data show once again that union membership greatly improves workers’ wages.”
Another piece of evidence suggesting that the outlook for workers is changing overall: an economic measure called labor’s share of income is spiking upwards. Labor’s share of income measures the percentage of corporate profits that go to pay wages to employees – as opposed to enriching shareholders and other owners.
In 2013, labor’s share of income fell to 72.7%, according to the Economic Policy Institute. In the first half of 2014, however, the number spiked up. The EPI speculated that this rise may be due to an accounting illusion caused by the expiration of corporate tax breaks – but even so, the decline in labor’s share of income has temporarily halted, when it had every possibility of continuing its decline.
These two data points are important not just to today’s protests, but also to highlight some of the more dire trends in the American economy, which have been working against workers of nearly all professions and income levels. A decade of flat, stagnant wages started even before the financial crisis of 2008 and isn’t improving, according todata from the Economic Policy Institute.
And this is where the success of the $15-an-hour movement has been surprising, serving to reverse the fortunes not only of some workers in major cities, but also of a union system that appeared destined to fade into history. In Michigan, a strong anti-union law passed in 2012; in Tennessee, an effort to demonize unions as job-killers succeeded in scaring Volkswagen employees away from organizing. Unions have been blamed for a toxic long-term trend: the plummet in “labor’s share of income”, or the percentage of corporate profits paid to employees.
A protestor is detained during a demonstration to push fast-food chains to pay their employees at least $15 an hour, outside a McDonald’s restaurant in Philadelphia today. Photograph: Matt Rourke/AP
American workers showed a stark lack of interest in joining unions, emphasized by statistics on union membership. As the Guardian’s Rose Hackman wrote in May, “unions today represent just 11.3% of American workers, down from 28.3% in 1954. Worse for the old bosses of labor, 93% of the private sector is currently non-union – a reflection of a number of trends, including the gradual spreading of anti-worker, pro-employer legislation and policies … the outsourcing of jobs and labor’s failure to adapt to an increasingly service-based economy.”
So what led to the tentative reversal of labor’s fortunes, at least in New York? A number of factors seem to be at play. One is the changing face of labor: older, yes, but also more likely than in the past to be minorities, foreign-born if they’re in New York and to work outside of the traditional service industries. They’re also more educated.
“Contrary to popular belief – in both New York State and the United States,
the more education workers have, the higher their unionization rate tends to be,” the authors of the Cuny report wrote on Thursday. “Whereas decades ago the archetypal union member was a blue collar worker with limited formal education, today mid-level professionals in fields like education and public administration are more likely to be unionized than virtually any other group of workers.”
And, even though US-born workers tend to join unions more often than foreign-born workers, in New York, the two groups are equal in their rates of unionization.
The big labor unions have been fighting their hidebound reputations, but with their falling membership rolls they’ve needed to recruit warm bodies. This year, they’re doing it by working through “alt labor”, or organizing groups that don’t bear the SEIU or other big union names. Like indie labels, “alt labor” is meant to capture the current zeitgeist of the American worker, who is no longer the white factory worker of decades past.
But there’s that problem of falling union membership. So unions have padded their numbers with protesters outside the fast-food industry.
That strategy seems to be working. As the authors of the Cuny report note, “actively recruiting new members into the ranks of the labor movement, as many dedicated labor organizers have sought to do in recent years, is the primary means by which unions themselves can act to increase the unionization level. Indeed, this is one key counterweight to the downward trend in organized labor’s influence.”