Julie Sherry joined a delegation from the British bakers’ union to support a day of strikes by US fast food workers in North Carolina.
The movement of thousands of fast food workers in a series of strikes, spanning 150 cities across the US, has captured the eye of the international media. It’s easy to see why. The movement symbolises something incredible — non-unionised workers, those on the lowest pay, many of them black, many of them parents living in poverty, who work in the most difficult conditions with no job security — have now lost their fear.
The strikes raise questions about the power of the working class today and the challenges facing the trade union movement.
Since late 2012, starting from workers in a few stores walking out in New York, the strikes have mushroomed to thousands taking to picket lines, in some cases shutting stores down. Their demands for $15 an hour (£9.17) and a union represent real class anger, and an expectation that they deserve a better life.
Working conditions for fast food workers in the US are similar in many respects to their counterparts in the UK. The average US fast food worker is paid an hourly rate of $7.73 (£4.70), while the UK average is £5 according to PayScale figures.
One of the key chants of the US movement, “We can’t survive on 7.25”, shows that for many workers, hourly pay is even lower.
On top of low pay, issues such as high working temperatures, no guarantee of hours and the lack of respect workers face every day were the tinder that caught fire. Strikers tell stories of how workers were sacked for eating a chicken nugget on shift, or drinking water out of the “wrong size cup”. And many face racism from managers.
Given these conditions, you might think that the workers would be a bit nervous or timid, that there would be a low turnout on picket lines, or that it’s incredible that the strikes took place at all.
But standing on the picket lines in September, megaphones were passed striker to striker, with many taking turns to lead chants and make impassioned speeches. During the strike hundreds of workers were arrested for civil rights-style sit-downs.
The scenes were reminiscent of the 1960s, with black and white workers linking arms, and being cuffed and taken away to huge cheers, and singing gospel inspired songs of justice. The frenzied carnival energy on the day, and the huge signs strikers held everywhere declaring “I believe that we will win”, sum up the nature of the strikes.
Their indomitable spirit was on display. It was worker-led and had that air of spontaneity that often brings terror to the bosses. But behind this image the strikes also represent a conscious attempt to address the question of what the trade union movement will look like in ten or 20 years time.
In 2013 the US union membership rate — percentage of waged/salaried workers who are union members — was at 11.3 percent, with only 14.5 million in unions.
This figure has almost halved in 30 years from the 20.1 percent rate in 1983. There is regional variation, with New York having the highest union rate at 24.4 percent, and North Carolina with the lowest at 3 percent.
The support for the strike movement from the 2 million-strong Service Employees International Union (SEIU) reflects a positive attempt to reshape the union movement because it places workers’ struggle at its heart in a politicised way. One of the great successes of the strikes is that workers have spread them to every state.
It is encouraging that a key element in the strategic thinking behind the campaign is the need to escalate in some way each time there are strikes. So it was vital, and powerful, that the strikes in September shut down Times Square in New York, the birthplace of the movement. There was also a conscious decision to highlight events in the South.
I joined a delegation from the BFAWU, the British bakers’ union, to North Carolina, a Southern state with the lowest union density, as well as sharp tensions over racism.
What the strikers’ campaign delivered was impressive. They linked up with civil rights movement veterans such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) president Reverend Barber. The significance of what fast food workers were leading was highlighted by banners that read “Organise the South”.
Particularly in the South, but also as a movement nationally, the strikes have placed the fight against racism and for social justice centre stage. Reverend Barber told strikers in North Carolina that they were “the continuation of the movement for civil rights and justice in America”.
He said, “Don’t let someone who is making a thousand times more than you tell you that you don’t deserve a living wage.”
From the start the campaign has had an emphasis on being worker-led. There is also a sense of the importance of winning small issues workplace by workplace in order to keep strikers united behind the bigger vision for $15 and a union. And this element is connected to the issue of fighting oppression too.
On 4 September workers in North Carolina, mostly black but alongside white workers too, marched, cheering and singing, to the McDonald’s. One worker who had never been part of the strikes before joined them. She was met with rapturous applause.
The atmosphere was electric. Workers took to the roads, chanting, “We shall not be moved”, and a slow, powerful rendition of their own, “We’re ready for 15”.
One striker from Greensboro, her two young children with her, explained the racism faced by one of her colleagues when he led the charge to get workers to join the strikes.
“When they hired him he had his dreads [dreadlocks] and that was all fine, but when he got involved in the union, they said his dreads were a problem. The bosses said they didn’t like his ‘urban look’ and that he had to go. The manager said she ‘needed more white people’. That’s what we’re dealing with here in the South.
“But the managers are scared now. Some of us overheard them saying they would have to get him back. We had made it clear that he just had to say the word and we would all march down there. Every time we strike there’s more people coming out, they are not scared any more now they’re realising it’s their right to organise.”
The strikes on 4 September came after a US-wide fast food workers’ convention where delegations of strikers came together from across the US to discuss the next steps — more than 1,200 of them turned up.
On the day of the strikes we met many people who said they’d love to have gone but hadn’t been able to get there. For a section of workers who are non-unionised and have virtually no rights at work, the unprecedented turn out at the convention is remarkable.
Many of the tactics building the strikes focus on fast food workers visiting other workers, getting leaders inside the workplaces, and encouraging every worker who joins the campaign to get five others around them.
The results represent the beginning of the development of a confident rank and file rooted in each area.
The strikes have been one day at a time, are symbolic, and aimed at maximising political pressure on notorious multinational employers. In many workplaces it is a minority who are on strike, but in a large number it is a majority, and stores have been shut.
As the strike movement deepens and grows the question raised is: at what point does the escalation move to more days striking and more stores shut? But the key is that it is deepening and growing, and has a momentum driving it forwards.
From the beginning the “walk backs” have been just as important for the movement’s success as the “walk outs”. It is one thing seeing the spirit of the strikers on the picket line on strike days, but you only really begin to understand their courage when you are on a “walk back” with someone who is from a workplace where they were the only one on strike.
The early success of these walk backs — getting victimised people back in work through political pressure and protests — means that now workers are less likely to be singled out. And of course in many places workers are going back together, in some places as the whole workforce.
There are many similarities to the situation fast food workers face in the UK — poverty pay, a culture of insecurity, bullying management and job insecurity. But there are also significant differences that help explain the eruption of the movement.
The tensions created by the gap between expectations many peoeple had of how Barack Obama’s election victories could bring change, and the reality that many elements of people’s lives have not changed — such as racism and poverty — form the backdrop to the confidence of the fast food strike movement.
In Britain the key battle is the fightback over pay in the public sector, because it is also a politicised strike movement to defend the welfare state, to save the NHS, and to reject the austerity agenda.
The development of strikes by up to a million or more over pay can inspire unorganised sections of workers, like fast food workers. This helps create circumstances where they may gain confidence to fight.
The Fast Food Rights campaign in the UK, launched in January by the BFAWU bakers’ union, John McDonnell MP and Unite the Resistance, raises the political issues of zero hours contracts, a demand for a £10 an hour living wage and union rights for low paid workers.
The lesson from the US fast food strikes is that no group of workers should be written off. It reminds us that gutsy struggle can sometimes come from the most unlikely places. It proves that no matter what setbacks the working class movement has experienced — the conditions of exploitation, poverty and oppression they face — capitalism continually creates the ground for new struggles to rise up.