Last week, thousands of fast food workers in seven cities walked out on their jobs to raise awareness of low wages and poor working conditions, and joined one of the largest protests of its kind. Demonstrations called on mega-chains like McDonald's and KFC to raise wages from as low as the federal minimum of $7.25 to $15 per hour. The action is part of a larger campaign to improve working conditions in the predominantly low-wage fast food and retail industries, and is being led by union-backed organizations such as Fast Food Forward. While unionizing some part of the industry is one of the organizers' goals, they mainly hope to influence corporations regarding wages, and bring attention to unsavory workplace practices that could damage brand names.
The fast food campaign's national scope, and its focus on raising awareness of inequality, has led several critics to compare the campaign to Occupy Wall Street. Though the movements may share some similarities, the fast food campaign is unlike Occupy in that it focuses on labor justice, and has articulated a specific goal: to provide a living wage for all workers within the industry. The organizers of the fast food mobilization are working within the tradition of the labor movement, and have placed members of a low-paid, precarious working class at the center of the campaign. The organizers are also drawing on the strategies of 1960s labor activists like César Chávez, who linked the cause of economic justice with civil rights struggles. The protests remind us that the ability to earn a living wage and to be treated with dignity at work are not privileges, but basic human rights.
During the Occupy protests, media coverage focused on problems such as home foreclosures and student debt, which threaten the middle class. While these issues are part of the overall problem of economic inequality, the challenges faced by fast food workers are quite different. A worker who makes around $9 an hour — the median wage in the fast food industry — will make only $18,500 a year, if they're working full time. In New York City, where the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $2,950 per month, an employee would have to earn almost twice as much to cover rent alone. The fast food workers' protests call attention to a population for which the fight for economic justice is a matter of survival. Many workers have to skip meals in order to feed their children, and many more rely on food stamps.
Rather than comparing the protests to Occupy, organizers and reporters should focus on the demonstrations' similarities to 1960s labor and civil rights campaigns. Signs proclaiming "I Am a Man" held by McDonald's workers during a protest in April, are an explicit reference the famous 1968 Memphis sanitation workers' strike. Like today's fast food workers, the sanitation workers had long suffered under poverty wages and hazardous working conditions. In 1968, after two workers were killed in a work accident, the union went on strike with the support of the NAACP and other groups (Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at a sanitation workers' rally the night before his assassination). The sanitation workers held iconic "I Am a Man" signs, affirming the workers' dignity, and protesting against the double degradation of racism and economic inequality.
Fast Food Forward and other labor organizations are also drawing on the strategies of the United Farm Workers' movement, which was led by César Chávez in the 1960s. One of the barriers to unionization in fast food is the industry's extremely high worker turnover rate, which averages 75%. In order to form a union, a majority of the employees have to vote in its favor. If more than two thirds of the employees leave and are replaced during a union drive, the union has little chance of being certified. The seasonal farm workers César Chávez organized moved frequently, and did not have rights under the National Labor Relations Act. Chavez called frequent and prolonged strikes, organized moving picket lines, and used elements from the workers' culture to create a powerful movement. The fast food workers' movement relies on similarly frequent and visible actions to put pressure on employers and foster solidarity among employees.
While the comparison to Civil Rights Era struggles foregrounds the moral imperative of the fast food workers' claims, it also calls attention to the shortcomings of federal labor legislation, which has changed little since the 1960s. The Taft-Hartley act, which was passed in 1947 despite a veto by President Harry Truman, makes it more difficult for employees to form unions and stand up to exploitative employers. The act required unions to hold National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections, allowed employers to be partial during such elections, and outlawed secondary boycotts and certain kinds of strikes. As a result, many employees face intimidation and risk being fired when union elections are held. Existing unions can have a limited economic impact on employers. In 2009, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) introduced the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have eliminated the NLRB election requirement, permitting employees to form unions by signing union cards instead. This practice is already legal in many states, and eliminates much of the employee intimidation that the federal rules permit.
As the fast food strikes raise awareness about economic injustice, the national discussion should turn not only to the workers' plight, but to the laws that make their conditions so much harder to change. One of the great achievements of the civil rights movement was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which makes racial discrimination and segregation illegal. There is no comparable legislation to protect citizens from economic oppression. Unionization is the only reliable way for workers to achieve and maintain adequate working conditions. The fact that the enormous fast food industry is essentially union-free shows that existing laws fail to protect workers' rights to unionize.