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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

May 15, 2014 at 10:38 AM

Fast food ‘strikes’ set to spread

I’ve been receiving emails from the PR outfit Berlin Rosen, based in New York and D.C., promising that fast-food workers will “strike” in 150-plus American cities today for a $15 base wage and “a union without retaliation.” Also, “workers protested in 33 countries on six continents at restaurants like McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC. In all, the campaign for higher pay and rights on the job hit more than 230 cities worldwide.”

The New York Times wrote about it, although noting “the protests have not swayed McDonald’s or other major restaurant chains to significantly raise their employees’ pay.” These actions are familiar to Seattleites and no doubt helped pressure Mayor Ed Murray to offer a $15 minimum wage plan (my take on that is here).

But words matter. Most of the activity I saw in Seattle was informational picketing, not a strike. A strike is where workers walk out and refuse to return until their demands are met or — back in the days of more balanced labor law — they had to give in. The calculus is that shutting down the business hurts revenues and profits, forcing ownership and management to either give in, or give a little. The latter has its own strategy: to hold out until workers get desperate.

In the Gilded Age, some strikes became notorious. In 1886, a rally supporting workers striking for an eight-hour day, resulted in the so-called Haymarket Massacre in Chicago. There was the Pullman Strike of 1894 involving 250,000 workers in 27 states. In this era, workers often faced police and National Guard troops that acted as strike breakers. But union persistence was a key factor in improved conditions and the rise of the Progressive Movement.

Union fortunes have ebbed and flowed. The Red Scare after World War I hurt organized labor. The Seattle General Strike of 1919 ended on terms favorable to business amid cries of “Bolshevism” on the part of the strikers. On the other hand, the Flint Sit-Down Strike during the Depression made the United Auto Workers a powerhouse.

Striking is much harder today, with a surplus of labor and the law bent to allow replacement workers to be brought in and other formerly unfair practices. Even the mighty UAW and Boeing’s unions have backed down. But it was rarely easy business, with high stakes for both sides.

When I asked the pro-$15 group Working Washington about the strike claims, a spokesman said fast-food workers “went on strike on May 30 and Aug. 29, 2013. On several other dates, the workers engaged in other actions including boycotts and protests.”

On the strike days, there were workers who were scheduled for work and walked off their jobs. And there were workers who arrived at their stores and walked the lines. On May 30 this resulted in about 12 stores being forced to close. On Aug. 29, stores didn’t close because management covered the vacated positions. One worker was fired and a (National Labor Relations Board) case was filed. The NLRB found in the worker’s favor. There also were boycotts of the store who fired the worker demonstrating the tremendous community support for the fast food worker.

I’m not able to check the specifics, but I suspect that most of what we’ve seen is informational picketing. However noble —and even economically sensible — the cause, using the word “strike” for picketing misrepresents real striking. It also trivializes the sacrifices made through 150 years of American labor history.

The sad fact is that these workers are very replaceable — and many of them are living on the edge. They are not union members, the Obama administration and the Democrats going back on a 2008 campaign promise to pass “card check,” which would have made unionization easier. They are facing more than 30 years of anti-labor tilt at the NLRB. The result is that they have minimum leverage. They can’t shut down McDonald’s indefinitely to get a fair contract.

And that’s too bad. Because America did better with marketplace pluralism that included strong unions.

The power of moral suasion shouldn’t be underestimated.

But most of what we’re seeing now is not a strike.

Comments | More in Labor unions | Topics: $15 wage campaign, minimum wage

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