Even a year ago, was anyone predicting that fast food workers would be on strike? Struggling, disrespected, mostly working in small franchises without the support of large numbers, they are among the hardest workers to unionize, and as a result, organized labor has, for the most part, ignored them. Each franchise requires a separate campaign but owners have access to the big-gun union-busting lawyers of giant corporations.

And many workers don’t know their rights. Where would they find out about them? One worker who acknowledged she wanted better conditions said, “If you walk out on your job, that’s grounds for dismissal.” Wal-Mart, for example, “illegally confiscated union literature, prohibited discussions of unions and retaliated against union supporters.” Supposedly, American workers have the right to form unions and go on strike. But Amy Traub pointed out on the website Demos that, “while many workers wish to join unions, they often change their minds after an intimidating one-on-one anti-union meeting with their direct supervisor once a week or more leading up to a union election (a tactic employers used in 66 percent of organizing campaigns), after their boss threatens to close down the workplace if workers decide to unionize (57 percent of organizing campaigns), or after those co-workers who most openly support the union are fired (34 percent of organizing campaigns).”

Photo Credit: L.A. Kurth.

It seemed impossible that they would even try.

But it happened and has been happening since last November. At McDonald’s, at Wendy’s, at Wal-Mart. And it wasn’t only in New York City. Far from it. Very far from it. Workers in Indianapolis and yes, the small town of Wausau, Wisconsin walked off the job in protest and picketed, while many coworkers supported them in their hearts without daring to go out themselves.

These people are heroic.

It’s one thing to own a house, to have six months’ income or more as a cushion, and a long history of organized labor behind you. It is entirely another to be blazing a trail in these tough workplaces. Despite those obstacles, there have been victories. “Carwasheros,” those mostly-immigrant workers in high-end NYC car washes successfully bargained for raises, paid breaks, and greater safety – with the help of community support, labor, and interfaith organizations.

This is a flame that the entire progressive community needs to nurture.

We are all needed in this struggle against the erosion of employee rights. Professionals and managers may feel distant, even disdainful, unaffected by what happens to a mere McDonald’s worker, but they are mistaken because this trend could hit them too or their children. Consider the fact that 753,000 fast food workers hold a college degree.

The tidal wave of attacks against benefits, good working conditions, predictable schedules, and sufficient wages isn’t stopping at the bottom rung. On the contrary, more and more professional jobs are being made part-time or outsourced – surgeries to India and Costa Rica, for example, and legions of computer jobs to China, India, even Serbia. And many previously public and professional positions are now part-time, low-paid franchise jobs.

Formerly Professional

A recent online discussion centered on massage therapists at a chain called Massage Envy with franchises from North Carolina to Arizona: “I work [there] part-time and have a full time job somewhere else…They pay their therapists a very, very low wage with no benefits.” Some masseurs/masseuses earned a mere $15 an hour for work that is undeniably skilled. Later in the discussion, someone said, “well your not surpose to discuss how much you make at a job.” A reply someone made gives me hope for the future: “Would someone tell me WHY you shouldn’t discuss what you make. That is nothing more than an idea imposed upon us by management so that we wouldn’t know we are being underpaid. I think everyone in crummy underpaid places should discuss there salaries and demand equal pay and fair wages.”

Welcome to Your Future

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

I’m reminded of the words of Joe Burns, a labor activist and lawyer, “You earn the right to strike by striking.” In a service economy whose rules are set mostly by the wealthy and powerful, part-time, low-paying jobs are the ones most people will have – unless we make them livable. That’s one reason the Employee Free Choice Act needs to be revived. And Burns points out, “in a lot of industries in the 1930s, the organizational work was very precarious, and it became one of the main demands of the unions to make jobs permanent, with job security, and full-time. This was something they were able to change through struggle. If you look at longshore workers in the 1930s, you had to be called for work. Auto work was very intermittent and high-turnover. Trucking was the same thing.”

Remember what the March on Washington fifty years ago was for? JOBS and freedom. Let’s make sure those two words can go together. Happy Labor Day!

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