In Solidarity with the Striking Low Wage Workers in US

From being a docile lot for quite some time, the consciousness of the working class has been rising over the past 5 years. This is truer about the advanced capitalist countries than others. Though the Occupy Wall Street in the US has been a movement largely led by students and the unemployed, the discontent among the working class in the US has been sprouting up here and there. In this context, the Fast-Food Fight or the 15 dollar an hour fight is gaining popularity and significance.

What is happening?

Thousands of fast food workers across US are not reporting to work in protest of low wages and unfair labour practices from late July 2013. This is what some people call as a Strike. Though a dreaded word in the eyes of the neo-liberal media, it is still the most potent weapon of the working class to this day. “All wheels stand still, if your mighty arms will it”, so goes an old German workers song. The workers are asking for a $15 per hour wage and the right to unionize without retaliation. What they get now is the minimum wage mandated by the US Government at $7.25 per hour. Now let‟s put this in perspective. Working at $7.25 for 8 hours a day for 20 days a month you end up getting $1160 a month. But according to Economic Policy Institute, it takes $5600 to survive in a city like New York for a 1 parent 1 child family. Find this as too high? Let‟s hear from the horse‟s mouth – McDonalds. It has shown a wonderful gesture to the striking workers by releasing a Budget Journal called as Practical Money Skills . At $2060 in income (forget the fact that it is $0 expenses on food, water, clothing and childcare and a mere $20 on health care), a worker still needs $15 an hour to survive under "McBudgeting‟. And that is all the workers are demanding

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McBudget or the prescribed monthly budget for workers suggested by McDonalds & Visa

But the people who work in McDonalds and Dominos are teenagers making an extra buck for their weekend parties, right? Well that‟s true if 28 can be called teenage. The median age of fast-food workers is over 28 in the US. And the median age of women who make up two-thirds of the industry, is over 32. This means that they are not part time workers or students but working dads and moms trying to make their ends meet.

The Specter of Walkouts and Strikes

This recent spurt in protests which began in the last week of July 2013 is not the first one of its kind. Low-wage workers have been showing rumblings of discontent for almost a year. In New York City, workers walked out at McDonald's, Wendy's and other fast-food restaurants in late November 2012. New York saw another strike on April 4 coinciding with the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King. On April 24, it was Chicago's turn – retail and fast-food workers took part in a one-day walkout that rolled from one low-wage workplace to another and another. It then spread to Milwaukee, St. Louis, Detroit and Washington, D.C. In May 2013, Walmart workers launched their ‘Prolonged Strikes’ in different parts of the US. This follows the country’s first-ever coordinated Walmart store strike last October, and a high-profile Black Friday walkout on November 23

The Triggers

Some triggering points for these strikes can be:

1. “Down-waging ” of American jobs

The strikers are low wage employees – employees earning close to the minimum wage prescribed by the US Government – that of $7.25 per hour. According to National Employment Law Project, new jobs created after the recession was largely in low-wage industries, such as retail and food preparation. Post recession, low-wage jobs grew 2.7 times as fast as mid- and high-wage jobs. Figures from Working Poor Families Project, 47.5 million people of America lived in what the government defined as low-income working families in 2011. This means that nearly one-third of all working families - 32 percent - may not have enough money to meet basic needs. Read more All this means that, low paid workers form a significant proportion of the US workforce and their number is increasing rapidly. One out of every third working family is by all means poor.

It cannot be more ironical when McDonalds gives a note to its employees in its journal which says: “Helping you succeed financially is one of the many ways McDonald’s is creating a satisfying and rewarding work environment.”

2. Poor working conditions

Not only are these workers paid low wages, the working conditions are sometimes abysmal in fast food outlets. In July 2013, workers at a Manhattan McDonald’s and a Chicago Dunkin’ Donuts mounted strikes to protest alleged unsafe heat, with temperatures more than 110 degree farenheit (43 degree celsius). It may not come off as a surprise that 90% of restaurant workers in the US do not get any paid leaves.

With increase in the cost of living, the relative wages of the workers have only gone down. There are counter arguments that any increase in the raise in hourly wages will in turn result in a higher price for consumers or reduction in number of jobs. These arguments largely ignore the huge pay hikes the CEOs of these food chains get. McDonald’s CEO got a pay hike which saw his salary jump 3 times from $4mn to $14mn p.a. May be the workers should release a McBudget for Mr. Don Thompson on how he can reduce his spending by carpooling to work. As a side note, Don Thompson, an African American, who himself came from humble backgrounds has said in an interview that: “When I was 11 years old, I printed up little business cards and distributed them in a nearby convalescent home. The residents hired me to do errands or clean their apartments.” Wish he can empathise with his striking workers.

3. Unionization of workers in a non-traditional working environment

One of the reasons stated for the ease of collectivizing the working class was because they gather under one roof of the factory for their work and in turn share with each other their problems. This leads to the building of solidarity among the workers and in turn leads to collective action on common problems. But in non-traditional work places like fast food chains, organizing the workers has several challenges. Firstly, the employee turn-over rates are as high as 75%, meaning that three-quarters of its workers are completely new, year in and year out. Read more.

Secondly, many fast food chains run in the franchisee model meaning there is a confusion on who the worker is fighting against – the franchisee or the company. For these reasons, fast food industry was never a priority of organized labour, traditionally. But it might be noteworthy to point that large cities like New York has conditions that make it easier for workers in fast food chains to organize with fast food restaurants clustered block by block. The moral influence of similar strikes (or movements) like the Occupy Wall Street has only helped the workers in raising their spirits. We can see some similarity in the publicity of these movements – one feeding the other. OWS made massive use of social media and internet. The $15 an hour also has seen similar patterns. Some unions like the Service Employees Intl Union(SEIU)have also provided support in organizing the low wage workers.

Impact on the Socialist Movement

With even Obama pitching in for a raise in the minimum wages from $7.25 to a figure above $10, there is a good possibility that the $15 an hour campaign will see at least a partial victory for the striking low wage workers provided the strikers show perseverance. The low wages and the poor working conditions have certainly brought together the workers in fast food chains and retail chains. It may not be difficult to convert this issue based consciousness into a trade union consciousness. But the difficult task is to convert the trade union consciousness into a class consciousness. The role of a Socialist/Communist Party becomes important in this juncture. Nevertheless, the strikes of the low wage workers in the US are certainly an inspiration to the working class around the world.

Engels while speaking about the strikes of English workers said: “People who endure so much to bend one single bourgeois will be able to break the power of the whole bourgeoisie.”

A little bit of inspiration from Lenin: “When the workers refuse to work, the entire machine threatens to stop. Every strike reminds the capitalists that it is the workers and not they who are the real masters… Every strike reminds the workers that their position is not hopeless, that they are not alone.”