Jesse Lopez, 27, an organizer for the United Food and Commercial Workers, on October 4, 2012. By Matt Hamilton .
For service and retail workers across the country, it’s been an exciting few weeks. Following October demonstrations against Walmart, the chain’s workers and other community members participated in historic strikes in 100 cities on Black Friday, protesting low wages and shrinking hours. On the last Thursday in November, 200 employees from two dozen New York fast food restaurants staged a flash strike demanding their pay be raised to $15 an hour. People who have a lot to lose put their livelihoods on the line: Pamela Flood, 22, was the only one to strike at her Brooklyn Burger King, even though she has three kids and lives in a shelter. Martha Sellers, 55, who walked off the job at a Walmart in Paramount, California, struggles to pay her rent each month and hasn’t changed her car’s oil in two years.
Unions and community groups are heralding these actions as the dawn of a new era for organized labor. Mary Kay Henry, president of SEIU, told me that organizing the service sector is “the natural next step” for the union, which backed the strikes along with New York Communities for Change, United NY, and others: ”Here are workers, joining together saying they can’t survive on $7.25…. it’s the absolute right time to throw support to that kind of courage.”
These stories are inspiring, but they’re also needles in a giant haystack. One in ten employed  Americans now work in food service; the 200 who walked off the job in New York City are a tiny fraction. When you remember that Walmart’s 4,000 United States locations employ 1.4 million people , a few thousand people striking sounds almost like a fluke. Americans are increasingly realizing that the wage gap is weakening the economy for us all, but a push to unionize the service sector may be a longer, harder fight than Henry and other organizers suggest.
Labor has been weakened across all industries, but food service and retail has always been notoriously difficult to organize, becoming only more so in recent years as low-wage jobs have proliferated. More than half of the jobs created during the recovery pay under $14 an hour . The people in these jobs make up the most vulnerable section of our workforce. They often don’t have college degrees, or even high school diplomas. Some of them don’t speak fluent English. And many of them were unemployed for months before they got hired—long enough for $7.25 an hour to seem generous. In many communities, places like Walmart or McDonald’s are the only ones hiring at all. Some workers are ready to push for better working conditions—but many are scared and uninformed, just trying to keep their heads down.
I recently visited the Walmart in Secaucus, New Jersey—one of the stores where workers staged a Black Friday demonstration with a group called OUR Walmart—and out of the fifteen employees I spoke with, not one had ever been part of a union. Several weren’t sure what a union is. Many of them waved me off with a worried “no, no no,” even though their managers were nowhere to be found. One worker named Jon told me “all [unions] do is take dues from you.” None of them had participated in the strike a few days before.
“I got bills,” said Ida Allen, who stocks the produce department. “And some people go out there and fight for their jobs and they lose their jobs. I mean, look at Hostess. I ain’t got time for that. My bills keep coming.”
Many employees assume they’re going to be dismissed or have their hours cut if they try to organize. (They’re right to be anxious—after striking at Burger King, Pamela Flood’s hours were mysteriously cut in half.) When I asked Monica, an 18-year-old Walmart worker, what she was afraid of, she said “mainly [getting] fired” because “technically you’re going against the store.” Of course, retaliation for attempting to unionize is illegal. But many employees don’t know that, and fighting retaliation often sends employees into a maze of unpleasant legal action. Either way, Monica said, she’d only been working there two weeks—it was too much of a risk to protest.
Monica isn’t an anomaly; the retail and food service industries are famous for ushering in an endless assembly line of new employees. Not only that, “their hours are fluctuating every week,” says Carrie Gleason, executive director of the Retail Action Project. “The retail workforce has grown so much that all of these part-time workers don’t know each other.” They’re competing with one another for hours, and in retail’s case, for sales. They’re maybe juggling two or three jobs, not emotionally investing in any of them. These employer practices are intentional—they “fuel turnover, encourage workers to quit and [show] them that basically they’re disposable,” says Gleason.
Part-time labor and last-minute scheduling pad corporate profit margins, but also help keep the peace. If workers don’t know one another, they won’t be friends, and if they’re not friends, they’ll mind their own business. Colby Harris, a 23-year-old Walmart worker in Lancaster, Texas, joined the Black Friday strike but saw many of his coworkers demur in fear of retaliation. These workers, he says, “don’t think about that next person who has to come and deal with the same situation…. you gotta care more about somebody else than yourself.” If you barely know your fellow cashier, that’s a tall order.
Fast food and retail workers haven’t historically been steeped in union culture the way autoworkers or teachers or healthcare professionals might be—so the employees’ learning curve is steep. But there is another player in the service sector that wears down the worker: the customer. These are emotionally taxing jobs, ones that require constant, face-to-face interaction. On the factory assembly line, “you can kind of zone out or daydream,” says Stephanie Luce, associate professor at the Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies at CUNY. But in the service industry, “you really can’t…. You have to be there 100 percent.” With a smile on your face. For “Danisa,” a 37-year-old Burger King worker and cancer patient with two teenage daughters who declined to strike on November 29, the threat of retaliation wasn’t as potent as the “stress” of adding yet another emotionally demanding activity to her life. Her hourly pay—minimum wage, $7.25—is “not a lot of money to deal with a lot of BS…. I have to have a multiple attitude to deal with [customers’] split personalities.” It’s not that she’s scared, she says. “It’s just that I don’t have the time right now.” The last thing she wants to think about after a grueling shift on her feet is union organizing.
A decade ago, many of the workers who held crappy, low-paid jobs were teenagers who were genuinely able to move on to better-paying, more secure work. Nowadays, the average age of a fast food employee is 29.5 . In retail, more than 70 percent of workers are over 25 years old . Low-wage service jobs are expected to grow by 7-to-10 million  in the next decade. They’re the future of our economy, and we need to accept that these jobs are here to stay. That means lending support to the unions organizing them, but also realizing how this sector differs from traditional labor strongholds and making a serious, mass effort across the country to educate workers about what a union could mean for them. (Most of the Walmart workers I talked to weren’t even aware there was a strike. One employee didn’t understand why activists had traveled across the country just “because they felt bad for us.”)
But unions can’t shoulder the burden alone. President Obama has paid lip service to the plight of “cooks and waiters and cleaning staff working overtime” in hotels across the country, but hasn’t outlined specific policies to improve jobs in the fastest-growing sector of the economy. The government should expand tax incentives for corporations and mom-and-pop shops not just to create jobs but also to increase pay. A push to increase the minimum wage so that it reflects the cost of living would help, too. And to enforce existing labor laws, the Department of Labor needs adequate resources.
Most of all, we have to admit that McJobs are everybody’s problem. When the 60 million Americans working low-wage service jobs can’t piece together their rent, they become reliant on food stamps and public assistance. When people have no purchasing power or savings, the recovery slows. So when we pore over the monthly jobs reports, we should remember that quality counts just as much as quantity.
These strikes are the first step toward that consciousness-raising. Walmart worker Colby Harris said it best: “A lot of people don’t plan on being there forever. But then there are some people who aren’t as educated and aren’t as skilled of a worker and they might have to work there for the rest of their lives. What about those people?”
For more on the fight for fair wages, read Josh Eidelson on Walmart workers and “minority unionism.”