In late 2012, a group of New York City fast-food workers walked off the job for a day, not knowing that they were taking the first steps in a movement that’s now circumnavigating the globe. The unprecedented coalition of fast-food service workers workers, organized labor and community advocacy groups has gone international with its demand for higher wages and union rights under the banner #Fastfoodglobal.
As we reported last week, the city that hatched the first fast-food strikes hosted an international conference of fast-food workers and labor organizers. Yesterday the international wing of the movement debuted in about thirty countries (and more than 150 US cities) with demonstrations ranging from strikes to marches to flash mobs, massing in the tens and the hundreds, branded with slick social media messaging like worker trading cards and Hunger Games spoofs, inverted golden arches and the slogans “Low Pay is Not Okay” and “Fight for 15.”
Like the catalytic flash of Occupy Wall Street, Fast Food Forward’s seemingly sudden explosion might make it seem more like the latest media-driven campaign-of-the-moment than an organic labor uprising. But for the New Yorkers who have been mobilizing for the past year, recruiting fellow workers and coordinating campaigns with their chief sponsor, Service Employees International Union—on top of the constant struggle to scrape by on poverty wages, as Zoë Carpenter reports—the global upgrade of the movement is a taste of victory.
Naquasia LeGrand of Brooklyn, who works a cashier at a Park Slope KFC and earns about $8 an hour, reflected with amazement on how the movement has unfolded since she began campaigning in 2012. “You’re talking to somebody who was on the first strike. I can remember like it was yesterday,” she recalled in an interview with The Nation ahead of Thursday’s global strike day. “And now, knowing that it’s going global, I would have never thought… So just to see not only my country coming together, but all of the countries coming together, I mean, it’s amazing to me. It’s like ‘Oh, we don’t gotta go to war, we can come together.’”
The global influence is mutual. At last week’s conference, LeGrand discovered common ground between the plight of US fast-food workers and their counterparts overseas—workers in KFC kitchens in Thailand, she noted, toiled under harsher conditions for less pay—as well as some hopeful points of contrast. In some other wealthy countries, working at a McDonald’s is not seen as the quintessential “crap job” but a real livelihood. The Danish McDonald’s employees, for example, have had collective bargaining power for years and earn more than $20 an hour.
(Ironically, according to The Huffington Post, the Danes who make about $21 an hour are in large part unmarried teenagers, whereas their American counterpart is typically in her late 20s, often supporting a family on wages so low they must rely on public benefits—also far less generous than those of Denmark’s ample welfare state.)
LeGrand says that hearing the stories of organized fast-food workers overseas steeled her determination to push for a full-fledged union in her workplace. With a union that can help workers challenge the management directly, LeGrand said, “if you do something to my coworker, we’re all gonna make sure that this gets solved… especially when the manager is in the wrong.” Conversely, the penurious wages and degrading treatment endemic to fast-food work shows that the corporations “don’t want the workers to come together, they don’t want the workers to have some power, to have a voice, to actually have an input on what’s going on in the store.… The companies just don’t want to see workers getting rights, because they know there’s more of us than there is them at the end of the day.”
That “more of us” grew even bigger on the morning of May 15. Scores of fast-food workers and labor activists gathered at Manhattan’s Herald Square, carrying vuvuzelas and red signs that were also displayed at parallel protests overseas, displaying the words “#fastfoodglobal” and “Respect for Our Rights. For All Workers.” The sounds of marching band players and chanting in Spanish and English gave the strikes and protests the air of a global carnival. Meanwhile, transnational protests stretching from Chicago to San Diego rallied under the slogans “15 Y Un Sindicato” and “Lucha Por 15,” echoing similar slogans in San Salvador and Bogotá.
Protests had already started hours earlier on Kiwi time, as workers in Auckland rallied to demand higher pay. Echoing LeGrand’s internationalism, Unite union organizer Taylor McLoon told One News that New Zealand fast-food workers, who are covered by a rare collective bargaining agreement, were “showing both solidarity with fast food workers in the United States and around the world, and also showing McDonald’s they should be improving their conditions in New Zealand as well.”
And procession of menacing Ronald McDonald weeping-clown masks streamed through Tokyo’s Shibuya shopping district, alongside demonstrations led by workers and unions in São Paulo and Seoul, against unstable part-time scheduling, low pay and wage theft.
The day of action also provided a platform for local policy campaigns: in central London, protesters rallied at McDonald’s to protest zero-hours contracts, the on-call scheduling system that keeps low-wage workers impoverished. And at a Manhattan McDonald’s, local activists called for state legislation to allow the city to raise the local minimum wage toward the coveted $15 an hour.
That number means a lot to Anthony Roman, who went to Herald Square on Thursday instead of his $8-an-hour job at a Lower East Side McDonald’s. He and his coworkers struggle to scrape by, working punishing night shifts, sometimes coming to work sick. Without a living wage or a union, “that’s no respect,” he said. “And they just keep putting the pressure on us. And we’re not little kids, we’re grown adults.”
But over the past year, he’s been protesting and organizing with the movement, and he sees his hard work paying off for once. “It’s not only about me, it’s not about our parents, it’s about the next generation,” he says. “Because if we don’t do this now, our children and our grandchildren are gonna suffer a lot more than what we’re going through. I don’t care where you’re from.… Everyone has problems, and we all gotta stick together and work for a better future. And the best thing for the future is change.”