As the gears of federal government have ground to a halt, a new energy has been rocking the foundations of our urban centers. From Atlanta to Seattle and points in between, cities have begun seizing the initiative, transforming themselves into laboratories for progressive innovation. Cities Rising is The Nation’s chronicle of those urban experiments.
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Back in the ’90s, following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, some of the pundit class predicted that the global spread of the Big Mac marked the world’s inexorable path toward the End of History; the golden arches of America’s favorite fast-food chain would serve as the triumphant gateway to a neoliberal peace of borderless consumerism and free trade.
Okay, well, that didn’t happen. But the fast food industry today is fostering a different kind of unity—this time through postindustrial class struggle. Having shaken up big burger chains with strikes and protests over the past year, fast-food workers are now consolidating their mobilization both by seeking international solidarity and by localizing their struggle with targeted campaigns for decent working conditions.
In New York, where local workers launched the first protests for fair wages and labor rights in the fast-food industry in late 2012, a coalition of faith, community and labor groups rallied on Wednesday at the Riverside Church in Harlem to push for a $15 hourly minimum wage for New York City.
Currently, New York City—like other towns and cities nationwide, thanks to corporate lobbyists—is barred from enacting a local minimum wage hike. A decades-old court ruling preempts localities from raising the base wage above the state minimum (now $8 an hour), but a pending Senate bill would enable New York City and other cities in the state to raise the wage floors in their communities to reflect the local cost of living.
The $15 wage faces daunting political hurdles (even Seattle’s new $15 wage legislation is fraught with compromising pro-business loopholes). But if the de Blasio administration takes the lead in responding to the campaign’s demand for a $15 wage floor, that could set a major precedent for the rest of the state, where nearly 40 percent of workers earn less than $15 an hour, and fast-food workers earn on average just $11,000 annually (their CEOs might make more than double that amount in a single day).
Since the campaign began, fast-food workers’ demands for $15 an hour and a union, backed by SEIU and community advocacy groups, have begun seeping into local policy discussions. And the emphasis on justice for low-wage workers has defied stereotypes of fast-food workers as pimple-faced teens or slothful grunts. The reality these workers live tells a different story: on average, they are in their late 20s; they’re mostly women; more than a quarter are parents; and the vast majority are their families’ main breadwinners. Many are single moms like Adriana Alvarez, who has commented sharply on the indignities of her cashier job at a Chicago McDonald’s, as she has seen her poverty wages further gutted when her employer systematically undercounts her clocked time:
McDonald’s is a multibillion [dollar] company; they have no reason to steal from us… I want to be able to do things for my son and ensure him a bright future, but it’s hard to do that when you are living from paycheck to paycheck and when McDonald’s is stealing from me on top of that.
A year ago, many might have laughed at the idea of paying the plebe behind the counter $15 an hour. But now that workers have raised their voices to frame their plight in the context of the nation’s ferocious class stratification, a living wage seems like a deeply modest proposal.
Alvarez just found a kindred spirit on the other side of the hemisphere. Frances Cabrera, a worker at a McDonald’s in Argentina, gathered with other international activists in New York this week to launch a global phase of this protest campaign. “No matter where they live, fast-food workers want fair pay and rights on the job,” Cabrera declared at a conference announcing the campaign launch. “After seeing the courageous actions of American fast-food workers demanding change, we were inspired to join the growing movement.”
The #FastFoodGlobal campaign—an offshoot of the US-based movement—has announced that organizers are planning protests for May 15 in more than thirty countries, from Morocco to Japan, along with wildcat strikes in about 150 US cities. Kiwis will stage a teach-in at “Macca’s” corporate headquarters in Auckland, solidarity strikes will sweep McItalia’s in Milan, Rome and Venice, and flash mobs will crash five “McDo” outlets in the Philippines.
While the map of protest sites presents a somewhat disturbing testament to fast food’s vast global reach (more than 30,000 McDonald’s branches worldwide, with over 1.7 million workers), the industry’s ubiquity intersects with, and helps galvanize, both global and local labor struggles. Worldwide, the casualization of labor, particularly in the food services, has drastically eroded labor rights and economic security.
In Britain, that translates into a trend toward “zero hours contracts”—a kind of on-call scheduling scheme that forces workers into a state of permanent contingency. Under this system, explained organizer Julie Sherry in a campaign statement, “workers have no guaranteed hours, but can be called in to work at the drop of a hat.” Nearly 25 percent of UK employers relegate workers to these precarious contracts—paralleling the plight of American part-timers stuffing Happy Meals on the overnight shift. The May 15 actions, Sherry added, mark “the beginning of a battle to take on the multinationals dominating the fast-food industry, ensure workers know their rights, and open the door to organizing fast food workers into unions.”
And fast food firms could soon face legal challenges in multiple languages. While McDonald’s workers have filed class-action lawsuits in New York, California and Michigan seeking compensation for massive wage theft, down in São Paolo, the Golden Arches are at the center of a three-way labor struggle involving unions, government regulators and workers struggling for a living wage. According to Equal Times, an investigation by the union Sinthoresp in 2012 revealed “1,790 on-going individual complaints against McDonald’s at the Regional Labour Court in the City of São Paulo only.” Brazilian workers have alleged violations including pressuring pregnant women to resign, union busting through the establishment of a sham “yellow union,” and outright slave labor.
The Brazilian revolt against the McEmpire reflects deep currents of unrest roiling its rapidly globalizing, vastly unequal economy, in a country that, incidentally, is about to host the shamelessly neoliberal World Cup games—brought to you by you-know-who.
While the workers are still far from forming a unified, coordinated labor movement (for starters, the US fast-food workforce, atomized across a massive franchise network, faces steep structural barriers to formal unionization), they’re speaking collectively in militant tones. Ron Oswald, general secretary of the 12 million-worker-strong International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations, declared in an announcement of the protests: “This is just the beginning of an unprecedented international fast-food worker movement—and this highly profitable global industry better take note.”
So maybe conservatives were wrong about McDonald’s hegemony engendering Pax Big Mac, but they had the right idea about the power of branding: from Brussels to the Bronx, #FastFoodGlobal is irresistible—a resounding call for dignity, near and far.