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.