From the halls of state capitols and the port of Los Angeles, to the parking lots of McDonalds and the warehouses of Walmart, low-wage workers are pushing labor back into the national political arena.
Isaac Ferguson has worked at the McDonald's on 51st and Broadway for four years. In all that time, he's gotten exactly one raise of 10 cents an hour; after four years, he makes $7.35. "The price of a MetroCard went up, the price of food went up, they never decided to pay us more," he said.
Last week, Ferguson and 200 other fast-food workers in New York City went on strike. And while they no doubt have a long road ahead before their bosses give in to their demands of $15 an hour and recognition of their independent union, the Fast Food Workers Committee, things have already changed a little.
"The boss's attitude has changed," Marty Davis, who works at the Wendy's at 425 Fulton Street, explained. "He's more nice about things, though he still requires the same things as far as effort, going quick, doing the same things."
And Pamela Flood, whom I met last week leading chants on the picket line outside that same Wendy's, told me that her boss at Burger King, who used to refer to her by her first name, is back to calling her Miss Flood.
Truvon Shim took the stage with Flood at both the fast-food workers' rally on strike day, and Thursday's rally of low-wage workers from across the city. He came to tell his story of losing everything in his Far Rockaway home to Superstorm Sandy, but also had his own victory to share.
Shim had asked his boss at Wendy's for a few days to deal with the storm's aftermath, but when he called to be added back to the schedule, was told there were no available hours. However, this week, along with an organizer from New York Communities for Change (NYCC), the group that began the fast-food worker campaign, Shim met with his general manager and was promised he'd get his hours back.
That same Wendy's where Shim and Davis work saw the most dramatic action when one worker was threatened with firing. According to Jonathan Westin, organizing director at NYCC, community leaders - including City Councilman Jumaane Williams, the Working Families Party's Dan Cantor, Camille Rivera of United NY and nearly 100 others - held a rally inside and outside of the store until the boss agreed to let her go back to work. Davis added, "That opened a lot of people up in the store, that you cannot fire us for believing in our rights and taking action. It opened up a lot more people's eyes that weren't with us, to want to go on strike now."
"There seems to be something of a simmering strike wave in the country," said Frances Fox Piven, professor of sociology and political science at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center and author of many books, including Poor Peoples' Movements.
The one-day strikes held by the fast-food workers, like the recent wave of strikes at Walmarts around the country, are something different from a traditional strike (though we've seen those in recent months too, most dramatically with the Chicago Teachers Union). The one-day strike, organized to disrupt business but not to shut it down, Piven noted, isn't about winning. It's about identifying the group, about respect, about demonstrating to other workers that they can take action, but not exposing the workers to the risk of prolonged loss of the income they have little of already.
"They're organizing and advocating for low-wage workers in ways that are not in an established New Deal framework," Ruth Milkman, sociologist of labor at the CUNY Graduate Center, and at the Joseph F. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies, explained. The difficulties of running a traditional National Labor Relations Board election are well-known now.
"That system has become so dysfunctional, increasingly people are looking for alternatives," Milkman continued. "Structurally it makes sense given the rollback of New Deal reforms that we've seen, the growth of inequality, the extreme immiseration."
Like organizers before the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, the organizers working with low-wage workers these days focus on issues beyond just those of the workplace; it's worth noting that this campaign began with NYCC organizers working on housing issues. Connecting labor and community issues is a hallmark of NYCC's work, and campaigns like this one, like the organizing of grocery store workers, child care providers, car wash workers, is the legacy of its founder, Jon Kest, who passed away this week of cancer on the eve of the workers' rally. Greg Basta of NYCC said, "Seeing this campaign come to fruition was what really was keeping him fighting."
Piven found it "heartening" that established unions are recognizing and supporting this kind of social movement organizing. In New York, at least, low-wage workers are banding together not just across an industry - as fast-food workers from multiple locations and franchises have come together to create a union - but across the city, supporting one another in solidarity actions and standing together in Times Square, calling for better treatment and government action on workers' issues.
Combined with recent victories by Domestic Workers United and home health care workers, they're successfully challenging the country - and the labor movement - to expand its definition of good jobs.
After all, Milkman noted, factories didn't provide good jobs until the unions that formed the CIO in the 1930s organized them. "It's appropriate in my view to be nostalgic for the high wages and pensions and health care associated with those jobs, but the jobs themselves were pretty unpleasant; anyone who's ever done one can tell you that," she pointed out. "In terms of the high levels of routinization, fast food is similar."
What's more, she noted, the usual arguments against unions don't apply as easily to minimum-wage, no-security jobs. "Nobody can say these are fat and happy workers with pensions," she said. Instead, they're workers who are devalued along with their labor by the rest of society. "When you're making so little money," Pamela Flood said, "people don't respect you."
Even their treatment on the job makes them feel like they don't matter. In the McDonald's where he works, Isaac Ferguson explained, there's an elevator that the bosses get to use, but the workers have to climb stairs. "It's the kind of job where people look down on you," he said.
Yet the fast-food workers' struggle is about more than just them. It's about whether we're going to have good jobs in the country at all in the future. "If you look down your nose at these folks, you may find yourself with some of the same problems they have not that far down the line," said Joshua Freeman, professor of history at CUNY's Queens College and the Murphy Institute. "In a lot of ways the fast food workers are the wave of the future in terms of our fates, in the downward spiral of the last few decades, as wages and benefits seem to be eroding for most Americans."
And Milkman noted that nostalgia for manufacturing often doesn't acknowledge the reality that it is a smaller proportion of all jobs on the planet, because of automation. "It's never going to be like it was in the past," she said.
Unemployment is still high in the US (the numbers for November found the unemployment rate at 7.7 percent), which usually presents a problem for organizers, as workers are afraid to lose their already-precarious jobs. Yet paradoxically it can also provide an incentive, as workers are less tempted to quit the job they have when they know there are few out there, and more inclined, perhaps, to stay and fight.
"Economists say that people don't organize in hard times and there's some truth to that, but the biggest surge in organizing was in the Great Depression," Milkman noted.
"Hello, fellow low-wage workers!" Prince Jackson called to the crowd stretching down 42nd Street Thursday evening. The rally, led by fast-food workers, airport workers like Jackson, car wash and grocery store workers who have won labor battles in recent months, went on for blocks and spilled off the sidewalk- police barricades weren't enough to hold back the hard-hatted building trades workers, who cheerily took the street.
The workers were addressed by politicians and clergy, mayoral candidates Bill DeBlasio, Bill Thompson and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who refused to answer questions from this reporter as to whether she'd allow a paid sick days bill come up for a vote.
"The overarching picture is a fight for economic fairness," said Michael Kink of the Strong Economy for All coalition. "In New York City and New York State, the only sector of the economy that is generating more jobs is low-wage work."
After the rally in Times Square, groups of workers broke out for actions at different targets, including the office of Rep. Peter King, pushing him over "fiscal cliff" negotiations, calling for an end to the Bush tax cuts on the rich, protecting Social Security and Medicare, Medicaid and an investment in jobs.
"The Wendy's workers who make minimum wage and their checks bounce? Their CEO makes millions and his checks do not bounce. He would be the one getting the huge tax breaks," Kink said, pointing out that nearly a third of the automatic spending cuts that would be triggered if there's no deal by January on the so-called fiscal cliff are to state and local governments. That would include cuts to Section 8 housing, emergency housing, food pantries, food stamps and more programs that help low-wage workers and the unemployed.
Now is the time, Kink argued, to push for a good deal that would extend the payroll tax cut for workers and make sure unemployment benefits are still there for those out of work. "Putting the class issues first is a winning strategy."
"We're seeing labor being absolutely central to American politics once again," CUNY's Freeman said. Debates over the rights of workers, benefits, issues that were pushed off the agenda after World War II are now central once again. "We're seeing a zillion battles across the country in state capitols, in front of McDonalds, in warehouses, in the port of Los Angeles. Difficult times for working people have put these questions on the forefront. Labor's on the defensive, but occasionally on the offensive also."
For Marty Davis, it was simply time to act. "I just felt like it's now or never; we had to take a stand for something. We might as well take a stand for this - hopefully we can make an impact and get what we want for us, for the future, for everyone that works hard."