Working Fast Food: Can Low-Wage Workers be Organized?

Photo by Chris Dilts Flickr

Photo by Chris Dilts Flickr

In 1962 I graduated from Raleigh, NC’s, high school for white kids. (African-Americans attended a different high school, although this was eight years after Brown v. Board of Education.) Two years later I dropped out of college and found a job at the Char-Grill, one of Raleigh’s earliest fast food restaurants.   I was paid $60 for a 48-hour week, the then federal minimum wage level. After four months I was promoted to “night manager” at the princely sum of $70/week ($525 in today’s dollars).  I was a “front line supervisor” as they are called in official employment statistics. And for all intents and purposes my career ladder was at an end.  I could have stayed at the Char-Grill another ten years and still remained a shift manager, perhaps moving to the day shift but no further.

I had not thought much about this experience for some time, but the rolling one-day strikes by low-wage workers, with fast food workers in the lead, brought back a lot of memories. Yes, some things have changed since I worked at the Char-Grill. White males were the only employees at the Grill, while today the “food preparation and serving” occupation is almost 2/3 female and over 30 percent African-American and Latino.

But much hasn’t changed in the occupation ranked 6th in projected job creation during the 2010-2020 decade.  The wages are still low at a little over $19,200/year, only a little over half the median wage for the economy as a whole.[i]  And the hours are long: on the night shift we were paid for eight hours, from 5:30 to 1:30 with serving ending at 1 a.m. But we had to stay until all was clean and restocked for the day shift. We were seldom done before 2 a.m. at the earliest. Since, as is the case today for almost all workers in this industry, we had no voice on the job (no unions), we simply provided unpaid labor to the owner.

And the career ladders are still largely non-existent in fast food, as well as other low-wage work.  Only 2.2 percent of all workers in fast food are classified as professional, technical or managerial, compared to over 31 percent for the economy as a whole. Only 1 in 100 workers is an owner, in no small part because at the minimum wage it is impossible to accumulate the $500,000-$1,000,000 in capital to invest required by fast food companies of their franchisees.[ii] Thus, mobility remains virtually nonexistent despite claims such as that by the National Restaurant Association: “The restaurant industry provides opportunities for millions of Americans, women and men from all backgrounds, to move up the ladder and succeed.”

Further, somewhat prefiguring the role of the wait staff in many restaurants today was the public performance aspect of our work. The Char-Grill had two hooks to entice customers: you got a “free” bag of French fries with all orders (whether you wanted it or not) and we all worked in a glass house: the entire French frying, patty cooking, bun dressing and drink drawing operation was conducted in full view of the clientele. Whether this endeared us to the customers I’m not sure; but it did not endear the customers to us. Like workers everywhere and every time who are the business’s face to the public, we had ways of retaliating at customers who angered us or were rude or impatient.

With almost one in five workers paid less than the economy wide median wage, the U.S. has a much higher ratio of low-wage workers to the total labor force than almost all other wealthy countries. The conventional wisdom has been that these workers cannot be organized because of high turnover and low skills. At least on the surface these characteristics do describe much of the sector. Yet today low-wage workers  – somewhat like their 1930s predecessors in mass production industries – are demonstrating a combativeness and an organizational capability that defies that characterization. And fast food workers are consistently among the leading activists.  This suggests that, in fast food and other low wage work, there are features of the manner in which the work is structured that can be built upon to revitalize a labor movement that has largely failed organize the unorganized and, with a few exceptions, has been too slow to expand beyond the traditional areas of unionization.

For example, in the arena of food service, I think there is something missing in the discussion of skills and turnover that consigns these workers to the unorganized and unorganizable: food service, especially fast food service, requires a high degree of cooperation and interaction among workers. Even in the very simple menu of the Char-Grill, the French fries, the correctly dressed hamburger and the right drink had to be the cashier’s hands at the same time as the customer’s order sheet. It may sound simple but it isn‘t. I saw several new employees enter the Char-Grill’s workforce who failed to achieve the necessary level of fast, efficient and accurate interaction with the rest of the shift. They didn’t last.

A second aspect of most low-wage jobs that should suggest that organization is possible is the difficulty, actually in most cases, the impossibility, of outsourcing this work. You can ‘t provide the attention and care of a home health care aide (#3 in projected job creation) from Indonesia or the operating and recovery room assistance of an orderly (#11) from India. You can’t be a childcare worker (#12), providing day-to-day care for someone’s children, from Eastern Europe. You can’t be a stocker or materials handler (#9) from Thailand.[iii] And, of course, you can’t serve a five-star dinner or even a Big Mac from India or Pakistan.

In many instances, the difficulty of outsourcing is not just a matter of technology, it is embedded in the interaction between people that is at the core of most of these jobs. This aspect has already been widely documented in health care, where face-to-face interaction between the patient (“consumer”) and the provider (doctor, nurse, aide) is essential to the success of the endeavor.

Yes, the struggle will be long and hard, and there will be both defeats and victories. But organizing the low wage sector is possible; it’s been done elsewhere. In Denmark even the McDonald’s workers are unionized. It’s also essential to the revitalization of U.S. labor as a movement and, I believe to the development of a mass movement against inequality and thus a popular progressive Left in the U.S.

Thousands of fast food and low wage workers will go on strike on Aug.29 to push for a $15 per hour minimum wage.

So what can you do?  When these workers walk out, wouldn’t it be great if they were joined by people in their community on the picket lines?  Maybe you could organize a delegation to visit management and express support for these workers.  Or, since various unions are involved in strike support, find out from the nearest local how you can support the workers.  Also, write a letter to your local paper or an op-ed in support of these workers.  To win, this struggle must become a community-labor coalition and we can make that happen.

A Chicago DSA member, Bill Barclay serves as DSA’s National Member Organizer. He also is active with Chicago Political Economy Group and Northern Illinois Jobs With Justice. ‘This post first appeared on Democratic Left, the blog of Democratic Socialists of America.

Bill Barclay

Bill Barclay

Top Photo of fast food strikers by Chris Dilts Flickr. Photo of Bill Barclay by Stuart Elliott


[i] See http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2012/01/art5full.pdf, p. 18, for the projected job growth by occupation and median salary.

2 Responses

  1. […] fast food strike ever today: 58 cities will be affected in today’s Salon magazine and Working Fast Food: Can Low-Wage Workers Be Organized on the Talking Union […]

  2. “With almost one in five workers paid less than the economy wide median wage…” Shouldn’t there be about 2.5 in five workers paid less than the economy-wide median wage?

    BTW, high turnover is a problem for organizing in traditional NLRB shop-level elections because bargaining units are unstable, but do we know what happens when a worker leaves a McDonalds franchise? Does she move out of the industry? Go to another McDonalds or a KFC? Do we know what the average tenure is in the fast-food industry?

    Workers in the car wash industry in New York, another “low-skill,” low-wage, and high turnover industry, have had some success in organizing in traditional unions through the NLRB process. What is different about their case?

    Thanks for the report.

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