Fast Food Workers Organize Globally

by Paul Garver

Strike Closes Burger King in Boston (photo credit Stevan Kirschbaum)

Strike Closes Burger King in Boston (photo credit Stevan Kirschbaum)

The international coordinated actions of fast food workers on May 15th represent a new and unprecedented level of global labor solidarity.

Activists have long called for international labor solidarity to confront global corporations. The global fast food industry presents an excellent example of an industry dominated by a few giant corporations like McDonalds whose chief executives receive 1200 times higher pay than their fast food workers. The industry takes in over $200 billion annually, while employing tens of millions of low paid workers in hundreds of countries.

On the surface, it seemed impossible to organize fast food workers on a global scale to confront the likes of McDonalds. In the USA as well as in most of the world, the corporations franchise their individual operations to smaller so-called “independent” businesses, while retaining total control over every key aspect of their operations. Fast food workers in any given outlet in any country are usually relatively few in number, under the direct supervision of their shop managers, and precariously employed by third parties other than the global fast food corporations. Labor law in the USA and most other countries is ill adapted to facilitate worker representation and collective bargaining of fast food workers.

In a few countries where collective bargaining takes place at the industry level, such as Germany, France, the Nordic countries and Switzerland, unions were able to gain small toeholds over the last decade. Although they were able to bargain collectively in the fast food sector, and somewhat improve wages and working conditions, those unions usually could not recruit enough voluntary union members from the part-time work force to become strong. Almost uniquely in New Zealand, a determined union membership has been willing to conduct repeated if brief strikes to raise wages.

In the USA there has been almost no formal union representation in the fast food industry. The dramatic developments since 2012 are now changing the situation. Since then the SEIU has poured significant resources into community-based organizations and worker centers throughout the USA to catalyze what has become a visible national swelling of fast food worker organization, propelling with it a powerful movement for raising the minimum wage for all workers. It is evident that this organizing effort has struck a powerful chord among many fast food workers.


International fast food workers in Manhattan

International fast food workers in Manhattan

Global coordination is through the IUF (Uniting Food, Farm and Hotel Workers Worldwide). The IUF, with SEIU support, held a global meeting of 80 fast food workers and union representatives from 26 countries in New York in the week prior to the May 15th actions. Many of the foreign delegates to this meeting remained in the USA to help organize the protest actions in American cities. On the 15th strikes or protest actions took place in 158 American cities and 93 international cities across 36 countries, with a few more occurring for the 16th.

According to IUF General Secretary Ron Oswald, “The Fight for 15 in the US has caught the attention of workers around the world in a global fast-food industry where workers have recently been mobilizing. It has inspired them to join together internationally in a fight for higher pay and better rights on the job. This is just the beginning of an unprecedented international fast-food worker movement-and this highly profitable global industry better take note.”

Paul Garver is a retired organizer for the IUF and before that for SEIU. He takes no credit for organizing these actions, nor blame for their not occurring earlier.


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