Fast Food, Slow Movement

Not long ago, I was interviewing Hahrie Han, a political scientist at Wellesley who studies social movements, for an article in an upcoming print edition of the Prospect, and we started talking about the Occupy movement and some of the problems it faced. She pointed out that liberals are great at exploiting new technologies, but sometimes that can actually pose a problem for movement-building.

One of the great benefits social media offer is their ability to organize quickly—have people activate their networks, and within hours you can get hundreds or even thousands of people out to an event or a protest. But that quick ramp-up can mean that your effort becomes very big while its demands are still in the process of formation, which may have had something to do with the trouble Occupy had sustaining itself. For all of social media's efficiency, "they don't have a lot of the side benefits that the kind of organization that used to be required to get lots of people to come to a public space have," Han said.

Before social media, organizing a protest was a time-consuming affair that required creating an organizational structure, building relationships, convincing participants of the efficacy of something that might not be happening yet, and so on. Twitter and Facebook can almost make it too easy, leaving movements at risk of never developing "the structures of coordination, or leadership, or negotiation, or representation within the movement that allow them to make tough choices."

Which brings me to today, where fast food workers are once again mounting a temporary strike:

On May 15, after months of relative quiet, fast food workers in 150 American cities will again go on strike. Once again, they will demand that some of America’s largest low-wage employers provide a base wage of $15 per hour and allow their workers to unionize. And once again, the striking workers will be joined on the picket lines by local politicians, community activists, and members of the clergy.

This strike, which KFC worker and movement organizer Naquashia LeGrand announced at a Wednesday rally, will likely be the biggest fast food labor action yet. In terms of the number of cities involved, it will certainly dwarf the previous record, a 100-city strike which took place in December. But perhaps more importantly, this will be the first labor action in the movement’s short history to spill across national borders. As workers in the United States walk off the job, fast food employees on six other continents will rally in solidarity.

One thing working in this movement's favor is that it has developed relatively slowly. The organizers are building a coalition that can take advantage of a variety of kinds of people, who can each bring their own skills, experience, and contacts to the effort. We don't know what the fate of this movement will ultimately be, but that's one thing working in their favor.