Fast Food, Slow to Change

The strikes of fed-up fast-food workers move westward with the sun. On Wednesday evening, fast-food employees in St. Louis, like their peers in New York and Chicago earlier this spring, staged a one-day strike to dramatize the low wages they, and millions of American workers in the restaurant and food sectors, take home.

The job action is one of a series of short strikes that the Service Employees International Union, in conjunction with a range of local community groups, is helping to organize.  Similar actions in other cities are slated in coming weeks. The goal of these actions is to catalyze a broader movement of workers in the sector—not with the intent of winning contracts from corporations like McDonald (that’s far beyond the labor movement’s capacity, alas), but in hopes that such a movement could spur city councils and state legislatures to enact higher minimum wages or living wage provisions for workers in specified sectors.

At Tuesday’s night annual Hillman Prize presentations for the best socially-conscious journalism (I’m a Hillman judge), I learned the origin of the word “strike” when it refers to a work stoppage. In presenting the special lifetime achievement award for labor history to Marcus Rediker, who has done remarkable work on the economy of sailors and slave ships at the dawn of modern capitalism, Rutgers professor Dorothy Sue Cobble recounted Rediker’s discovery that “strike” was first used to refer to a labor stoppage in 1768, when British merchant sailors struck their sails and refused to put out to sea.

While working conditions at McDonald’s are clearly better than those in the galleys of 18th-century ships (many of whose crews were only there because their shipmasters had had them abducted), it’s not at all clear that the bargaining power of today’s fast-food workers is that much greater than that of the tars who plowed the Atlantic way back when. With collective bargaining in the private sector all but a dead letter, the workers who’ve walked in New York, Chicago and St. Louis can only hope to change their employers’ behavior by winning so much public support that state and local governments feel compelled to make those employers pay a decent wage. That requires building a real movement, and in coming months, we’ll see just how far these actions will spread, and with what effect.