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Nationwide Fast Food Protests Kick Off as Demonstrators are Handcuffed in Detroit

According to local reports, Detroit police have taken 25 people into custody who were blocking street traffic during demonstrations in the city on Thursday.

by Jordan Larson
Sep 4 2014, 2:15pm

Photo by AP/Paul Sancya

Fast food workers at restaurant chains like McDonald's, Wendy's, and Taco Bell have walked out of their jobs and kicked off strikes around the country to press for wages of at least $15 an hour, with reports of demonstrators being handcuffed already emerging. Police in Detroit have reportedly handcuffed protesters who had blocked traffic as a part of the demonstration there. 

According to the Detroit local news station WXYZ, police in the city said 25 people were arrested, while witnesses reported the officers had started running low on handcuffs. Detroit police said demonstrators were given the choice to be released if they halted their road blockade, those who declined were subsequently taken into custody.

Today's protests stem from a movement that began in November of 2012, when nearly 200 fast food workers in New York City walked out on their jobs at McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King, and other restaurants. This was the beginning of what would become a long, highly public campaign to unionize fast food workers and raise the minimum wage of industry jobs to $15 an hour.

Birth of a union: nationwide fast food workers convention is underway. Read more here.

Last year, fast food strikes organized by the groups Fast Food Forward and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) became the largest such strikes to ever occur in the industry, hitting 60 cities in August, 100 in December, and 150 this past May.

And the protests that are underway today are set to be the biggest yet, with actions expected to take place in 150 cities. Among the strikes and walkouts, discussion of civil disobedience had been expected, validated by the early morning arrests on Thursday and a clear escalation of the campaign's actions.

"Workers have been getting trained and training each other on civil disobedience in the spirit of the civil rights movement," Kendall Fells, an organizing director for Fast Food Forward, told VICE News. "These workers have decided that they are the civil rights movement of this time, and that they should employ tactics that were used by Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Gandhi, and others who have been successful in fighting large, powerful, rich entities and actually winning."

While Fells wouldn't say exactly what was being planned or where such actions might occur, civil disobedience and the resulting arrests could send a strong message that the fast food fight is not yet over.

"Getting arrested and civil disobedience is a frightening thing. It takes a lot to decide to do that, and especially if it's also working class people in poor cities, for instance, there's all the more fear of what happens to you when you go into the criminal justice system," Gordon Lafer, an associate professor at the University of Oregon's Labor Education and Research Center, told VICE News. "It's a big step to take, so to say, okay, look, all these people are willing to do this is a sign of commitment that says we're not going away."

Fast food workers fight for a raise, a union, and dignity at first national convention. Read more here.

According to Fells, the idea to incorporate civil disobedience into the campaign's strategy was born at a convention held just outside Chicago this past July which brought together 1,300 fast food workers from around the country. Organized by the 14-person national organizing team made up of fast food workers from ten different cities, it was at the convention that workers decided to hold Thursday's large-scale action, and decided "that they're willing to do whatever it takes to win this campaign," says Fells.

Contrary to the traditional form of union organizing that targets specific factories or geographic areas, Fast Food Forward has had to organize large-scale actions across the country, targeting the industry's leading companies rather than small franchises.

Despite the difficulty in organizing workers spread across the country, many of whom are part-time or temporary, the movement has only grown in stature and visibility. Fells attributes this to the dire situations many fast food workers find themselves in, and are desperate to improve.

"They live in homeless shelters, they sleep on their friends' couches. We have workers who live in the park, they can't afford the food they sell," he says. "They can be fired because their dreads are too long, their manager said their shirt is wrinkled."

With an average wage of $8.25 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, fast food workers are at just about the very bottom of American earners.

However, just as important to the campaign's success has been the strategy developed by Fast Food Forward, SEIU, and public relations firm BerlinRosen.

While Fast Food Forward and SEIU have worked together to organize workers and plan actions, BerlinRosen has been in charge of media outreach, and it certainly shows: the past year's fast food strikes and protests have been covered by countless publications and major media outlets.

Though this is far from the first time a labor movement has worked with a public relations firm to manage its public image, it may be the one of the most important aspects of the campaign.

"Part of what makes sense about having a big public outreach effort is that fast food is something that captures a lot of people's imaginations," Lafer said. "Everybody knows it, everybody's been in it, a ton of people have worked in one of those places at some point in their lives."

The associations that many people have with fast food restaurants have helped the campaign to raise awareness of the fact that many fast food workers aren't teenagers working for pocket money, but oftentimes older workers with children. According to 2012 Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the median age of fast food workers is 29.

"A lot of people who don't work there, even if they did as teenagers, are used to thinking of it as this starter job, and then you move on to other things," he said. "And then to discover, well, there's actually tons of people for whom it isn't a starter job, it's a real job."

In addition to influencing public opinion, the campaign's vigorous media outreach is also important for reaching the many fast food workers spread across the country.

"It's unusual in the extent to which mass media is important for building consensus among the workers themselves and not just among the public," says Lafer. "Mass media is more important [in this campaign], even for communicating with other fast food workers, for letting them know what's going on, for giving them a sense of confidence, an idea that other people are doing this, for making them feel like this is a righteous cause."

Though the campaign has yet to receive any concessions from the main companies it's targeting, there have been signs of a larger movement to raise wages and assert corporate responsibility for employee payment. Following the passage of a $15 wage for all employees of Seattle's SeaTac airport late last year, the city of Seattle also adopted a $15 minimum wage to be scaled in over the next several years. Ballot measures to raise the wage in San Francisco and Oakland are also coming up in November.

In addition to the localized signs of change around the country, the National Labor Relations Board recently ruled McDonald's to be a joint employer of all franchise employees, meaning that the large corporation now bears more responsibility for the state of its franchise working conditions.

Obama has also been pressuring Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, a significant jump from the current $7.25. However, according to Fells, fast food workers will keep fighting until they have $15 and a union, even if the federal minimum were to raise.

To fully meet this goal, Fast Food Forward might have to end up taking a more local approach looking at particular areas of franchises.

"I expect that what's gonna happen is we've been seeing things percolate in a lot of different cities in a lot of different areas, and I wouldn't be surprised at all if we see some focus in a particular geographical area," Tom Juravich, professor of sociology and labor studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, told VICE News.

Lafer also finds it likely that a more localized approach may be in order for finally unionizing certain companies or groups of companies franchises.

"I would be surprised if there was a national agreement covering all restaurants in the country, but I think even if it starts out being in certain places, that that has great potential to spread," says Lafer. "It's hard to stop once it gets going. It's very hard to explain why McDonald's workers would make $15 an hour in Chicago and $9 an hour in Indianapolis."

While the national campaign has experienced quite a bit of longevity and public attention, it may need to change tactics yet again to continue to be effective.

"I think one of the challenges for this campaign is how does it continue to escalate," Juravich said. "We have seen nationwide a variety of protests and actions, pretty substantial, pretty significant. I think it is important that at some point this is gonna have to escalate, and maybe in a number of areas, and [civil disobedience] is one way which I think would be successful in making that connection to the larger sort of movement around wages and the larger issues around justice and dignity."

Follow Jordan Larson on Twitter: @jalarsonist