From New York City to Nigeria and New Zealand, fast food workers will strike and protest on Thursday to demand higher pay and better working conditions — in a global day of action with unprecedented reach for the industry.
Workers and labor organizers across the globe have united in a campaign that aims to advance workers’ specific demands in each country, while also showing solidarity with the US-based push for a $15 hourly wage and workers’ right to unionize without fearing retaliation.
'What kind of country are we about to have when these are all the jobs that are available to our kids?'
“This is the biggest fast food strike in America’s history, in the world’s history,” Kendall Fells, the organizing director at Fast Food Forward, a New York group behind the campaign, told VICE News. “Fast food is not only the fastest growing industry in the country, it’s also the lowest paying industry in the country, and it has the broadest gap between what the workers and the CEOs make. What kind of country are we about to have when these are all the jobs that are available to our kids?”
Rallies and sit-ins will take place in 33 countries and 150 cities — a list that is growing by the day, organizers said. The action is reaching countries in Africa and Southeast Asia, some for the first time, in addition to Europe and the Americas. In some locations, strikes and rallies in solidarity with US workers will continue on Friday.
In the US, thousands of workers are expected to strike in St. Louis, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Oakland, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City among others — where they will demand the right to organize and a doubling of their wages from the current $7.25, the federal minimum wage.
The strikers and protesters are taking on a $200-billion-a-year industry and targeting McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, and KFC, among other fast food chains.
None of these chains responded to requests for comment on Thursday’s strikes from VICE News, though McDonald's defended the treatment of its workers.
“Regarding future activity related to this topic, it would be inappropriate to comment on activities that have yet to take place,” a McDonald’s spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “We respect everyone’s right to voice an opinion and our restaurants remain open every day thanks to the dedicated employees serving our customers.”
“This is an important discussion that needs to take into account the highly competitive nature of the industries that employ minimum-wage workers, as well as consumers and the thousands of small businesses which own and operate the vast majority of McDonald’s restaurants,” she wrote, adding that “80 percent of our global restaurants are independently owned and operated by small business owners, who are independent employers that comply with local and federal laws.”
A movement’s history
The fast food workers' movement was born in New York less than two years ago, when a couple of hundred workers from 30 franchises across the city walked off their jobs — a bold move in an industry with no unions.
“In November 2012, 200 workers decided that they were fed up with being paid poverty wages, the disrespect that would happen in their stores, the irregular hours, and they just went on strike," Fells said. “People were like, ‘you all are crazy, you’re gonna get fired.’ And people thought that $15 an hour was completely outrageous and that there was no way that fast food workers would ever get that.”
'We are all getting together, globally, to demand better working conditions.'
At the time, many assumed that their McDonald’s servers were high school kids working a few hours a week to buy an extra pair of shoes, he added. “But they were actually adults, a lot of them were career fast food workers, most of them had children, they had rent, utilities, bills, that we all have, except they were trying to figure out how to do it on $7.25 here in New York City,” Fells said.
A day after the strike, workers returned to their jobs accompanied by local officials, activists, and community supporters. At a Wendy’s in Brooklyn, a young woman who had gone on strike was told she was fired the moment she walked in.
“Before you know it a crowd of about 30 or so people that had accompanied her grew to 125, and in an hour she had her job back,” Fells said. “That set the tone for the campaign.”
The fast food workers' movement was born.
The video below shows fast food workers and supporters rallying outside a Wendy's in Manhattan in April 2013. Rallies like this one multiplied across the country in the months that followed.
By spring, the movement had expanded — mostly via social media — to six other US cities. By summer, the cities numbered 60 and fast food workers' rallies had exploded in 130 cities by December 2013.
This spring, workers also started filing lawsuits against McDonald’s in California, Michigan, and New York — while promising that more were to come.
As the movement grew bolder, the rest of the world took notice.
“Those workers watched the campaign all of last year because they had never seen fast food workers fighting and going on strike,” Fells said, referring to the campaign's international supporters. “They started to push their union leaders and ask, what can we do to help this campaign?”
That’s how Thursday’s global event came about.
Fast food workers of the world, unite
Thursday's day of action is coordinated by Fast Food Forward, as well as the Service Employees International Union and the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Association (IUF) — which represents about 12 million workers in 126 countries. Workers from dozens of countries met at an organizing event held in New York last week.
'We make $21 an hour, hearing that my colleagues have to fight to get a minimum wage of $15 — from the current $7.25 — is shocking!'
“For a while now, we have been coordinating transnational action, in response to the transnational nature of many of these corporations. That’s how we came across the US campaign Fight For 15,” Massimo Frattini, an international IUF coordinator, told VICE News. “So we are all getting together, globally, to demand better working conditions. We’ll have actions in solidarity with US workers, but workers won’t only be demonstrating in solidarity with their American colleagues, they’ll also strengthen their own movements.”
US workers are not the only ones asking for a higher minimum wage — fast food employees in New Zealand will be fighting their own version of that battle, while workers in the UK are pushing for their right to unionize there.
“The minimum wage campaign is felt across the world — there’s a strong, widespread demand for stronger rights — not just better pay, but the right to unionize without retaliation, without getting fired,” Frattini said. “And it’s not just a day, we plan to carry on at a national and international level, it will be a fight that lasts a long time.”
While the overall goal is better working conditions and greater dignity in the industry as a whole, each national union has its own set of demands, as the workers’ conditions vary greatly depending on a country’s laws and openness to organized labor.
“We had a Danish delegate in New York who said, ‘we are free to unionize, we make $21 an hour, hearing that my colleagues have to fight to get a minimum wage of $15 — from the current $7.25 – is shocking!’” Frattini said. “Of course, Denmark is an extreme on the positive end of the scale, in other parts of the world it’s more complicated, there’s no bargaining.”
On the opposite end of that scale are Asian countries and the US, "because they don’t have the legislation to grant these workers the right to unionize."
New York, where the movement was born, is as bad as it can get for fast food workers. There, $7.25 just won't cut it.
“The additional problem there is that the cost of life is way too high to survive on minimum wage,” Frattini said. “In other countries you might be able to make it, but if you live in New York you can’t live like that, with that salary.”
But it’s not just about burgers and fries either. Fast food workers in the US are leading a wider national push by low-wage workers across industries, including retail. The Fight For 15 initiative was actually launched as a Chicago-based cross-industry effort, but the fast food workers' movement made the formula a mantra for strikers across the country.
“Because essentially this is not just about fast food workers or about Walmart," Fells said. "If we want to get the American economy to be back on track, the way to do it is by putting money in the pockets of people who spend the money, who are low-wage workers."
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi
Photo via Flickr