Oakland, CA – On September 4th, 2014 at 14th & Broadway, a key site for the Oscar Grant rebellions and Occupy Oakland, fast-food workers and organizers were arrested after rallying and protesting for $15 an hour and demanding unionization of their workplaces. This was part of a national day of action. This day of action was the 7th strike since this campaign started in Chicago 2012 by SEIU and other political forces, with 150 similar protests taking place in major urban cities. Through polls and other media forms, the public has shown serious support for higher wages in the fast food industry, thus opening the possibility of a public and political campaign to organize fast-food workers. Consequently, in the 1 year and 10 months since its inauguration — this effort has generated notable worker actions with repression mostly kept in check. Working off of the Fair Labor Standard Act of 1938, the campaign utilizes many legal avenues and creates favorable conditions to breathe class struggle life into the fast food workplace, potentially opening windows for thousands of these workers to be armed with a ‘politics of struggle’ in the workplace. The combination of advocating unionization of the low-wage workplace through direct action, and publicly fighting for a higher wage can be a functional framework for getting working class struggle off the ground. Not surprising, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour has been a position generating national momentum. These positive developments still face the politics of the campaign and its organizations. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is a central political force of the campaign, and in short has built a movement set on union expansion that subordinates the potential working class power in the workplace.
But before we prove the point regarding SEIU, we must address our central opponents. Capitalist commentators argue this campaign will only lead to inflation and unemployment, or bankruptcy, all negatives for workers. Tim Worstall, Senior Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute stated in Forbes Magazine, “this is simply an absurd demand,” regarding the $15 an hour movement, that “[there] would be very large unemployment effects from such a raise and many would simply “lose their Jobs.” Similarly, an owner of a Buffalo Wings and Rings in Chicago told the New York Times in July, $15 per hour is “going to put a lot of businesses out of business.” To quickly reply, Marketwatch reports that McDonalds makes around 5 billion dollars in Net Income a year, with 5.59 billion generated in 2013 http://www.marketwatch.com/investing/stock/mcd/financials. National Employment Labor Project (NELP) reported that fast-food restaurants earned $7.44 billion in profit a year, paid $52.7 million to their highest-paid executives and distributed $7.7 billion in dividends and buybacks. (http://www.nelp.org/page/-/rtmw/uploads/NELP-Super-Sizing-Public-Costs-Fast-Food-Report.pdf?nocdn=1).
To add insult to injury, 84% of fast-food workers in NYC reported wage theft at their work, meaning these large employers break employment laws by not paying overtime, or allowing breaks, or having workers work off the clock, to further exploit the workers and maximize profits. (http://www.scribd.com/doc/141919700/Wage-Theft-Report).
What rebuttals exist to such claims? Yahoo Finance claims fast-food low-profit margins at only 2.4 percent. The conservative Heritage Foundation also states that the 3% profits of fast-food restaurants does not allow for the movement’s demands to be realized. As the profit rate is low, the arguments goes, demands for 15 an hour are unrealizable and only will create bankruptcy and unemployment. But even if we take their argument, a 3% profit still means billions in profits. Their own arguments have not proved how this slim rate of profit is not enough for such demands, such as 15 and hour, to not be realized.
Capital hides the real level of profits. It also obscures the origins of such profits. If we begin our investigation based off of the Fast food cashiers position, and experience as an extension, what we find is someone inserting hundreds to thousands of dollars in the cash registers in an hour from sales, to only receive 8 or 9 dollars an hour. Or the cook who was paid 8 to 9 dollars an hour but cooked over 500 burgers in that hour. Workers with this experience intuitively learn how great the profit is compared to their wage, and how such profits are generated through their work. Its a clear example, through lived experience, of how profits become generated from labor. But this general relationshthere is nothing you can do because this unequal relationship is legal. Put together, we can see how these profits are generated by legally unpaid labor.
Capitalist economists are professionally trained to throw sand in our eyes, confusing and demobilizing the terrain. Our weaponry utilizing the critique of political economy is necessary in building for class struggle in the US.
Politics of the Minimum Wage Campaign
The Fast food movement has been linked to a broader movement that aspires to build the minimum wage. Many ask, “doesn’t raises just led to inflation and a high cost of living, making such demands worthless?” Most mainstream commentators and economists vehemently fight against wage increases due to arguing that they have no positive effect. Steven Slavin, in Macroeconomics, 7th edition McGraw- Hill Irwin, states, “Imagine a 3% rise in the cost of living. Labor unions will negotiate for a cost-living increase and 3% increase next year. That’s 6%. If every labor union gets a 6% increase, prices will undoubtedly rise not 3% but you guessed it 6%.” Lets break this assertion down a bit. Prices will jump 6%. Does that mean the prices for all commodities or just some commodities?
We reserve the right at this moment to go back to Marx who resolved this issue a while ago. In Volume III of Capital, Chapter X p.175, “For the fall in the rate of profit, consequent upon the general rise of wages, they could not compensate themselves by a rise in the price of their commodities, because the demand for those commodities would not have increased. Their [capitalist] income would have decreased, and from this decreased income they would have to pay more for the same amount of higher-priced necessaries. But this would not be all. As their income had diminished they would have less to spend upon luxuries, and therefore their mutual demand for their respective commodities would diminish.” Marx continues to drive the point that what would change is what changes would get produced as a result of a wage increase. “Instead of being limited to some branches of industry, the fall in the rate of profit consequent upon the rise of wages would have become general. According to our supposition, there would have taken place no change in the productive powers of labour, nor in the aggregate amount of production, but that given amount of production would have changed its form. A greater part of the produce would exist in the shape of necessaries, a lesser part in the shape of luxuries…” (Boldness added). Considering the high level of profits in the fast food industry, it is difficult to argue that the raising of wages will lead to a general increase of the cost of living. How could a decline in McDonalds’ profits make your rent or gas prices go up? An ideological structure shaping the framework of such economists, like Slavin, who see prices as a two dimensional line that moves up and down in unison.
Now that some counterpoints have been made against the mainstream economists, its worth quickly noting what public services fast food workers receive. A concrete measurement on how low the fast food wage are is by looking at government subsidizes. A remarkable statistic, a a UC Berkeley study claims that 52% of fast-food workers receive public services. The National Employment Law Project (NELP) estimates 3.8 billion dollars a year from Government services, go to fast-food workers. So the fast food industry makes around 7.44 Billion in profit a year, the government pays 3.8 Billion a year to help reproduce these workers, and the fast food workers reproduce the 7.44 Billion in profit. SEIU rightly saw this glaring contradiction as a point of intervention. Given this situation, demanding 15 an hour makes sense.
On September 1, 2014, President Obama even remarked, “If I wanted an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, I’d join a union.” Such a statement must have thrilled SEIU, the union central in this campaign, and according to a group called SEIU exposed, (http://www.seiuexposed.com/anti-employee-actions/worker-centers/#.VAjpx_ldUdf) fronted $8.1 million for workers centers to help initiate and navigate this campaign. These flippant comments from Obama allows for SEIU to argue that the Democratic Party fights for working class interests, unlike the Republicans. As mentioned, SEIU has played a central role in this campaign. Justin Moyer wrote in “How the ‘Fight for $15’ may make it difficult to go to McDonald’s on Thursday” claims, “SEIU has spent $15 million in this campaign to get more members.” This campaign has been harnessed, developed, shaped and funded by SEIU. This essay only begins, and is far from, explaining the wealth of machinery and organizing that may exist. And the more these type of analysis can capture the internal mechanisms of such organizational forces, the more meaningful such analysis can be for organizing. But to make some comments on the matter, SEIU Organizing committees are spread throughout the US. Their strategy of connecting to the Fast food workers, sign them up to the campaign, meet with local leaders, politicians, and religious figures, launch a one day strike, and then rush the store the day after with such political figures — has demonstrated momentary success. The limit of the bosses repression and an increase in the worker’s confidence has emerged as part of the reality of the campaign.
Campaign leaders define the campaign by three key objectives: 1) Engage massive numbers of people in campaigns to raise wages through union organizing as well as through policy initiatives. 2) Unite workers across campaigns to demonstrate a groundswell demand to put higher wages at the top of the list of our nation’s priorities. 3) Drive the message that the way to get the economy going again is to put more spending money in the hands of workers *(see the campaign strategy in its entirety below).
The campaign’s framework in short is, to raise wages through policy, unite workers, and drive the message that raising wages will help the economy. This last point, helping the economy, becomes the spoon full of tar in the jar of honey. By such thinking, bosses and workers are a team, and breaking that harmony is destructive. The method used for raising wages is not allowing the working class to fight as a class, but rather a left out group. This program is designed to expand union members as opposed to building worker militants. SEIU’s legal framework for policy shifts regarding wages greatly utilize the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established the minimum wage (which was 25 cents an hour then). As a result, pointing out that this law came into an effect due to the demands generated by rank and file workers in a generalized strike wave in 1934 is worth doing so. One could only imagine how much teeth arguments had when they said businesses have too low of a rate of profit during the Great Depression as a response to the demands put forth then.
AS Perspective on Prospects and Challenges in Fast Food Worker Organizing
Fast food workers are not unreachable workers, nor is this campaign impossible to influence. The national structure, resources, long term strategy, and professional organizers SEIU provided outstripped anything the revolutionary left can do on a large scale. The current strategy that SEIU has carried out to be both a limitation and a starting point for class struggle generally and pro-revolutionary interventions in particular. The SEIU organizers of this campaign have mainly related to fast food workers and participants in sporadic days of action, rather than carried out a program for the development of shop floor organization(s) that can fight the boss on a regular basis. This is clearly a limitation of the SEIU strategy, and it will surely be amplified once they move into unionization mode – seeking to build a union from the top down rather than a fighting organization of workers from the bottom up. SEIU has had an pattern of having militant shop steward organizers become infuriated when the union campaign led to a backdoor sweetheart contract, where what the worker receives is not much different than their nonunion conditions. Locally, there has been reports of stores in the Bay Area firing fast-food workers because of their participation in this campaign with little to no defense from SEIU organizers.
When a workplace has a small group of worker militants to build a deeper and longer lasting power in the workplace, much different outcomes can emerge. The Hot and Crust Restaurant in Manhattan open 24 hours a day, serving coffee and pastries, engaging in a powerful struggle. Workers were being subject to wage theft, break violations, and non stop work during long 12 hour shifts. They reported this to the Department of Labor who did not respond, but the Laundry Worker Center did. The Occupy Wallstreet movement and the Trotskyist International Group also intervened. The 11 month organizing campaign faced incredible odds, the restaurant claiming bankruptcy, two months on the picket line, and public campaign, led to winning a contract forming an independent union, the Hot and Crust Workers Association (HCWA). Unlike large business unions, HCWA includes the voice and participation of the workers in the direction of HCWA. As an example, if one or a few Fast food restaurants organized an independent union under the workers control, as an offshoot of this campaign, that could be a powerfully positive development. And a possibility not too unreachable.
As mentioned before, 86% of the fast food industry in New York reported wage theft. Fast food workers and revolutionaries can cooperate to fight against missing breaks, cleaning off the clock at the end of shifts, and not getting paid overtime at their individual shops. Each of these three abuses against workers is a form of wage theft. Fights against wage theft in all it’s forms can happen at individual shops and be strategized around across shops as a means of engaging in independent organization. The other type of common illegal abuse are Civil Rights violations, where workers are illegally mistreated due to be subject to racist, sexist, anti-immigrant comments and conditions. Workers without lawyers law firms can document and organize around such violations. If a workplace committee aspires to challenge such violations, it will empower the workers to act on its own behave. The last type of abuse is legal abuse. The boss can yell at workers for speed up and formal discipline and still be functioning within the law. That does not mean workers can’t take up such abuses as something to challenge. Workers documenting such behaviors and demanding clear guidelines for respect is something that is possible to do.
Support for SEIU lead unionization should also not be dismissed. But doing so with the intention to build a democratic local and a rank and file current within SEIU, that completely breaks with their team concept, and the Democratic Party. To do so within the SEIU world might seem impossible given the power of their organizational force. Experience will show the strengths and limitations of both these options.
Regardless, what will be central for small groups of revolutionaries is to generalize the understanding of wage theft (in all the forms listed above), civil right violations, and employer abuse (even when technically legal) and how direct action tactics can be applied to combat both of these employer attacks on workers. Being able to do this makes revolutionaries actually relevant to the working class which is not a minor ordeal. These direct actions themselves are not the sole dimension of rank and file activity – but they’re useful to the extent that they build worker confidence and expand workplace organization.
For these reasons, generalizing an understanding of employment law among workers is strategic. Knowing what is and how to fight wage theft is a starting point. Then standing up to racist, sexist, xenophobic attitudes is also key, utilizing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Flowing from the confidence generated in such ‘legal’ work, could be direct actions against the bosses legal verbal abuses. If workers learned to directly fight against the illegal dimensions within work, wage theft and civil rights violations, fighting against legal abuse gives the emerging struggle significant meaning. This is distinct from legalistic approaches to employment law which individualize the attack on workers rather than building solidarity among all workers affected, and replaces rank and file agency with service based professionalism by lawyers. Workers who are grounded in the law will be able to point out employer violations. Workers who are grounded in how workers led the 1934 general strikes will have some knowledge of building a rank-and-file offensive in the workplace. As SEIU campaign lawyers will utilize laws that are the fruits of struggles past, low-wage workers understanding how rank-and-file rebellions grew into powerful strikes could open the possibilities of producing concrete workplace victories in the present.
Lastly, it’s an open question how uniting behind political demands for the increase in the minimum wage on the state can be fought for independently, beyond the limitations of bureaucratic unions like SEIU. What is clear is that low wage workers should get organized to speak out in favor of the minimum wage being raised, but this discourse should always be coupled with calls for organizing at the workplace, building rank and file power on the shop floor against wage theft and employer abuses.
If an organizational force emerged amongst the workers in this campaign but was autonomous from SEIU, it could move beyond its limits. It could build worker organizers that take on the fights in the workplace as well as building the public campaign, by mobilizing more workers to the 15 dollar an hour actions, as well as linking workers of different workplaces together. An organization that can build the capacities of delicate internal workplace organizing with external public campaigns from the low wage working class sector, would add a serious political dimension of struggle to the campaign. Only a political organization that consciously sees such political objectives necessary will even attempt to develop a network of worker militants that can do such work. It is our aspiration to build such a political organization, but can only be done with the help of many more who agree with this outlook.
*RAISING HELL FOR HIGHER PAY
Our plan to win broad public and political support for union organizing and raising wages
As the income gap between the super-rich and everyone else continues to grow, the time is ripe to mobilize workers in a big way to demand higher pay. Around the country we are initiating new organizing campaigns as well as mobilizing to raise the minimum wage at the state and federal levels. But these efforts will be uphill battles as long as elected leaders are reluctant to stand up for workers in the face of intense opposition from corporate interests.
Ultimately, our ability to have a significant impact on income inequality will depend on our ability to spark an uprising and win broad public and political support for union organizing as well as wage-raising policies. Only then will we be able to overcome the opposition from employers and right-wing politicians to raise the wage floor and rebuild the labor movement.
Our plan is threefold:
(1) Engage massive numbers of people in campaigns to raise wages through union organizing as well as through policy initiatives. Expand our reach by engaging community partners and developing online strategies. Campaigns to raise wages include:
- Union organizing, inside our industries (e.g., airports, child care), beyond our industries (e.g., fast food, retail, etc.) and by other unions (e.g. Walmart)
- Federal and state minimum wage increases
- Local living wage initiatives
- Federal, state, and local procurement policies
- Collective bargaining campaigns
(2) Unite workers across campaigns to demonstrate a groundswell demand to put higher wages at the top of the list of our nation’s priorities. Ways to unite campaigns, locally and nationally, include:
- National days of action that bring together workers involved in union organizing, bargaining, minimum wage, and other campaigns to raise wages
- Unifying themes and messages for use in both organizing and policy campaigns
- Forums such as town hall meetings and hearings where a cross-section of workers can speak out
(3) Drive the message that the way to get the economy going again is to put more spending money in the hands of workers. Public opinion research shows that the key to winning public support for workers’ organizing and increasing the minimum wage is to focus on how it improves the economy (rather than how it alleviates poverty). We should look for opportunities, such as through academic studies and opinion leader chatter, to create this narrative as a backdrop for our campaigns.