The fast food workers' fightback

Submitted by Matthew on 25 September, 2013 - 12:09

In America, fast food workers employed by chains like McDonalds, Burger King, and Pizza Hut have struck back against low pay and bullying managers. Regional strikes in November 2012 and April 2013 were followed by a nationwide strike on 29 August.

The workers’ headline demand is a $15 per hour minimum wage (most currently earn slightly more than $7). Workers also want union recognition and an end to management bullying. The fast food workers’ movement followed a similar, and ongoing, struggle of Walmart workers, the world’s biggest private-sector employer.

The movement has a profound significance. Jobs in fast food restaurants are typical of the kind of work most readily available to many young workers — characterised by low pay and insecurity (the increasingly infamous “zero-hours contract”). The workers involved are often young, and often people of colour. Innovative organising methods have been employed, breaking from established orthodoxies and rediscovering the radicalism of earlier periods of labour history.

Prior to the American fast food workers’ movement, the most successful experience of workers’ organising in the fast food industry was that of the Unite union in New Zealand (no connection to the British union of the same name). Their “Supersize My Pay” campaign in 2006-2007 won huge concessions from fast food bosses, and the union has continued to pioneer radical organising models amongst low-paid, hyper-exploited young workers.

In Britain, there have been sporadic bursts of militancy and organisation amongst low-paid, precarious workers.

The strikes of cleaners in the transport and education sectors (including the first ever coordinated national strike of railway cleaners, in November 2012), and small-scale but significant attempts at organisation in chains like Pret A Manger and Pizza Hut, give glimpses of the possibilities for what Workers’ Liberty has called a “New Unionism for the 21st Century” — a concerted drive, led by radicals in the labour movement, to transform our unions to make them weapons that the most exploited workers can use to fight back, just as the efforts of Marxists like Tom Mann, Will Thorne, and Eleanor Marx helped gas workers and dock workers (who worked under the original “zero-hours contracts”) build mass strike movements.

The organisational forms these struggles have taken varies. In America, the Services Employees International Union (SEIU, the American labour movement’s largest) has coordinated campaigns at arms length, with union officials running loose campaign coalitions that include activists from other unions and the community. In New Zealand, Unite was started from scratch by leftists.

In Britain, some established unions (like the RMT in its organisation of rail cleaners, and bakers’ union BFAWU in its organisation of a Hovis workers’ strike against zero-hours contracts) have played a positive role, but elsewhere organisation has been left to independent, minority or syndicalist union projects like the Industrial Workers of the World and the Independent Workers union of Great Britain.

Workers’ Liberty wants to spread the stories of these struggles, to help workers learn from each others’ experience. Here, we interview Mike Treen, National Director of Unite in New Zealand, about its successes in organising fast food workers.


The “Supersize My Pay” campaign in the mid-2000s established Unite in the fast food industry. We won agreements with the major chains — Restaurant Brands (which owns Pizza Hut, KFC, and others), then McDonald’s, and finally Burger King. It was a long and exhausting struggle.

We realised that, given the competitive nature of the fast food industry, we needed an industry-wide approach and a public, political, and social mobilisation to achieve that result. That involved a lot of strikes, including student strikes against youth rates, demos, mass meetings, concerts with supportive bands. It was a major effort.

There was another fight with McDonald’s in 2008 to renew the agreement, and in 2012, Burger King also pushed back and tried to deunionise their workforce by forcing hundreds of workers to resign through intimidation and bullying. We’ve succeeded in defending union contracts and winning modest but significant improvements around workplace issues like guaranteed breaks and security of hours.

We’re quite encouraged by the UK unions’ new focus on zero-hours contracts. People are aware of that in the New Zealand labour movement, and it’s helped raise the profile of the issue. Zero-hours contracts are almost universal in the kind of industries we’re organising in and so far, the agreements we’ve won don’t get rid of them.

We’ve won a lot more transparency and advance notice for workers about rostering, and have stopped bosses in McDonald’s using shift allocation as an arbitrary reward-and-punishment system for workers, but we’re yet to win guaranteed hours. We had a big campaign in McDonald’s to win a fairer rostering system, demanding that shifts were offered openly and there was a fair appeals process. We’ve given KFC, McDonald’s and Burger King notice that we’ll be pushing for guaranteed hours and an end to zero-hours contracts in the next round of bargaining in the two years’ time.

Rest and meal breaks are another big issue. We have a quite a major court case against McDonald’s for failing to guarantee breaks. The company has responded by claiming the collective agreement wasn’t lawful. That’s ongoing.

From the fast food industry, we’ve pushed into cinemas. There are three main cinema chains in New Zealand, and we have agreements with all of them and high membership. We have a presence at Skycity Casino in Auckland, which is the largest private-sector workplace in the city. It has over 3,000 workers, of whom a third have part time status with only eight guaranteed hours per week.

We also have a presence amongst security guards, and in call centres. We have collective agreements with the two main hotel chains in New Zealand — Millennium Copthorne Kingsgate and Accor.

We launched Unite nearly 10 years ago. We currently have 7,000 dues-paying members, but because we operate in industries with 100% staff turnover, we need to recruit around 5,000 new members every year just to stand still. Tens of thousands of workers have been through membership of Unite. It’s many young workers’ first experience of the labour movement. The average time spent in membership of Unite is one year, and the average time we have a union delegate [rep] in a workplace is eighteen months.

We started Unite as a group of left activists from the Alliance, some socialist groups, along with some anarchists. The Alliance Party emerged from a left-wing split from Labour in 1989-91, and when that project collapsed many of us, including Matt McCarten who had been the president of the Alliance, saw an objective need to reconnect leftist politics with workers’ organising, particularly amongst young workers. Starting a union from scratch was a radical idea, and went against some traditional leftist notions.

Some of our starting points were particular to New Zealand. At the time we launched the union, there’d been a period of economic recovery and growth after a period of deep recession in the 1980s and 1990s.

We thought workers might therefore be more confident about taking risks and putting their heads above the parapet. The Labour-led government, which was elected in 1999, had also made legislative changes that made union organising slightly easier.

Previously, union organisers had only been given access to workplaces to talk to existing members, which made organising in currently-unorganised industries almost impossible. A new law meant union organisers had more general access and could talk to non-union members.

The third factor, though, is more general and is one that others could learn from. We simply had confidence that workers, and young workers in particular, would respond to new approaches that gave them the chance to fight for themselves in a militant way.

We always aimed to be a serious operation — we set up an infrastructure and an apparatus with an office, but we operated on the basis of volunteers rather than paid officials. We wanted the union and its campaigns to be open. A number of people have lent money or used personal credit cards to keep the union going. We had no financial or institutional support from other unions. Today we have an annual income in excess of $1m and our 2013 conference will be the first time the union has been debt-free! The most fundamental element was our confidence in the working class.

Although we were setting up a new union, we were determined to be part of the broader labour movement. We affiliated to the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions [NZCTU, the equivalent of the TUC], and we deliberately chose to organise in industries where no other union was organising.

Unite has also been involved in union solidarity with other workers taking action, with protests against racism, and has taken action in support of workers internationally, especially in Palestine.

The main political change we want is greater freedom to organise — the ability for workers to organise and take industrial action without having to jump through so many hoops. There’s severe restriction on the right to strike. That needs to be addressed, and we need to get rid of legislative barriers to organising.

If there’s a Labour government, or a Labour-Green coalition, after the next election, we want to hold them to commitments they’ve made to the unions. There are obvious limits to that, but those political possibilities shouldn’t be dismissed.

Unions need new approaches to succeed in the kinds of industries we’re talking about. The “organising model” that came out of the American SEIU [Service Employees’ International Union] in the 1990s was turned into a kind of religion in the global labour movement. It was related to as a mantra, in an almost cult-like way, and it wasn’t working. An approach of recruiting union members one by one can’t work in these industries, because the boss can find out where that’s going on and bully people out of it.

People often aren’t in these jobs for long enough for that slow accumulation of union members to work or make a difference. In America, even in the places where that slow accumulation has reached the level where it can trigger a ballot for recognition, those ballots are usually lost because employers bring in professional union-busting operations.

You need public, political campaigns that provide protection for workers. It’s important to move to public, political, and social movement mobilisation as early as possible in the organising process. That gives workers confidence. The union has to be framework for workers to find their voice and lead struggles.

It has to be all-or-nothing. “Supersize My Pay” was a public, political campaign against the fast food companies which exposed them as exploiters. We went after their “brand”, which they value above all else.

The American unions have now taken a new approach more akin to that, which I think is very exciting. Unions like SEIU and the United Commercial and Food Workers’ Union [UFCW] are financing and supporting campaigns like OurWalmart and Fast Food Forward, which organise on something more like a minority-union basis rather than focusing on that slow accumulation of members building up to a recognition ballot. They’re bringing the community in — so, when the union members, who might be quite small in number, in a restaurant go on strike, they get community activists and other members of other unions to walk back in with them when the strike’s over to give public support and prevent victimisation.

When those approaches gains momentum, workers start to gain confidence that maybe the risk of standing up for themselves is worth it. That’s the key question — how do you build that confidence?

Our modern unions, in the UK for example, emerged from new models of industrial organising breaking away from craftism. There are some differences in size between the industries those unions were based in and the key industries in western countries now, such as retail, service, and finance, but a large call centre in New Zealand might have 500 workers or more — which in New Zealand terms is a pretty big workplace.

McDonald’s employs almost 10,000 workers — it’s one of the biggest private-sector employers in the country. Those workers are young workers, migrant workers, semi-casualised workers. Those are the people producing surplus value in New Zealand today. That’s the working class!

Organising in these industries, where more and more of the working class, and particularly the young working class, in western countries is now employed, has to be done — by any means necessary.

The fight for $15

The growing fast food workers’ movement in America has brought workers who previously had no engagement with the labour movement into struggle, by building campaign coalitions that put industrial direct action to win immediate demands first — rather than making union recruitment the end in itself.

Here, we collate some quotes from striking fast food workers from the American press.

“People like me, we don’t have education to get a better job ... We have to do the fast-food industry. But the fast-food industry [doesn’t] pay.” — Gregory Renoso, Domino’s Pizza, interviewed by Joel Rose for NPR.

“[Organisers] came in and they saw the struggle I was going through ... They spoke about the strike they were planning, and I decided to jump in and fight the fight.” — Jose Avila, Subway, in Socialist Worker

“It’s not just us out here fighting, there are people across the country going through the same struggles, maybe even worse struggles, than us. We’re making history right now, we’re showing that minimum wage isn’t enough, this poverty wage isn’t enough.” — Andrew Little, Victoria’s Secret (the movement has also involved retail workers), quoted in an article on The Daily Kos.

“It’s hard to find another job. This is why I’m still stuck at Burger King for the past four years. If it was easy to find another job, I wouldn’t be out here right now fighting for $15 an hour and a union.” — Tabitha Verges, Burger King, speaking on the “Democracy Now” radio show.

“We deserve better ... I work very hard. I’m a single mom, I have three kids, and on $7.25 an hour I can’t support them, and I can’t give them the education I want them to have. That hurts all of us.” — Glenda Soto, McDonald’s, interviewed by Lauren McCauley for Common Dreams.

“Supervisors and general managers automatically assume that they can intimidate workers and make us feel like we don’t have the right to organise, when we do. There can be a change now if we keep mobilising. We came a long way by standing together. I don’t see any reason why we should give up now.” — Kareem Sparks, McDonald’s, in Socialist Worker

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