More than 150 people gathered last week near a Wendy’s close the University of Texas at Austin campus to support the national fast food workers strike. Fast food workers across the country walked off the job on August 29 to demand a living wage of $15 an hour.
Many of those who turned out in Austin were union members who already have decent paying jobs.
Moreover, one union, SEIU, played the leading role in organizing the one-day national strike that involved more than 1,000 fast food workers.
Five days earlier, union members helped swell the ranks of marchers celebrating the 50th anniversary of the historic 1963 March on Washington, the largest and perhaps the most important demonstration in the history of the Civil Rights movement. The march was organized by the National Action Network, a network of community organizations.
The involvement by unions in both events is evidence that some union leaders recognize that unions must head in new directions if they want to remain relevant in the long struggle for equality and justice.
One of these new directions is a new strategy toward organizing, exemplified by the fast food workers’ strike.
The average pay for fast food workers is $8.94, or a little more than $11,000 a year. Most fast food workers don’t have benefits such as health care insurance or a pension.
Despite the poor pay and lack of benefits, it has been difficult to organize low-wage workers like those in the fast food industry.
Fast food workers aren’t concentrated in one location, and they usually work for franchise owners rather than a corporate giant like McDonald’s. The turnover rate is also high.
Given these conditions, it’s unlikely that standard organizing approaches can work.
But low-wage workers, including fast food workers, are becoming a growing portion of the US workforce, which makes organizing them vital to protecting and improving wages and working conditions for higher paid workers.
So SEIU established Fast Food Forward, which since November has organized a series of one-day strikes that aim to increase fast food worker pay to at least $15 an hour.
The strikes aren’t designed to shut down production, but rather to build public support for a decent raise.
Mary Kay Henry, president of SEIU, recently told Steve Greenhouse of the New York Times that the strikes have raised people’s expectations of what is possible.
“It’s moving people to understand that $15 is increasingly reasonable,” said Henry to Greenhouse. “It’s becoming crystal clear to a lot of people that if these workers who earn $9,000 a year could earn $18,000, that could make a big change in their neighborhoods.”
Henry also said that the strikes could lead to action by government officials that could raise the minimum wage.
CWA President Larry Cohen is also taking the union movement in a new direction by building alliances that transcend narrow economic issues.
In a Labor Day message, Cohen told CWA members that economic and political realities make it essential for CWA “to build a movement of allies” with the power to challenge the corporate interests that now run the US government. These allies, according to Cohen, include other union members, civil rights activists, greens, community organizers, people of faith, immigrant rights groups, and the LGBT community.”
Most recently, CWA coordinated mobilizing efforts with the NAACP, the Sierra Club, and Greenpeace to turn out people for the National Action Network’s, August 24 march on Washington.
Last year the four groups convened to create the Democracy Initiative aimed at protecting voting rights, countering the corrupting influence of corporate money in government, and building a movement for justice, equality, and sustainability.
CWA and its Democracy Initiative partners have been active in supporting T-Mobile workers in Wichita, Kansas in their fight for worker rights, participating in immigration reform demonstrations, joining the Moral Monday demonstrations in North Carolina, and working to stop the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed trade treaty that will cost US workers jobs and poses threats to the environment and to consumers.
“The Democracy Initiative community is engaging our members, supporters, and Americans across the country because we know that at the heart of each of our core issues is the critical need for a functioning system that respects political equality,” read a recent statement by the Democracy Initiative. “If we want to protect working families, keep our air and water clean, and pursue justice for every American, we must protect our democracy.”
Back in Austin. the CWA, including the Texas State Employees Union CWA Local 6186, joined the demonstration supporting striking fast food workers. They weren’t the only labor groups to do so. Members of Education Austin, IBEW, ATU, the Texas Federation of Teachers, the Texas AFL-CIO, the Austin Central Labor Council, the Sheet Metal Workers, the Painters, and worker centers from across the state were on hand to demonstrate their support for the Fight for $15.