U.S. fast food protests go global

Last Thursday, fast food workers in over 30 countries participated in protests over poverty wages, a lack of full-time positions, poor working conditions and management retaliation against union activism. U.S. workers protested in over 160 cities, the tenth and largest round of strikes since the first actions in NYC in November 2012. Fast food workers participating in the “Fight for 15” (a minimum wage of $15 per hour) included, for the first time, workers in Miami, Orlando, Philadelphia, Sacramento, and San Antonio. Workers in dozens of other cities in almost every part of the country staged spontaneous one-day walkouts.

In notable overseas actions, fast food workers at McDonald’s and other major employers organized protests in 76 cities in several continents. In Europe workers protested in London, Glasgow and 18 other UK cities, Dublin, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Geneva, and Zurich. In Italy, fast food and other workers mounted a nationwide strike for better wages and improved conditions.  In Asia, there were job actions in Tokyo and 30 Japanese prefectures, Seoul and Busan, Korea, Mumbai, Manila, Taipei, Bandung, Karachi, Kathmandu and Bangkok. In the Americas, in addition to the U.S. protests, workers took actions in Buenos Aires, Managua, San Salvador, Bogota and five cities in Brazil.  For the first time fast food protests took place in Africa, with workers in Casablanca, Morocco conducting a large rally. Workers also held significant actions in Tel Aviv and Auckland.

It is easy to understand why workers are protesting an industry known for poverty wages and poor working conditions. Fast food jobs around the globe fall into three categories:

1.     In Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Australia, workers belong to unions, engage in collective bargaining and as a result, enjoy decent wages and working conditions. In Denmark, fast food workers earn over $20 per hour and receive good benefits, including paid sick leave, vacation time and overtime pay. Fast food work does not inevitably mean disposable jobs, and decent work does not mean outrageous prices. In Denmark, Big Macs cost only 56 cents more than they do in the U.S.

2.     In most other European and Latin American countries wages and conditions are significantly worse. Workers have no unions or weak unions, poverty-level wages, and poor working conditions. In common with the US, the most critical issues in these countries are poverty wages, inconsistent scheduling and a lack of hours, wage theft and retaliation against workers for union activism.

3.     Wages and conditions are even worse in the fast food sector in large parts of Asia and Africa. Relative to the local economies fast food jobs are by no means the worst jobs because they at least belong to the regular economy, whereas tens of millions of workers in the informal sector toil under more precarious forms of employment.  

The U.S. fast food industry is a poor example of the second category, with among the lowest wages, poorest conditions, worst career opportunities, and most rampant wage theft among this middle group. In March employees in New York, California and Michigan filed class action lawsuits against McDonald’s alleging systematic wage violations. U.S fast food corporations have profited enormously from low-road labor practices and have contributed to skyrocketing levels of inequality. CEOs receive compensation more than 1200 times that of non-managerial employees. Hourly paid workers earned an average of $9.13 in 2012, while the CEO income increased from an average $4.4 million in 2000 to $26.7 million in 2012. Among the top ten occupations by employment in 2013, fast food employees earned the least, with an average of $18,800 per year, compared to a national average of $46,440. In a recent filing with the SEC, McDonald’s acknowledged that the protests by fast food workers across the country posed a threat to future earnings.

How has the right wing in the United States responded to the protests? Instead of criticizing poverty pay, wage theft and retaliation for union activism, right-wing organizations and their Republican allies in Congress have used the protests as an opportunity to attack the groups standing up fast food workers. Writing in the Detroit News, lobbyist Rick Berman condemned the protests as a “charade” and an “attack on the food industry.” The increasing number of insecure jobs that pay poverty level wages and have poor working conditions is obviously of no concern to these representatives of the top 1%.

Fast food is a global industry.  While they try to hide behind the franchise system and the rhetoric of “small business owners,” fast food employers are global corporations with billions of dollars in annual profits. Fast food workers must fight for decent wages and conditions on a global level.  The fast food protests that started with a couple of hundred workers in New York in 2012 have caught the imagination of workers around the world. Their fight for dignity at work cannot be won in the U.S. alone, but U.S. workers will continue to be at the center of that struggle.   

Logan is professor and director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University.