Skip to main content

Fast food walkouts fight inequality

By Ruth Milkman, Special to CNN
updated 12:20 PM EDT, Thu August 29, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruth Milkman: Fast food and retail workers are walking out to seek better wages
  • She says movement resonates because income inequality is 21st century America's issue
  • She says wage issues are new front (with union support) in a labor movement that has lagged
  • Milkman: Low-wage walkouts could be start of new labor push for strapped middle class

Editor's note: Ruth Milkman is professor of sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center and academic director of CUNY's Murphy Labor Institute. She writes extensively on labor topics.

(CNN) -- Fast food and some retail workers in 50 cities around the country are striking today, and have mounted dozens of strikes over the past few months. Their demands are simple: a pay raise to $15 per hour -- roughly double the federal minimum wage -- and union recognition.

The "Fast Food Forward" movement began in New York City last fall and quickly spread to other cities. In some places it grew to include workers in other low-wage jobs besides fast food. Like the earlier Occupy Wall Street protests, this new movement has captured the imagination of millions of Americans angry about the ever-widening gap between haves and have-nots.

But unlike Occupy, with its youthful base and reliance on new social media, Fast Food Forward was born from a marriage of old-fashioned unionism and community organizing. Its protagonists are ordinary workers, many of them black, brown and/or female.

Ruth Milkman
Ruth Milkman

They are struggling to support their families on jobs that pay at or close to the legal minimum, with few benefits. Adding insult to injury, full-time work is hard to find in the fast food and retail world. But many workers have no other options, since the Great Recession permanently wiped out millions of better-paying jobs.

The federal minimum wage dates back to the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act - part of FDR's New Deal. But inflation has eaten away at the guarantee it was meant to provide. In today's dollars, the minimum wage is worth less now than it was half a century ago.

Meanwhile, what FDR called "organized money" has been on the warpath against another legacy of the New Deal: organized labor. Today only 6.6% of private-sector workers are union members, less than any time since the early 1930s. That's another reason income inequality has soared.

But the labor movement refuses to die. Instead it is struggling to reinvent itself. Fast Food Forward is backed by the giant Service Employees International Union, which boasts more than 2 million members and is known for its creative organizing tactics. Back in the 1990s the union's Justice for Janitors campaign lifted standards in another low-wage sector, winning union contracts that improved pay and benefits and converted part-time building service jobs to full-time ones in cities around the country.

Rep. Ellison: Raise the minimum wage
Would higher minimum wage help or hurt?
Fast Food Workers Strike For Better Pay

As organized money has successfully choked off the traditional road to unionism through the system created by the 1935 National Labor Relations Act under FDR, unions have turned to strategies from the community organizing tradition. In the case of the fast food strikes, for example, the union partnered with established community-based groups like New York Communities for Change.

Similarly the Our Walmart campaign, which led the Black Friday walkouts at the nation's largest retailer last November, uses community organizing tactics rather than standard unionization methods.

Both Fast Food Forward and Our Walmart rely on strategies and tactics perfected by the "worker center" movement that sprang up starting in the1990s. It includes dozens of community-based organizations representing taxi drivers, domestic workers, day laborers, street vendors and others at the bottom of the labor market. Many of these workers are excluded outright from New Deal laws like the FLSA and NLRA, since technically they are not "employees" but "independent contractors."

The worker centers have successfully spotlighted the many abuses such workers suffer, and have helped them organize. But as community-based groups with shoestring budgets and tiny staffs, the scale of their work has been severely limited. Still, some have managed to form national organizations, like the Restaurant Opportunities Center and the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

One of them the Taxi Workers Alliance, is now formally affiliated with the AFL-CIO, which has developed other partnerships with worker centers in recent years.

If old-line labor unions - which despite their declining membership, still have relatively deep pockets and political clout - keep stepping up their support for such efforts, that could be a real game-changer.

That's the significance of the fast food walkouts: They could be the embryo of a new labor movement that challenges the power of organized money and the skyrocketing inequality that has made the American middle class an endangered species.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruth Milkman.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 5:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 6:21 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 11:24 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT