What will it take to organize fast food?

What will it take to organize fast food?

A short article by db on the possibilities for organizing in the fast food industry.

What will it take to organize fast food?

- A union campaign that blasts minimum standards into the popular consciousness and spreads them like wildfire through (social) media and word of mouth.

-A wave of franchise-by-franchise sitdown strikes and occupations that enforce a union and minimum standards on hosts of employers.

- Inspired workers along the food chain and in similar workplaces rise up to demand more.

-Mass pickets, civil disobedience, sit-down strikes and more force nonorganized employers to concede to the union or see their businesses destroyed.

- A series of additional bloody struggles to raise standards and enforce them across the industry are waged and won.

Nothing more, nothing less. Can you feel it? Taste it? Are you loving it?

This is what we might call “sandwiches meets the autoworker” model, inspired by my own experience as an organizer at Jimmy John’s in Minneapolis, through which I saw the need for a more developed strategy of direct action and a need for more concise, winnable demands.

It is also influenced by looking at history, including the book “Reviving the Strike” by Joe Burns, which talks about the importance of strikes in building a powerful labor movement.

While the future is gray, to not shoot for this type of organizing in such an explosive industry is to set ourselves up for failure.

What do I suggest as minimum standards? How about a campaign for $9 per hour, tip jars and dignity, or the ability to call in sick and not have to face harassment or discrimination. What should we use as a slogan? How about “dignity comes between two slices of bread” (because bread can be slang for money)? The dollar amount could be raised progressively, or upped to fit local conditions or a rising minimum wage.

Such an effort would require some beautiful posters to plaster around stores, including a model “code of conduct” that businesses would be forced to agree to.

It would also be helpful to develop some modern day tar-and-feathering equivalent for creepy or racist managers, as an empowering response to harassment. This could be spread through social networks and done anywhere easily. Something like a glitter bomb, perhaps?

After all, we are the IWW, goddamn it! This is what we do. And fast food workers today are almost as broke as the timber beasts of yesteryear.

That said, being in the IWW gives us an additional advantage. We know that the current economic and political order called capitalism is destroying the Earth and that the same can be said for the capitalist food system. So we know that when the time comes we aren’t going to defend the practice of serving the working class diabetes. Instead, we’ll take things over and transform them for the benefit of all, bringing about a new world within the shell of the old.

A working class revolution is possible! Join the IWW! Think outside the bun!

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (September 2012)

What will it take to organize fast food.pdf518.07 KB


Gregory A. Butler
Sep 2 2012 15:16

That all sounds good on paper.

Unfortunately, it runs into the objective reality that, over the past 50 years, fast food has evolved as a TRANSITIONAL JOB.

Other than store managers, nobody goes into fast food as a career - the workforce is high school students working their first job, college students working their way through school, mothers returning to the labor force after taking time off to raise their kids, retirees working a part time job to supplement their social security check and - these days - desperate unemployed adults working there until they can find a job in their field.

The general pattern in fast food for two generations has been that if an individual worker is treated badly, her first instinct is to QUIT AND FIND ANOTHER JOB rather than organizing to improve the job she has.

The strategies outlined above would work if fast food work was like construction or factory work, an actual career job that a worker had a long term investment in and planned to stay at for the indefinite future.

A more realistic fast food organizing strategy would involve organizing the truck drivers who deliver food to fast food restaurants and having them systematically refuse to deliver to stores that didn't sign up with a union.

That's actually how the Teamsters organized the supermarkets in the 1930s - the Teamsters organized the drivers and warehouse workers and forced the companies to sign contracts with the Retail Clerks International Association and the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen for the workers in the stores.

The only way the above strategy would work with the one segment of fast food workers for whom fast food is a long term job IMMIGRANT WORKERS.

Those workers don't see fast food work as a stepping stone to a "real" job the way many White, African American and US born Latino workers do - for them, it IS a "real" job.

Those workers actually HAVE done things like the strategy outlined above, because those sort of things are routine labor tactics in Latin America and they bring those tactics to America with them.

As for American-born fast food workers, realistically, that strategy is unlikely to work - more realistic to organize the drivers and use them as leverage to organize the stores.

klas batalo
Sep 2 2012 17:12

I largely disagree. If a culture of resistance and organizing can be built among immigrant workers and even travel across borders, eventually if we organize the worker such a culture could be built among fast food workers of any background.

Also you seem to contradict yourself by saying fast food is unorganizable but then saying that immigrant workers could do it because they'll stick with the industry. Well now there are objective conditions that make it hard for those other demographics to also just hop out of the industry. I've worked in fast food and retail pretty much my entire adult life from the time I was 16 till now (I'm 26). I'm finding that it could be increasingly hard to escape working in that industry even though I have a university degree.


It would have been nice the last ten years to have had job security with folks having my back, etc. Also that is a decade. A decade lost of not training young workers how to fight in the future. From my memory a lot of the really exciting labor fights in history were fought by young and precarious workers actually.

Yes organizing is hard, the fast food organizing climate is hard, I agree it will be hard because of many of the obstacles you paint. But it isn't only organizable by immigrant workers. And even if so, then wouldn't they be the "vanguard" of actually organizing fast food?

Sep 2 2012 19:13

I like it. I don't care if it's unorganizable or not - and besides, why shouldn't people have decent conditions while they're in transition? And not only that, I don't think this kind of work is going to be so much 'transitional' any more. The big financial heads have been saying for a while now that we are turning into a 'service' economy and I will bet money or a good hamburger that we will not see 'real' unemployment fall significantly below 15% for 8-10 more years, if ever. The longer it goes on the more people will become accustomed and accepting of it.

Let's just start now by getting two cooks on every burger.

Sep 3 2012 05:56

Gregory, if that's an objective reality then you should be able to find some evidence. I'd like to see some. Otherwise, I think you're just voicing your assumptions. It's not clear to me that people actually manage to leave fast food all that successfully. I've just been looking on the Bureau of Labor Statistics web site, prompted by your comment, and on some fast food industry (they call themselves "quick service"), and it's clear that turnover rates per company are high. But it's not clear that people who quit one fast food job then leave employment in the fast food industry.

I don't know how old you are. I'm 34. There are almost no career jobs left anymore. For a lot of people, the crappy job they currently have *is* their real job and their prospects aren't going to improve. They may not realize that, but that can be addressed.

You mentioned the Teamsters. As a point of comparison for fast food, this book mentions in passing that in the 1930s that the average company in trucking was small and there were lots of competing firms - kinda like fast good. (See page 23 http://books.google.com/books?id=a69CD1IRlpYC&lpg=PP1&ots=KtQLSOfPiy&dq=... ) I looked but couldn't find information on employee turnover in trucking in the 30s.

It's also worth pointing out that high turnover doesn't actually mean unorganizable. I think more often than not the jobs that people think of as jobs to keep, and which have low turnover, are halfway decent as a result of organizing. This chart shows turnover rates for U.S. manufacturing jobs in the first part of the 20th century U.S. - http://eh.net/files/graphics/encyclopedia/owen.turnover.png If turnover meant stuff was unorganizable then we'd have never seen organizing in manufacturing. (Chart comes from this article - http://eh.net/encyclopedia/article/owen.turnover )

Sep 3 2012 12:07

I'll echo the last paragraph of Nate's comment. I just read a book called Talking Union, about UAW Local 600 and the CIO's organization of the automobile factories around Detroit. Before the factories were organized, they had a lot of turnover. People said factories were unorganizable because low-skilled workers moved from job to job too much. It was only after those factories were organized that workers gained long-term job security.

But I agree with Gregory about the importance of immigrant workers. One of the reasons that CIO was successful in organizing the auto factories was that organizers had deep roots in the various immigrant communities that worked at the plant.

Gregory A. Butler
Sep 4 2012 01:43

Transitional workers definitely do deserve good pay and decent conditions and yes they should be organized.

My point was that it will be a difficult task to do so, primarily because of the high labor turnover among the US born segment of the fast food workforce.

Gregory A. Butler
Sep 4 2012 01:48

From what I understand, a lot of US born fast food workers see the job as a stepping stone. This is also apparently a common attitude among US born workers in the restaurant and retail store industries. That makes these industries difficult organizing targets.

As for the immigrant workers, they come from countries with labor movements far more militant than ours and they are also more likely to see their fast food jobs as permanent, rather than a stepping stone.

This makes it less difficult to organize them and lead them in a strike.

Workers are more likely to fight to improve a job if they see that job, or at the very least that industry, as their permanent workplace.

Gregory A. Butler
Sep 4 2012 01:59

I'm a union carpenter and I know in my industry, in the past 20 years, pretty much every successful organizing campaign was carried out by Mexican immigrant workers. They come from a country where militant labor tactics are far more common than here and they tend to have less illusions in the system than US born workers do.

Chilli Sauce
Sep 4 2012 04:10

Gregory, I'm pretty much echoing Joe here, but the traditional industries were incredibly precarious as well prior to mass unionisation. It's decent pay and conditions that stop jobs from being transitional.

As Nate points out, the post-war social consensus (or whatever you want to call it) began to die in the 70s and is reaching it's full death in this age of austerity. Precarious work, seasonal employment, day labour, and part-time work is now the norm--whether one has a college degree or has a more blue collar background.

Restaurant workers are the new industrial proletariat and until service and retail is organised, high turnover and "transitional" (read: dead-end jobs, "McJobs", whatever) employment is going to continue to be the norm.

klas batalo
Sep 4 2012 05:10

I think we need to actually start writing more pieces, profusely on how in the past many now union or previously union jobs were precarious, and how yes it will be a struggle. I'm sick of hearing, but how does organizing workers make sense when our jobs are so precarious all the f*cking time.

Sep 4 2012 08:16

I'm going to play the ultra-left card and say, as someone who works in this industry, call for it's abolition! Make your own fucking burgers and coffees!

I joke. groucho

Sep 4 2012 08:54
Arbeiten wrote:
I'm going to play the ultra-left card and say, as someone who works in this industry, call for it's abolition! Make your own fucking burgers and coffees!

the latter at least will be easy, as I have previously written, after the revolution every worker will have a Gaggia:

Going back to the original article, I enjoyed it overall but a couple of things came to my mind:
- the article mentions having tip jars as a workers' demand. Now I can understand why fast food workers in the US could want this, as American customers typically give very large tips. owever, I think this is a mistake as it misunderstands the toxic, anti-working class nature of tipping.

The booklet abolish restaurants goes into this in more detail. But basically tips are a way for employers to pass their need to pay wages onto other workers: the customers. And importantly pass the risks of running a foodservice business (where the number of customers goes up and down, but you still need enough staff potentially on duty to serve if the place is really busy) onto the workers. So if the place isn't busy, the workers' wages are reduced but the employer's wage bill is still equally low.

In countries where the working class is better organised and more militant, like France, tipping doesn't exist. (It is also much smaller in the UK than in the US for this reason.) Similarly, in the Spanish Revolution, Orwell writes on how hairdressers and restaurant workers abolished tips.

So basically what I'm saying is workers would be better sticking to wage demands from the employer. (Although of course I understand that you are probably thinking the employer is less likely to fight a tip jar than pay employees more. However you should realise that fast food employers want their prices to be low, and having tip jars would de facto massively increase their prices - and of course all of this price increase would go to the workers, rather than the employer. So I think that employers would still fight this, possibly harder than wage hikes.)

- Secondly, while to me it makes sense, McDonald's Workers Resistance in the UK found that when they switched from being a more general "fuck work" organisation into one which was fighting for a particular demand (£6 per hour), it sort of lost its inspiration and died shortly after. Now that may well be that MWR was an organisation of young, inexperienced workers who didn't really know how to build a functioning organising campaign, but I thought it was worth pointing out. Interview with one of its founders that talks about this here:

klas batalo
Sep 4 2012 17:41

Agree that tipping is anti-working class. In the states though even from radicals it is usually treated as anti-working class not to tip, mostly in situations where folks are making 2 or so bucks an hour (waiting wages). Now I can semi be sympathetic to this, but labor law recquires that the boss make up the difference. I mean if you can "afford" to tip them sure, I've just never really been able to in my own experience.

The tip jars demand at a place like Jimmy Johns or other fast food joints, somewhat makes sense to me, because usually there is a ban on them. I think the bosses figure it could be extra money spent on services. It could also help obscure employee theft. I've even seen it be said by the bosses to be an undue thing to request of customers. Idk they have lots of excuses for why they don't allow it. Maybe someone else could explain better theories about that. But I agree it is still anti-working class, and wage demands would be better. Again I am sympathetic though because it is pretty much a demand to do something the boss doesn't want workers to do, and it could be a small fight that could show the workers can fight. But IDK.

Sep 4 2012 18:19

(Just to clarify, while I'm against tipping in general, I do still tip well myself, particularly in the US where I know some workers don't get wages at all, they just get tips)

klas batalo
Sep 4 2012 18:30

Yeah I should make clear that when I "can" I do.

Aunty Jack
Sep 5 2012 06:41

This is a fairly interesting account of "SuperSize My Pay," a campaign to organise young fast food workers in New Zealand. http://libcom.org/library/super-size-my-pay-fast-food-workers-new-zealand-organise-better-pay-and-conditions

A spinoff union in Australia has also enjoyed similar successes.

Sep 5 2012 07:08

Pretty much have the same criticisms as others, i worked in fast food for a while and most people there were young and saw it as a temporary job, longer term staff often tend to be shift managers who ''manage'' a handful of part timers or kids. Models of organisation based solely around the union workplace branch will hit major problems fairly immediately.

Most fast food restaurants have a production line that is very easy for workers to bring to a virtual halt simply by slowing down or obeying all the health and safety rules. The culture of the go-slow and the loose organisation would be the one to push imho. I feel that the more formal approach is unlikely to gain any momentum.You just end up asking people to join a non-existent union like happened with the iww starbucks stuff a few years back in the UK.

A wage increase would have been nice sure but to be honest in my experiece things like not being bullied, work rate, hours, control over shift rotas, disciplinaries, not having to serve abusive customers, time off and the like were far more immediately important than an extra 50 pence an hour for the year or so you'll be working there, which the cynical part of you feels like you'd likely lose in tax anyways.

fingers malone
Sep 5 2012 10:07

High turnover is a problem, but it's not the only one. In a car factory for example, there is a web of interconnected production (one factory makes carburetors, another makes tyres, and so on) so strikes in one sector can have a knock on effect on many other factories "downstream". It doesn't work like that in catering to nearly the same extent. Several fast food places could be on strike and the others could stay open, they don't depend on each other for products. The production and distribution of the actual food is a different matter, but I don't know much about that, although there was a big strike in a fast food distribution place in North London in the early nineties. So car factory workers and other similar industrial workers have a power that catering workers don't have.
That doesn't mean don't bother, at all. Just that there are objective differences which make catering workers more vulnerable. There is loads about this in "Forces of Labour" but my copy is in another country.

However, as a lot of posters have said, for many workers it isn't a summer job, many of us are going to spend our whole lives in these jobs. And probably about half the working class population work in the sector at least once in their lives, so organising there has massive potential for having a knock on effect in the future on people's approach to work and giving people an experience of militancy and solidarity.

Recent experience shows that no workers and no sectors are "unorganisable", the cleaners here in London and the IWW experience in fast food show that. Maybe the comrades from the IWW in the states could post some stories here about practical organising?

Chilli Sauce
Sep 5 2012 20:31

Last two posts were very good.

Picking up on Malone's last paragraph, I'd be curious to hear stories from the Jimmy John's Workers Union now that it appears they've decided against another Labor Board union election. I know there were those bad-ass sick day leaflets, but I'd be curious to hear about other tactics that have/are being employed inside the shops (keeping things as anonymous as needed, obviously).

Sep 6 2012 01:08

Really decent thread, and happy this has legs.

In response to Malone, and other skeptics, this would be less about trying to take on the mammoths of say Mcdonalds in the fist instane, but rather looking to the smaller chains who will need to capitulate faster, because of the nature of the market, and move inwards from there. This isn't cheating as such, but rather the abc's of union organising - ie winning victories in the first instance.

So maybe Greggs >> subway >> burger king >> KFC >> McDonald's or such like.

Sep 6 2012 05:33

Do fast food companies franchise in the same way in the UK as in the US? I ask because I think initially taking on franchises is a good way to go for fast food organizing. A franchise owner is a relatively small business owner compared to a national/international chain, their squeezed by the chain in terms of costs, the brand name gives the appearance of taking on a massive beast, media exposure, etc, and it's likely to be a smaller pool of workers initially. I think people who want to do this should pick whatever is the smallest local franchise of a large fast food chain, if they're able to pick based on strategic criteria. I also think this could be extra productive if tied to grievance committee/SeaSol style body that targets fast food. So like as organizing at one company heats up, put stuff out about taking on respect issues like people mentioned above - pickets over sexual harrassment, bullying, firings, etc. Sort of combining a proactive/positive program and a reactive/defensive program.

Also, on the stuff Fingers Malone raised about how to actually exert power, that's important. I know the author of this piece has suggested that (would be) fast food organizers should eventually be aiming at workplace occupations to really stop production at fast food places. That has to be of a big enough size to actually have an impact on companies' bottom line, though, which may be another reason to take on franchises or smaller chains at first. I do think this is do-able.

Several years ago my IWW branch got involved pretty late in a dispute at a local restaurant chain. The company'd fired most of its long time kitchen staff due to immigration status (the government was pressuring companies to do this). The workers got in touch with some nonprofit group and very late, like a few days before the dismissal date (they'd know for a month or three), we got involved. Dismissal day was Friday. We got home addresses for workers who weren't fired and over the weekend we went to those workers homes in teams of one IWW member and one of the fired restaurant workers, to talk about what had happened. We also found out which stores had the most business in terms of in-store sale and in terms of catering, and we found out when delivery trucks dropped off food etc. Public response kicked off on the day of the first big delivery, the Tuesday after dismissal day. IWW members, friends, and many of the first workers picketed and turned away many delivery trucks outside, limiting what the restaurant could cook, and a large group of workers who were still employed sat down at the front tables and refused to work for a few hours, demanding that the fired workers be re-instated. There were some other good militant pickets at mealtimes and stuff too later. Ultimately there was some kind of legal settlement brokered by the nonprofit that was involved, I don't know the details. Stuff was all last minute and rushed, and there were a lot of flaws to how it all went down and we could have done a lot better, but I took from it that this kind of place is organizable and these are some of the sorts of tactics that can be used.

There were also two moments early in the Jimmy John's campaign, one like I think 3 years before the campaign went public and one like a year before, each where an IWW member there was fired. We tried to overturn the firing through action and failed, but we did hit back pretty hard and learned a lot from that. In one case we had loads of people call in to talk to the manager during the lunch rush, effectively cutting off lunch orders. There's down-sides to that (it's annoying to the workers on the clock so if they're not already on board it burns them, and it can be kinda substitutionist depending on who is doing the calling) but it hurts the boss. In another instance, a manager punched an employee and IWW member. He called and texted some friends in the IWW which turned into a chain of calls and emails, and I think like 20-50 IWW members and friends showed up and basically shut the place down for a while, and the few workers on the clock stopped work. Eventually people left because it would have been a pretty serious confrontation with the police and it wasn't planned, it was really reactive, IWW members rushing over because a fellow member had been hit by a boss. In the end the guy was fired (it was ruled to be an illegal work stoppage). In both cases we didn't get the jobs back but both instance galvanize the campaign and supporters and we did manage to really rattle the bosses. With better planning and being a lot less reactive these might have gone down really differently, and I think this stuff suggests ways to get at the bosses. Also, fast food franchise owners and such, by being smaller scale capitalists, are easy to find personally in terms of like name-and-shame pressure which isn't strictly economic, like leaflet in the neighborhood they live in, at their church, etc.

Gregory A. Butler
Sep 27 2012 03:48

You are aware that the "old industrial proletariat" still exists, correct?

There are over 10 million workers in construction in the US, 12 million in manufacturing, 5 million in transportation and another 5 million in public utilities.

Yes, organizing the 10 million workers in the restaurant industry is important, as is organizing any other sector. However, there are still 32 million workers at the industrial heart of the American economy

Sep 27 2012 05:26

I don't see what that has to do with anything said in this piece or in the discussion. This is an article by a fast food worker talking about organizing fast food. That's all. That doesn't say anything about what else is or isn't important. If you want to have a conversation about organizing in other industries, start one. (Preferably not on this thread, which is about organizing in fast food.)

Mar 16 2014 10:30
klas batalo wrote:
Yeah I should make clear that when I "can" I do.

That's really fucked up. Tipping, at least at restaurants, is not optional, especially not for someone who wants to call themselves pro-worker. If you "can't" tip - cook at home. You can't justify this by saying that "the boss is legally obligated to bring them back up to minimum wage", because A) that almost never would actually happen or be enforced, b) most tipped restaurant staff don't expect to live on minimum wage, they expect to take home $11-15/hr, so not tipping is just hurting their take home.

Seriously that is about the same as pro-feminist men who say that they do their share of the housework when they "can".

Edited to add: I know you're thinking about joining the IWW. Save your $9/month to use on tips, once you've got that sorted out, then join.

Mar 18 2014 06:06

Clearly what Klas could only have meant is that sometimes he eats in restaurants and doesn't tip at all. No other meaning of what he said is possible. To the gulag!

Nov 5 2017 08:14

In Birmingham england the RAG group have been running a campaign along the lines suggested targetting Macdonalds workers attempting to encouage the workers to unionise and more specifically to join the IWW. We have been using tactics such as picketing the local macdonalds branches to hand out flyers to the customers highlighting the issues surrounding the fast food inductry and macdonalds workers struggle to win decent living wages, the right to unionise without suffering workplace bullying and an end to the use of zero hours contracts.
We produced a website, flyers for macdonalds customers and for the workers and had balloons made with the message suppoting the call for higher wages and unions for the workers which we have been handing to customers going into Macdonalds.
The campaign has been wel recieved with a lot of support from macdonalds customers.

Nov 5 2017 09:34

You might say that working in the fast food industry is seen as a transistional job, for many people its their first job and its our job to help form the thinking and attitude of workers from their first job.