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Seattle's Fast-Food Workers Strike As National Movement Begins To Claim Small Victories

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Fast-food workers in Seattle went on strike this week, joining a growing movement to improve wages in the service industries.
Fast-food workers in Seattle went on strike this week, joining a growing movement to improve wages in the service industries.

As fast-food workers in Seattle walked out of their restaurants on Wednesday night and Thursday, joining the hundreds of other low-wage workers who have gone on strike this spring, organizers claimed that the recent wave of walkouts has already yielded tangible results.

Conditions, hours, positions and pay have improved for a number of workers who participated in strikes in the last two months, organizers say. They point to Krystal Collins in Chicago, who got a 0.25 cent hourly raise and was switched from part-time to full-time after walking off her job at Macy's in April, and to Claudette Wilson, Romell Frazier and Khalil Dorris in Detroit, who forced their Burger King to close for the day in early May and subsequently saw their hours increase.

Other strike participants have won small raises at various franchises of Little Caesars, Popeyes, McDonald's, and Burger King. "They're getting more pay and hours and better scheduling, and are feeling emboldened to speak up on the job," said Rev. Martin Rafanan, an organizer with the community group Missouri Jobs For Justice. "The victories achieved by strikers are compelling others to get involved."

Robert Bruno, director of the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois, insisted that the recent wave of resistance amounts to nothing less than a "transformative moment" in the labor movement. "A lot of workers are discovering that they can resist their employers," he said. "What I think you're seeing is a sense that there is actually a potential to make change."

The first of these strikes took place in New York last fall, when about 200 fast-food workers walked off the job for a day, prompting organizers to boast that they'd launched the largest strike in the history of the fast-food industry.

In April, twice as many fast-food workers in New York participated in a second strike, followed by one-day walkouts in Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Washington, D.C. Walmart workers, meanwhile, have pressed on with their own campaign for better wages and conditions, with the latest series of strikes and protests expected to culminate at the company's shareholder meeting next Friday. And in Queens, N.Y., workers at a car wash signed a union contract last week guaranteeing them a raise and benefits. They formed their union last fall, after joining forces with the nonprofit group New York Communities for Change, one of the main organizations behind New York's fast-food strikes.

Like their counterparts in other cities, Seattle's striking workers are hoping to pressure employers to pay at least $15 an hour. Most fast-food workers earn far less, living on incomes that fall below the federal government's threshold for poverty. Ethan Dittrick-Reed, a 23-year-old cook who makes $9.25 an hour at a Seattle Qdoba, said he relies on food stamps and help from his parents to pay the rent each month. "I'm lucky enough to have parents who will occasionally help me," he said. "But really, I want to be independent, and with a higher wage at my job I would get that."

Although it's been decades since the country began shifting from a high-wage manufacturing economy to one that largely relies on low-wage jobs, the retail and food industries have exploded in recent years, offering work that pays significantly less than the majority of jobs that disappeared during the recession. At the same time, union membership has declined, leaving organizers and low-wage workers with little choice but to experiment with new strategies for getting corporations to listen to their demands.

According to Bruno, many organizers have only recently learned that the law offers protection to non-union workers who go on strike. "People have gotten smarter," he said. "They realize there are the new models of organizing that aren't unions but are protected by law, and that there are ways to actually win improved benefits and improved wages."

Whether these small victories will eventually lead to a $15 hourly wage remains to be seen. “We could be talking about a whole industry shifting and raising standards across the board, and I haven't seen that happening,” Bruno said. “We’re seeing individual efforts at particular stores, adjustments made with particular workers, and workers being able to assert their rights and not suffer as a consequence.”

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