THE BLOG

Fast-Food Strikes Lend Much-Needed Fire to Largely Dormant Labor Movement

08/31/2013 05:33 pm ET | Updated Oct 31, 2013

I know it's not the stuff of big headlines. What after all can compete with really significant summer news such as Miley Cyrus' clumsy twerking at MTV's Music Video Awards?

But the growing, rolling strikes of fast-food workers is beginning to bring back memories of earlier efforts to organize and uplift the disenfranchised in this country. None was more striking in my lifetime than the work of Cesar Chavez and the organizations he formed (the National Farm Workers Association and then the United Farm Workers of America) to fight in the 1960s and '70s for decent working conditions and pay for seasonal workers in California's fields and orchards. No leader even approaching Chavez' stature has emerged from the current ripple of fast-food walkouts -- no individual ready to sacrifice his health and body to bring attention to the abhorrent underpayment of fast-food workers, who don't approach a living wage in a 40-hour week.

Still, last week, fast-food workers went on strike in more than 50 cities, from East to West and North to South. They managed to garner 10 paragraphs below the fold on page B3 of the liberal (?) New York Times. Employees walked out of about 1,000 restaurant, The Times reported. Many earn the $7.25-an-hour federal minimum wage. They're demanding $15 an hour instead, contending, as one Los Angeles striker told The Times' Steven Greenhouse, that "people can't survive on the minimum wage."

That much seems pretty clear. Of the 46 million plus Americans on food stamps, 41 percent are in households in which someone is working part-time or full-time, The Atlantic reports.

The organization "Raise the Minimum Wage" reports that had the minimum wage simply kept up with inflation, it would be $10.74 an hour today. It also says there is not a single state in the country today in which a fulltime, minimum-wage worker can afford a two-bedroom apartment. So much for work and dignity, which the Republican Party, pushing to cut the food stamp program sharply, has always claimed to espouse. This, of course, is the same party that's opposing President Obama's efforts to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour.

As The Christian Science Monitor noted in analyzing the fast-food strikes: "While a young workforce and quick turnover have traditionally characterized the fast-food industry, protesters say the Great Recession caused more parents and older workers to rely on fast-food jobs. But they can't survive on current wages, they say."

I've been scouring the news for more on these strikes, but then, they're not exactly a national movement yet. Most coverage is pretty perfunctory. Here's a few tidbits:

The strikes began in New York in November when workers at several fast food chains, including McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's walked out, USA Today reports.

The movement remains pretty small-scale. Prior to Thursday, the largest walkout was this summer when "about 2,200 of the nation's millions of fast-food workers staged a one-day strike in seven cities," Huffington Post reports.

A quarter of fast-food workers are raising a child on their piddling wages, The Atlantic reports.

I'm rooting for these courageous fast-food workers, who in their actions could go from being really poor to losing their jobs and finding their families forced onto the streets. That takes guts. And by showing those guts, they also might breathe life into the largely moribund American labor movement or the increasingly displaced generation of America's young adults.

They also could get crushed.

As The Atlantic notes:

The strikes would have a much better shot at inspiring a change in franchise- and corporate-level policy if fast-food chains perceived one of two threats: (a) a threat to the steady supply of food-service workers who want to be employed at any wage and (b) a threat from consumers demanding higher wages for their fast-food clerks by not buying burgers and fries at McDonald's. Instead, the big-picture doesn't reveal either of these pressure points.

I hope the magazine is wrong. I'll be looking, meanwhile, for another walkout in Boston. Maybe if some of us show our support, this movement won't fizzle before it really gets off the ground. That, of course, will mean devoting less time and energy to talking about twerking.