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From a Moment to a Movement

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A happy Labor Day to all -- a day for a last summer outing to the beach, a three-day weekend to shop the sales, or maybe just a day to stay home and get ready for the school year.

And, oh yeah, a day to honor working people.

As this Labor Day approached, fast food workers in at least 50 cities went on one-day strikes to demand a living wage. The movement, organized by community groups with the strong support of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), is a hopeful effort to shine a spotlight on the proliferation of low-wage work -- and specifically to break through the fragmentation of fast food workers in small units where it is almost impossible to organize conventional unions.

Workers without union protections who go out on strike are risking their jobs. But so far, the fast food industry had not wanted to invite public indignation by firing striking workers. This suggests some latent power that remains to be fully mobilized.

The question that admirers of this nascent movement are asking is: what comes next? How do these one-day strikes add up to higher wages in fast food, and a national campaign for a true living wage for all American workers?

If the $7.25 federal minimum wage had simply been adjusted with inflation, it would be around $10 an hour. If it had risen with average U.S. productivity growth, the minimum wage would be over $18 an hour.

There is a lot of mythology suggesting that the proliferation of low-wage payroll jobs, part time work, temp jobs, and precarious independent contractor work has something to do with education levels, or technology. Mostly, it doesn't. The blue-collar middle class of the postwar boom hadn't been to college and many didn't even have high-school diplomas. But they earned what used to be called a family wage.

Why? A different distribution of power between corporations and workers, stronger unions, and pro-worker regulation. Today's service workers, like yesterday's production workers, could also earn a living wage. But before they get a better distribution of income they need a different distribution of power.

One double-edged analogy that comes to mind is the Occupy movement. It created a venue to confront the chasms of inequality in American society and the power of Wall Street. Occupy also created a nice slogan that captured both things -- The One Percent.

What Occupy did not do was to translate into a durable politics that led to real reform. That's what the fast food movement needs to do.

The restaurant industry would have you believe that most fast food workers are teenagers working part time for pocket money. That's not accurate. Most are in fact breadwinners.

In thinking about how these moments could grow into movements, one important fact is that these restaurants are franchises. McDonald's or Burger King doesn't own the local restaurant, but dictates everything from the menu to the specifications for the napkins. If the parent corporation wanted to, it could also require the local franchise to pay a living wage.

So the larger campaign needs to be against these national, hugely profitable brands, to make them take responsibility for the working conditions in the franchises that carry their logo and market their food.

There are a handful of encouraging precedents. The SEIU's Justice for Janitors campaign, which now has master contracts with major landlords in several cities, grasped early on that the cleaning contractors that nominally employed janitors had no real power. Their costs were almost entirely labor costs; squeeze them too hard, and another cleaning contractor would get the business.

The real power reposed with the building owner, for whom decent janitorial wages were a very minor share of total costs. So SEIU successfully went after the landlords. It was also crucial to win citywide contracts, so that competition among cleaning contractors based on cheap labor would cease.

In several cities, the hotel and restaurant union has similar master agreements with the big brands like Hilton or Marriott. It doesn't matter who happens to own the franchise; the decent labor contract follows the national brand.

Many fast food brands are actually owned by shadowy private equity companies. Stephen Lerner, the organizer who was the architect of the Justice for Janitors campaign, says, "One part of a strategy might be to focus on one or two of the fast food companies, and put massive pressure on them to add to the franchise agreement standards on how workers are paid and treated."

These one-day strikes are not going to lead directly to collective bargaining agreements, one restaurant at a time. But they could do something even more important. They could catalyze public sentiment in favor of a higher minimum wage generally, and bring pressure to bear against the national brands that control the conditions of the franchises.

The new structure of American industry is requiring a new kind of labor movement. The one-day strikes in fast food are a beginning.

Labor Day, incidentally, was originally a creation of the trade union movement, beginning in New York in 1882. Following a bitter strike against the Pullman Company that eventually involved 250,000 workers, President Grover Cleveland signed legislation making Labor Day a national holiday beginning in 1894, as a gesture to the growing union movement.

So, enjoy your day off, and please remember that it didn't just happen randomly.

Robert Kuttner's new book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior Fellow at Demos.

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