12/05/2013 06:18 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2013

McDonald's May Not Quite Grasp What The Word 'Strike' Means


The actions taking place outside McDonald's and other fast-food restaurants across the country this week aren't technically strikes, according to McDonald's. But the disagreement on terms may stem from McDonald's rather old-fashioned idea of what a strike actually is.

McDonald's released a statement on its website Thursday in response to demonstrations taking place in cities nationwide, seeking higher wages for fast-food employees:

We also respect the right to voice an opinion. To right-size the headlines, however, the events taking place are not strikes. Outside groups are traveling to McDonald’s and other outlets to stage rallies. Our restaurants remain open today -- and every day -- thanks to our dedicated employees serving our customers.

The definition of what constitutes a strike has been "migrating" for the past several years, according to Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California-Santa Barbara. As labor groups work to organize professions typically resistant to unionization, like retail and fast food, companies have fought back with claims that the actions include more activists than workers. In one example, Walmart urged reporters to ask groups organizing protests on Black Friday how many of the people involved were actually workers.

"The classic definition of a strike would be when workers withhold their labor, and production is shut down in some fashion," Lichtenstein said. "Recently, for a variety of reasons having to do with the nature of the workplace, the strike migrates just to sort of a demonstration on a picket line."

Some of the participants in Thursday's demonstrations were workers walking off the job in an attempt to disrupt business, but many were also employees on their day off and activists who don't work in fast food. While these don't look like the mid-century strikes where "the picket line was like a barbed wire fence," Lichtenstein said they represent a "modern strike," which draws on a labor tradition calling attention to the plight of workers.

"This is what workers have done for 200 years," he said. "At various moments when you’re weak, you appeal to the moral sense of the public, and that can be done in a variety of ways."

Akilarose Thompson, a 24-year-old McDonald's employee, is one of many pleading her case publicly. She said she showed up to a Chicago McDonald's at 5:45 a.m. Thursday to protest because "it's just kind of embarrassing that I work all the time, but I can't afford the basic the necessities."

Sanny Velezquez, a 34-year-old Los Angeles McDonald's employee, said she skipped work Thursday to protest. She said she's struggling to afford basic necessities for herself and her three kids on an $8.70 per hour wage.

Thompson and her daughter rely on an $8.28 per hour wage, plus money she makes working a second job. Protesters are asking fast-food giants to raise wages to $15 per hour.

"Yesterday was payday, and the money was spent before it even came," Thompson said. "This is my daughter's first Christmas, and I feel really crappy that I can't get her the things that she wants."



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