During the mass uprising that engulfed Ferguson, Missouri in the weeks following the police murder of unarmed Black teenager Mike Brown, members of the St. Louis-area fast food workers’ organizing campaign – Show Me $15 – were deeply involved in the night-and-day demonstrations that rocked the city and the community organizing meetings that helped to cohere and sustain the movement. Without a doubt, the Ferguson uprising also drew the participation of many other fast food workers that had, up to that point, shied away from Show Me $15 and opted out of joining any of the one-day strike protests sponsored by the campaign.
The extensive involvement of fast food workers in the Ferguson rebellion is documented in detail by a number of articles published in the Left-wing and labor press. An August 20 story in Labor Notes, for example, explains that, “In the wake of widespread anger about Brown’s shooting, and police repression of protesters, members of the Show Me $15 fast food workers group have been at the demonstrations daily. They said the organizing they’d learned in the last 22 months, as they struck and demanded $15 an hour and a union, helped them know how to organize for justice.”
Some details about the actual on-the-ground involvement of fast food workers in the Ferguson uprising are provided in an eyewitness account written by a group of journalists from Socialist Worker that were in Ferguson for the demonstrations on Saturday, August 16. The story describes how – late that afternoon – five workers from a local Chipotle store arrived as a group at the burned-out QuickTrip that’s been at the epicenter of the protest movement. The workers brought with them “more than $1,000 worth of burritos and chips,” which they then helped distribute to the protesters gathered at the site. Later, the story notes, the workers “joined the march as a contingent and stayed for the evening, still wearing their work uniforms.” Elsewhere, the story recounts that, “In addition to support from local workers, a contingent of Fight for 15 activists from across the mid-south marched on Saturday, representing Little Rock, Ark., as well as Memphis and Nashville.”
Beyond this, a story in People’s World by Teresa Albano discusses the involvement of a group of four Show Me $15 activists during the protests that took place on the night of August 19. Albano apparently ran into the group early in the evening as they stood in front of the McDonald’s store on W. Florissant and “prepared themselves for the long night ahead.” To this end, the workers “wore protective masks around their necks for easy access in case the police unleashed tear gas like they had in previous nights. [One of the workers] had a bullhorn and spray bottle full of antacid to wash out the painful gas from skin, eyes, noses and mouths. Each person had attended multiple demonstrations and strategizing meetings[.]”
Probably the most well-publicized connection between the fast food workers’ movement and the Ferguson rebellion relates specifically to the McDonald’s store on W. Florissant that’s referenced in Albano’s story. Notably, prior to the outbreak of the rebellion, this particular store was the site of several strike protests staged by Show Me $15. At the time of Michael Brown’s murder on August 9, at least one worker (and possibly others) at this store had taken part in several strikes. Thus, it’s undoubtedly the case that this workplace had by then already been politicized, at least to some extent, as a result of the fast food workers’ movement. What’s more, beyond the history of unrest at this store, it’s also worth noting that at least some of the store’s workers appear to have been friends or acquaintances with Michael Brown – who, of course, lived in close proximity to this location. According to an article from the Los Angeles Times, Brown was an “occasional customer” at the store; his preferred meal was a “McChicken, medium fries, medium drink.” Beyond this, the Los Angeles Times article quotes from one store worker who was Big Mike’s “classmate and friend.”
With this in mind, it isn’t surprising that this McDonald’s store became a focal point of struggle during the course of the rebellion. On a number of different occasions, workers at the store appear to have taken part in collective acts of resistance in solidarity with protesters. This included work stoppages and partial work stoppages.
According to news reports, workplace unrest at this store rose to the fore on the night of August 17. This development was later summarized by a State Highway Patrol Captain, who told theNew York Times that police “had received reports that a McDonald’s restaurant had been seized by the demonstrators.” The “seizure” of this workplace took place that evening as riot police unexpectedly began to escalate their use of force and repression against demonstrators at around 9 p.m. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, in an attempt to find shelter from “barrages of tear gas” fired by police, “a group of frightened protesters” crowded around the McDonald’s and “tried to slam their way through the locked doors of the fast-food outlet.” Apparently, among the group were a number of terrified parents and young children – community residents that had been taking part in the protests as a family. Within moments, the crowd “smashed through the glass and surged inside.”
Following this, many of the store’s workers appear to have defied orders by management, who “advised” them to exit their work stations and gather in a storeroom in the back of the restaurant. A story published in Bloomberg quotes from a corporate-level management spokesperson, who intoned that, when the protesters broke down the glass and entered the store, the workers “were advised to – and some chose to of their own accord – move elsewhere for their personal safety.” From there, workers came to the aid of the demonstrators, many of whom were suffering excruciating pain from the tear gas. To this end, they gave bottles of McDonald’s milk to them to use an ameliorant. In some cases, the workers appear to have directly assisted the suffering protesters by pouring milk over their faces.
While news reports are vague and conflicting on this matter, a number of sources suggest that, following the “seizure” of the store, something approaching a collective mutiny and work stoppage occurred. According to the Los Angeles Times article – which is based on direct interviews with workers at the store – by that time, “The workforce… was gradually being lured outside.” Beyond this, the corporate spokesperson, quoted and paraphrased in the Bloombergstory, revealingly summarized the incidents that occurred on this night as follows:
“There were crowds near the restaurant and people attempted to seek shelter in the McDonald’s, and due to safety concerns, the restaurant needed to close for a period of time,” … a spokesperson for McDonald’s said via e-mail. Later, she said that the restaurant was closed for the remainder of the evening and that the company is still gathering details on what happened.
McDonald’s workers peer out the window of the “seized” store in Ferguson on the night of August 17, 2014.
(From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
All in all, these stories reveal that fast food workers – along with many other activists and community members – were at the very heart of the struggle in Ferguson. Clearly, this isn’t a coincidence. In the United States as a whole – and, indeed, in Ferguson specifically – fast food workers disproportionally come from low-income communities of color. These are, of course, the very same communities that tend to be victimized by systemic over-policing and racist police violence. Thus, in Ferguson, Black and Brown fast food workers were naturally at the center of the uprising because they’re from where Michael Brown is from. As a result, they know what it’s like to be subjected to – and see their friends, co-workers, and loved ones subjected to – racist police violence and abuse. On top of that, the experience of taking part in the SEIU-backed fast food workers’ organizing campaign clearly prepared a number of local workers to play an important role in this movement as rank-and-file leaders and organizers.
All this points to a broader axiom about the strategic position that fast food workers now occupy within the U.S. class struggle. In short, as it stands today, fast food workers are objectively situated to play a lead role in advancing both the trade union movement and the struggle in opposition to racist police violence. This potentiality has been bolstered by the Fight for 15 campaign, which has helped to train and organize a core of militant, pro-union workers in cities across the country. Beyond this, due to the widespread publicity that’s surrounded this campaign, Fight for 15 has also had a politicizing impact on fast food and low-wage workers in general – even those that have opted out of becoming involved in the movement.
Of course, the ability of fast food workers to drive these struggles forward is, at present, undoubtedly circumscribed by shortcomings within the Fight for 15 campaign, including the problematic strategies adhered to by the top-ranking SEIU officials that are at the helm of it. As a number of Left-wing commentators have pointed out, the campaign’s core strategy is notcentered upon actually organizing fast food workers or helping to build shopfloor power and solidarity. Rather, the campaign is being conducted as something of a public relations campaign. As one member of the Industrial Workers of the World put it in an article from August 2013:
Instead of a ‘march on the boss’ directed towards the corporations… this is a ‘march on the media’ where the strikes serve as the visuals in a narrative of worker protest crafted by professional media consultants. Actions are scripted and run by the staff… and the ultimate shots are called by officials in Washington DC, not spontaneously by workers from below like the picture painted would lead you to believe.
Nonetheless, this campaign has also undeniably provided an avenue for many fast food workers to become active in a pro-union campaign waged in opposition to their corporate bosses. And even while these rank-and-file strike leaders are being selected primarily by SEIU organizers – as opposed to being selected by their fellow workers, as tends to happen during the course of genuine, bottom-up strikes – most of these workers nonetheless appear to have garnered significant support and backing from many of their co-workers.
This trend was evidenced during the campaign’s most recent nationwide strike protest on September 4. In many cities, during the course of the strike demonstrations staged outside of major fast food chain stores like McDonald’s, individual workers responded to these protests byspontaneously walking off the job. This seems to have included some workers that had, up to that point, been largely uninvolved in the local campaigns. As one Wendy’s worker from Pittsburgh that participated in the September 4 strike explained in an interview aired onDemocracy Now!, “This strike that we had, as opposed to our last strike, we had way more people walk off the job and way more people from the public and workers come and join us as we were striking. We started out with about 10 people at 5:00 in the morning. By the time they came about noon, we had over 200 people all striking together as one.”
In Atlanta where I attended the strike demonstration, I didn’t witness any workers spontaneously walk off the job in response to the protest. This said, during the course of the demonstration, I noticed that a number of fast food workers, dressed in their work uniforms, dropped by the picket line during their lunch breaks (or prior to or at the end of their shifts) to inconspicuously stand in solidarity with the ATL Raise Up strikers.
Without a doubt, the key reason for the growth of this movement relates to the increasingly desperate material situation to which fast food workers (and other low-wage workers, as well) are currently being subjected. In sum, as a result of the ongoing refusal of fast food corporations to hike wage rates – and as a result of the failure of congress to implement a boost in the federal minimum wage – a large portion of fast food workers (and others) are living in a state of serious material deprivation. They’re making starvation wages. While this has, of course, been true since the start of this campaign in 2012, it’s even more the case now as a result of unceasing increases in the cost of living. The horrific nature of this situation is summarized in an online event flyer written by an organizer that’s closely involved in one local fast food workers’ campaign:
Every day that goes by, we workers in low-wage jobs are struggling to put food on the table, pay rent, afford transportation, and access healthcare. Our people are losing their homes, their cars, their health, and even in some extreme cases their lives, working on starvation wages. All while our corporate bosses… reap billions of dollars in profits and bonuses on the backs of we workers plus our families and our communities.
In the face of these dire circumstances, it’s no wonder that many fast food workers now see collective struggle and solidarity as a practical solution to an urgent need. And yet, despite the increased opening to expand this struggle, the fast food workers campaign is — as noted above — currently being held back by the top-down nature of the campaign and by the cautiousness and limited vision of its top-ranking leadership.
Ironically, nowhere is this clearer than in Ferguson, Missouri.
“Striking workers did not want to disrupt business there”
Astonishingly, in the days before the September 4 national fast food strike, the Show Me $15 campaign in St. Louis apparently made the decision to avoid staging any official demonstrations in the St. Louis or Ferguson areas. This came despite the local campaign’s initial plan to take part in the strike protests, just as they’ve taken part in all other major national actions. As near as I can tell, this decision was first made public in a story published online by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch just one day prior to the scheduled strike. This article – posted just after 10 a.m. on September 3 – offers the following summary and explanation for the campaign’s change in plans:
Fast-food workers will continue their fight for wage increases today [sic], but they won’t be striking in St. Louis this time around.
Organizers say workers have decided to skip St. Louis “with deference to the community of Ferguson and the desire for peace after recent events.”
Instead, workers will travel to four cities — Memphis, Tenn.; Nashville, Tenn.; Little Rock, Ark.; and New York City — to lend support for today’s strikes.
The Ferguson McDonald’s on West Florissant Avenue was among the frequent St. Louis area targets of earlier fast-food strikes. That restaurant is near the scene of last month’s protests of the police killing of Michael Brown.
Ultimately, a total of 21 fast food workers from the St. Louis area – including workers from McDonald’s, Burger King, Domino’s, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s – were arrested on September 4 while taking part in acts of civil disobedience alongside their fellow workers in other cities. Presumably, these workers were also accompanied by additional St. Louis strikers that traveled out of town with them but opted out of participating in the civil disobedience action. As an indication of this, in Little Rock, a local news report detailing that city’s strike protests estimates that, out of approximately “50 to 100″ protesters at a morning demonstration, “a sizable number” of them were from St. Louis.
To date, there has been very little national news coverage – and, for that matter, very little localnews coverage, as well – detailing the decision to send the St. Louis-area strikers out of town for September 4. In addition to the details already recounted, some of the most pertinent information that’s come to light regarding this decision is provided by an article published online on September 4 by USA Today. This story – which focuses primarily on the fast food strike in New York City – contains the following passage recounting the presence of St. Louis-area fast food workers at this out-of-town demonstration:
Among those in the New York demonstration were about 25 workers from the St. Louis and Ferguson areas, who took buses and planes to New York City to join other strikers, paid for by the striker’s coalition and SEIU, says [Kendall Fells, organizing director of Fast Food Forward]. Because of recent high-profile events in Ferguson, where days of street protests followed the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a police officer, striking workers did not want to disrupt business there, says Fells. [emphasis added]
Organizers strongly denied unconfirmed fast-food industry accusations that some workers were being paid $250 to $500 by the union to strike. “Workers are not getting paid to strike,” says Fells. “It’s an age-old tradition in the union movement that workers who are losing pay by going on strike get support from other workers through strike funds. Other workers are supporting strikers through a strike fund, as they have since this movement started.”
Viewed in a broader context, the decision to send strikers out of town for September 4 can be seen as part of an initiative in the St. Louis area to deescalate and demobilize the movement there in the wake of the Ferguson uprising. This liberal counterinsurgency campaign was carried out (with only partial effectiveness) by middle-of-the-road forces within the movement and tacitly backed by local and state government officials (and, quite possibly, the federal government, as well). The effort began to gain influence during the final week of August, just as the first wave of the uprising began to die down.
Outside of this general context, however, it’s impossible to definitively discern the process by which the decision to send St. Louis strikers out of town was arrived at in the days leading up to September 4. With this said, I think it’s extremely likely that this plan was initially devised by top-ranking leaders within the national fast food organizing campaign and the SEIU. This is evidenced, for one thing, in the quotes in the USA Today article from Kendall Fells, who is theleading national SEIU official within this campaign. Beyond this, it seems downright implausible that the initial impetus for this decision would have come from any of the on-the-ground campaign organizers in St. Louis or, for that matter, from the fast food strikers themselves.
Of course, in most of the news reports about this incident – including the press release published by Show Me $15 on their website – it’s been implied that the campaign’s sudden change of plans prior to September 4 came as a result of a collective decision made by the workers themselves. To this end, a number of stories have included the following quote from one St. Louis McDonald’s worker:
We decided to join workers in other cities on the strike lines out of respect for our community and its desire to continue to heal. We’re absolutely as committed as ever to doing whatever it takes to win because we are struggling to survive. McDonald’s left us with no choice but to turn up our call for $15 and union rights, and that’s what we did today.
But despite the undeniable sincerity of this statement, I suspect that the decision to leave town for September 4 was, in all likelihood, already formulated before rank-and-file Show Me $15 activists were ever consulted on this matter. This isn’t, of course, to say that these courageous workers were strong-armed into acceding to this decision. At least to some extent, many workers likely welcomed the opportunity to stand in solidarity with their out-of-town fellow strikers. But even if St. Louis workers took part in this initiative willfully and with pride and courage, their decision to do so was – without a doubt – strongly influenced by the top-down structure of the fast food workers’ organizing campaign. In short, since the workers involved in this campaign are still heavily reliant on the assistance of full-time organizers and the institutional might of the SEIU to protect them against retaliation at work, they’re bound to be vulnerable to top-down pressure from campaign leaders. Until an alternate source of power and protection begins to develop within the fast food workers’ movement – namely shopfloor organizational strength and workers’ power – this dynamic is likely to persist to an extent.
With this said, if my assumption here is correct and the initial impetus for this decision did, in fact, come from top-level SEIU officials, then their motive in pushing for this change in plans isn’t difficult to discern. Given the city’s current political context, SEIU leaders were likely fearful that the September 4 action – if allowed to take place as originally planned – was going to set off a genuinely disruptive, widespread strike at fast food and retail stores throughout Ferguson (and possibly elsewhere in the St. Louis area, as well). That is, they were afraid that the September 4 action was going to turn into a full-fledged STRIKE! instead of a media-focused “strike” like the kind that has characterized this campaign to date. Thus, by taking this action, SEIU officials undoubtedly hoped to appease – either in response to a direct request or as a tacit precaution – the many high-powered politicians, public figures, and others with whom they have established relationships. Beyond this, it’s also plausible that SEIU leaders may have been inclined to push for this action in order to avoid running afoul of court injunctions obtained by fast food corporations.
But regardless, it’s undoubtable that the decision to send strikers out of St. Louis on September 4 was not in the interest of either the Show Me $15 campaign or the broader fast food workers’ movement. Nor, for that matter, was it in the interest of the mass popular mobilization in Ferguson calling for justice for Mike Brown. Conversely, it’s also likely the case that the move to deescalate the fast food workers’ struggle in St. Louis was viewed with appreciation and relief by the enemies of this movement – namely, the fast food bosses, the reactionary local government and police force in Ferguson, and others, as well.
“If there is no struggle there is no progress”
As tends to be the case with all movements, at this point, the only way forward for the fast food workers’ organizing campaign is to escalate the struggle. This means that, in the future, the movement cannot afford to shy away from conflict out of “deference to the community” or a “desire for peace” as it did in Ferguson on September 4. Rather, this movement must be allowed and encouraged to grow and become more contentious and more disruptive. That’s the only way, I’d argue, that fast food workers stand any chance of winning “$15 and a union.”
This axiom is especially true given the nature of the enemy in this struggle: fast food corporations (as well as other service sector corporations) and their allies in the government and elsewhere. Without a doubt, as it stands today, these companies and their backers have every intention to prevent the labor movement from gaining any sort of foothold in the fast food industry – which is, of course, monolithically non-union at present. The greedy, heartless executives that control these companies envision unionization of any kind as being a threat to the industry’s core business model. For this reason, these corporations are undoubtedly planning to mobilize all the hideous union-busting methods at their disposal to stop any and all attempts on the part of the SEIU and other unions to pressure them into cutting a deal or accepting a neutrality agreement.
Beyond the fast food corporations themselves, I suspect that the Obama Administration and the federal government in general is never going to intervene in this campaign in such a way as to ensure that the SEIU gains a real foothold at McDonald’s or other such companies. Of course, Obama is clearly not opposed to providing some perfunctory lip-service to this campaign – particularly not during an election year – as recently revealed in his brief “shot-out” to fast food workers during his Labor Day speech in Milwaukee. What’s more, it’s also true that the Obama-appointed NLRB did, in fact, recently rule in favor of the SEIU and the Fight for 15 campaign in an important case that undermines the anti-labor “franchise” business model relied upon by most fast food corporations.
But when push comes to shove, it’s almost inevitable that the Obama Administration, the Democratic Party, and the state apparatus in general will refuse to lift a finger to force McDonald’s or any other fast food company to agree to unionization. On the contrary, if the state were to directly intervene in this case, then it would almost undoubtedly do so in such a way as to benefit the union-busting aims of McDonald’s and others. Fittingly, it’s actually quite likely that this type of intervention was one of the key dynamics behind the campaign’s decision to shy away from confrontation in St. Louis and Ferguson on September 4.
With this said, it’s clear that this movement’s path forward lies in waging genuine strikes aimed at disrupting production and throttling company profits. This is — I suspect — the only means by which the bosses will ever be forced to agree to “$15 and a union.” It goes without saying that this type of struggle is bound to be contentious and arduous — but, truth be told, there’s no other way to advance the movement.
As the great freedom fighter, former slave, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass once declared:
The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. … If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
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So what’s the way forward for this movement? Put another way, how do fast food workers and supporters begin to lay the basis for the rise of a mass workers’ movement capable of challenging fast food corporations?
For starters, I think it’s imperative that the radical Left begin to take this campaign seriously. This means showing up to the fast food protests and other actions sponsored by this campaign and making an effort to meet and spend time with the workers that are at the heart of this struggle. We need to let these fellow workers know that we’ve got their backs, and we’re prepared to fight alongside them if and when opportunities to escalate the struggle begin to take shape. Beyond this, we need to help bolster and reinforce the gripes and suggestions that are already being raised by the workers themselves regarding the nature and structure of this campaign. In addition, we can and should be calling upon local organizers to take steps aimed at bringing more workers into the struggle, including those fast food workers that are not yet willing to risk their jobs by taking strike action – as well as other low-wage workers. Beyond this, radicals that work in the service sector (or in other low-pay industries) should use the opportunity provided by this campaign – where possible and necessary – to build upon (or initiate) conversations with our own co-workers.
Unfortunately, as it stands today, much of the organized Left appears to have adopted one of two approaches to this movement, both of which are inadequate: On the one hand, many radicals have adhered to an overwhelmingly dismissive view of the Fight for 15 campaign, denouncing it as hopelessly and irreversibly top down and destined to lead to a sellout by the SEIU. On the other hand, others have favored an approach of vapid “movement cheerleading,” enthusiastically trailing behind the campaign’s established leadership.
Of course, in practice, most radicals have not adhered to a pure strain of either of these two tendencies. What’s more, it’s also true that, to date, a number of Leftists have sought to become genuinely involved in this movement, and many have written excellent analyses of the dynamics at play within it with the goal of proposing practical strategies to drive the struggle forward.[*] But on the whole, Leftists have largely followed either an ultra-Left approach or else an opportunisticone in regard to this campaign.
The utter inadequacy of the Left’s involvement in this movement is evidenced by the fact that – to my knowledge – not a single Left-wing or socialist publication has released an article detailing the St. Louis campaign’s decision to send strikers out of town on September 4. What’s more, earlier this year, none of these publications put out any stories focusing on the nationwide fast food workers convention, held in Villa Park, Illinois at the end of July. This gathering — which was attended by more than 1,300 fast food workers from all over the country — could have provided an excellent opportunity for radicals to raise suggestions and demands directed at the campaign’s top leadership that would have resonated with rank-and-file militants. They could have called for the campaign to adjust its strategy so as to emphasize building shopfloor organization and recruiting more workers into the movement, including those workers yet unwilling to take strike action. Radicals could have also raised demands for an expansion of internal democracy within the campaign and the adoption of a more militant approach to strikes that prioritizes shutting down production. As it was, the Left appears to have completely blown this opportunity.
Clearly, radicals need a new approach. Instead of either cheerleading the movement or writing it off from the outside, we need to join ranks with this struggle and do what we can to aid in the construction of a different, more militant organizing strategy than the one that’s currently adhered to by the campaign’s top-ranking leaders.
Workers raise their fists at the first ever nationwide fast food workers convention, held in Villa Park, Illinois at the end of July. (From Vice)
A version of this article was first published in Red Atlanta.