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What Do The Fast Food Strikes Mean?

Photo from Steve Rhodes


Watch the California Matters episode on fair restaurant wages here.

If you didn't heed my advice a few weeks back and chose instead to head over to Mickey D's or KFC to grab a quick lunch bite last Thursday, your dreams of shoving down greasy, low-priced fare no doubt floated away pretty quickly once you saw the throngs of angry workers outside. This last fast food worker strike was, to be frank, a doozy.

"Largest strike ever," said CNN. "The return of the American labor movement," proclaimed the folks at MSNBC. In all, thousands of workers walked off their jobs in at least 60 cities. (You really owe it to yourself to scan through Flickr images of the strikes to get a sense of just how widespread they were, as well as how creative sign composition has become.)

But when dealing with any strike, it's tough to get a sense of how it's actually working in the grand scheme of things. As in, are workers any closer to getting their desired $15-an-hour minimum wage than they were before the strikes? To help answer that, I called up Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of Restaurant Opportunities Center United and author of "Behind the Kitchen Door," a book-length examination focusing on the poor working conditions of restaurant workers.

How have these strikes differed from other attempts to raise the minimum wage?

Saru Jayaraman: Well, they're strikes, so that's a big difference. The fact that there's so many workers in so many different cities is a key difference as well. What we're seeing is the building of momentum for these workers. Occupy happened a couple of years ago, and I think that inspired a lot of people, including lots of low-wage workers. Wal-Mart workers went on strike, fast food workers now. And you're going to see more from the food service industry over the next few months or over the next year. I don't think it's just a policy fight anymore, it's about workers demanding change.

It's been slowly developing, with the first strike taking place in New York only featuring 200 workers, but this one taking place all over the country and involving thousands. Has there been any response from CEOs of the companies?

Saru: It's not like they responded saying "Yes" or "No." There hasn't been a direct response to the demand of these workers. But I'm definitely seeing the NRA... because ultimately, it's really all about the NRA, the National Restaurant Association, the main restaurant lobbying group in Congress. They've been our primary target over the last many years, and they really are behind not just fast food companies, but all Fortune 500 restaurant companies in America. And with the NRA, we've certainly seen that they're more on the defensive. For example, I was on "The Today Show" a few weeks ago, and they called the NRA for comment, and they refused to say anything as they usually do. But then they called back a few hours later and decided to make a comment. It's just an example. I've just seen them become more defensive of late, more threatened about their public image.

Why do you think they feel threatened?

Saru: I think what's really happened is that, in truth, they've been doing their things very quietly behind closed doors, making deals with Congress and other state legislatures about the minimum wage, for decades. And these fast food workers are exposing what's happening and they're becoming defensive about it. In a nutshell, I don't see them directly responded to these demands, but I certainly see them warming.

Have these strikes been the biggest attempt you've seen to try to get the minimum wage raised?

Saru: It's a huge deal. It's a huge deal. And I really want to say, it's just the beginning. If fast food workers earn the regular minimum wage, you're going to see a lot more of the workers who earn the tipped minimum wage of $2.13 out there. I mean, it's just the beginning. The NRA is going to be put even more on the defensive in the years to come. It's a big deal because it's the beginning of something, not because it's the climax.

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