The Importance of The Smaller-Scale Fast Food Protest

The human brain is hard-wired to detect patterns. Sometimes this can be helpful, say when trying to cross a busy street and picking the best time to dart across based on the speed and distance of approaching cars. But other times our obsessions with patterns can lead to false assumptions based on too little data. There's a whole term for this: Apophenia. But if you're sick of clinking links, watch pretty much any conspiracy movie and you'll get the gist of the concept.

The point is, people who read the news and saw brief mention of the "low turnout" at the fast food strikes across the country may get the sense that the movement is waning. After the streak of massive protests over the past year featuring hundreds of cities and thousands of workers, a pattern-seeking animal may look at a relatively small protest featuring "only" 30 cities and hundreds of workers as a sign that there's been a decline in passion, that the workers are losing.

They're not. In fact, they may be closer to winning than ever before.

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First and foremost, it's important to understand the distinction between these latest protests and those that preceded them. Unlike the previous wide-ranging goal of spreading the word about the raising the wage for all fast food workers to $15 an hour, these were directed at one specific corporation: McDonald's. And it was for one specific reason: They've been taking money from their workers.

Last week, workers from McDonald's filed a series of lawsuits in Michigan, New York, and California over "wage thefts." Allegedly, workers were being told by their managers to show up at a certain time to work their shift, but if there weren't enough customers to justify putting them on the clock, they were forced to stand around and wait an hour or two until enough customers showed up. Only then did they punch in and start working. That was among other nefarious payment practices:

As you'd imagine, none of this is very legal.

The New York part of the lawsuit trio has already been settled, with a franchise owner paying a $500,000 settlement to be split among 1,600 employees. Or a little over $300 per employee, which sadly is what an average McDonald's worker earns in a 40-hour work week. (The lawsuits in both California and Michigan have yet to be resolved.)

So the latest round of protests weren't necessarily about the long-term, broad issue of paying fast food workers what they deserve. Instead, they were a focused attack on a specific corporate entity that has been illegally and systematically taking advantage of its workers. (They were also put together in a little over a week, as opposed to the months of preparation and getting out the word that the previous larger scale protests had to work with.) Which is a bold new step in the war for a living wage, and perhaps a sign of a slight pivot of strategy. Now that the message is out there, perhaps it's time for more directed shaming by taking on the corporations one at a time.

Or, maybe that's just me finding a pattern where one really doesn't exist. It could just be a one-off because of just how despicable the news regarding McDonald's wage thefts has been, or maybe a pointed attempt to make the company follow through on their recent admission they may be forced to raise wages due to public response to the strikes.

But whatever it is, the "low turnout" isn't a sign that the workers are losing their momentum.

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