Reviving Labor from the bottom

Even organized labor mostly skipped this year’s Labor Day, which has never really been about the American worker.  Later in the week, however, activists made another play at reviving the fortunes of organized labor–and the American worker–from the bottom up.

Fast Food Forward, a campaign funded by the Service Employees Employees International Union (SEIU), staged actions at McDonald’s restaurants across the country, as well as at the company’s national headquarters outside Chicago.  Activists staged pickets, protests, and sit-ins in 150 cities, generating nearly 500 arrests, including at least one member of Congress, Rep. Gwen Moore (Democrat, Wisconsin).

Now let’s put this in context: I’ve been reading about the revitalization of labor mostly since I started reading, and academics frequently write evaluations pointing to successful new strategies for rebuilding unions in America.  You can accept the arguments, but the numbers nationally just don’t support any of them.  Every year the story is one of record lows of union membership nationally.


Organized labor worked to organize and create a middle class over the years, and numerous economic, political, and judicial decisions have made doing so tougher and tougher.  Recent campaigns against teachers in particular, and public sector workers generally, have made that landscape look even more bleak.

SEIU’s effort is to start at the bottom, focusing on the lowest paid workers, ones that Americans see routinely, fetching fries and punching up totals on cash registers.  It’s a two-prong (at least) strategy: organizing the unorganized, and demanding government action for all workers, pressing for a minimum wage hiked to $15 an hour.

It’s not really quite as outrageous as it may look.  The value of the minimum wage has eroded fairly steadily, in concert with the strength of organized labor.

Nationally, we hit the current $7.25 minimum wage in 2009, and even though Democrats like to campaign for an increase, they realize it’s not going to happen in the current political climate.  State and city governments have sometimes been more responsive, generally over the opposition of restauranteurs and retailers, who respond with predictable economic analyses.  A higher minimum wage means that they will have to juggle to maintain profits through prices (raise them) and/or personnel (cut jobs through reorganization or automation).  Presumably, they are already paying as little as they possibly can for their products (especially the food).

The organizers like to tell the story of workers leaving their griddles and registers to join the protesters–and the movement, but that’s not mostly what’s happening.  Few workers are willing to risk their jobs, even for a day, to make political claims.

McDonald’s–and the other low wage employers–see that it’s critical for them to keep the organizers and unions apart from the people who are actually behind the counter.  Paradoxically, one way to do this is to raise the wages.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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3 Responses to Reviving Labor from the bottom

  1. Pingback: Labor Day 2016 | Politics Outdoors

  2. Pingback: Labor Day 2019, reposted from the past, with an afterword on the day | Politics Outdoors

  3. Pingback: Labor Day, 2020 | Politics Outdoors

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