Fight for $15 and the fast food workers strike in Oakland
On Thursday, August 29th fast food workers around the country engaged in a one-day walkout to call for a raise in their wages to $15/hr as well as the right to form a union. This national organizing effort, led and funded largely by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and other affiliated non-profit community organizations has gained headlines since the first strikes occurred in New York City last year, and has spread to dozens of cities around the U.S. August 29th was the first such strike in action to occur in the Bay Area and was supposed to have involved up to 800 workers, according to the strike organizers. The strikes have captured the imaginations of many due largely to the rarity of such workplace actions in the U.S., and because mainstream labor unions (who often take great pains to avoid confrontational strike actions) seem to be backing them with millions of dollars and perhaps hundreds of full-time staff. It seemed worth the time to check out these strike actions when they came to Oakland and see what all the hype was about. The following is one persons account of the Oakland “Fight for $15” actions.
The day of action began in the wee hours of the morning at a McDonalds in East Oakland. Perhaps 100 people were present, maybe a dozen of them being workers from various fast food restaurants around the Bay. The crowd gathered inside of the McDonalds briefly to deliver a “strike notice” to management, and then rallied outside, temporarily blocking the drive-thru (this was mostly symbolic, as virtually no cars entered the parking lot the entire time we were there, at 7am). As far as anyone could tell, only one worker from that particular McDonalds was present and it was unclear whether he was actually striking that day, or if he just didn’t have to work that shift. Several young workers from a McDonalds in Fremont were present, as well as a worker from a KFC in Oakland. Beyond that it appeared that the vast majority of people in attendance were either paid staff from labor unions and nonprofits, or rank-and-file members of those organizations. After rallying at McDonalds for about 20 minutes, the crowd marched down the street to a Jack in the Box and tried outreaching to some workers, who looked equally amused and frightened. Attempts were made to get people to walk out of their jobs on the spot. Needless to say, this did not happen.
Taking a step back from what was wrong or problematic about the action, I will say that if indeed only a few workers walked out of their jobs for this action, it is still mightily impressive and courageous. We should always encourage workers to take direct actions like this even if they are in the minority. The problem lies not so much in the action itself so much as the narrative created around it which gives the impression that these strikes are mass, spontaneous strikes led by workers themselves. Judging at least from the action in Oakland, this is simply not the case and we should address that reality honestly and move forward to build stronger worker-directed struggles. As an “outsider” (someone not working in fast food), I spent most of my day trying to speak with the people who appeared to be fast food workers and learn more about the campaign. Notably, the few workers who were present seemed very excited and even if they weren’t directly involved in planning the action, appeared to be incredibly committed to it. There were also several former Wal-Mart workers there who had been fired for organizing in their stores. I spoke with some of these folks about the work of East Bay Solidarity and offered support in the future for any direct action that workers might organize, which they seemed to really appreciate.
After the morning action, many of the participants got into vans and fanned out across the city to outreach to fast food workers and encourage them to join the strike. I did not attend these outreach sessions but from what I gathered later, no additional workers walked off the job due to this activity. At noon, people re-convened at the Kentucky Fried Chicken near the Grand Lake Theater. Again, maybe 100-200 people were present. Again, a “strike notice” was given to management and a brief rally was held in front of the store. Again, only one worker from the store appeared to be present. That one worker did give a rousing and moving speech to the crowd. However, that energy was quickly diffused by the following three speakers: two city council members and Mayor Jean Quan. Speaking with one of the organizers after the event, I was told that Mayor Quan wasn’t even invited to speak but that one of the SEIU bigwigs insisted that they give her time on the mic. This was particularly saddening considering that Quan and her administration had not two months earlier forced SEIU members working for the City of Oakland to strike because the administration was not meeting their demands. After the rally a short march was held down Grand Ave., which was confined to the sidewalk by dozens of SEIU staffers in orange vests. Some younger participants noted how funny it was to see an Oakland protest NOT in the streets.
The day of action ended with an afternoon rally at the AFL-CIO building near the Oakland Coliseum. This was the only action that was promoted widely and thus saw the largest turnout, maybe 300 people. A short march was held from the AFL building to a McDonalds parking lot nearby where a makeshift stage had been set up for speakers. Despite some intense and amazing speeches by some workers, including a fast food worker and former Wal-Mart employees, the rally felt predictable and stage-managed by SEIU and non-profit staff. More elected officials got up to speak and praised President Obama for calling for a raise in the minimum wage. The crowd seemed generally ambivalent; probably three quarters of them were merely talking amongst themselves, rendering the speakers almost inaudible for the majority of the time.
As I mentioned before, even actions that involve only a minority of workers (such as this one) should be encouraged and supported. Those of us who wish to see a more militant movement of working class and poor people engaging in direct action campaigns for higher wages, benefits, better treatment, etc. can at least participate and build relationships with those workers who are engaging in the fight. Merely critiquing these actions because they are led by well-funded and conservative labor unions is not sufficient. We can and should engage with the workers who are involved and make it known that there are other ways to organize that are more direct and more effective. A good article about this organizing effort, which elaborates on many of these points, was written by Adam Weaver (who works with the Industrial Workers of the World, IWW) and has gained a lot of attention and can be read here. http://machete408.wordpress.com/2013/08/29/fast-food-workers-strike-what-is-and-what-isnt-the-fight-for-fifteen-campaign/
I believe the model of groups like the East Bay Solidarity Network can provide alternatives to top-down, hierarchical organizing with workers. We are committed to democratic decision-making, direct action, and direct confrontation with bosses and landlords. We feel this approach is not only more empowering because it puts workers and tenants at the forefront of our campaigns, it is also more effective at winning the concessions we aim for, and in a way that doesn’t necessitate compromise with our enemies. While I think we should continue to show up for actions of fast food workers, we need to be cognizant of the political reality and not be duped by the rhetoric coming from the labor unions. We can be honest about the situation without becoming merely passive observers, lobbing critiques from the sidelines. This will only serve to marginalize us from segments of the working class (no matter how small) who are ready to fight and to organize.
But ss inspiring as these actions can be at times, it was clear that August 29th was not a strike, meaning that they did not in any way disrupt the normal functioning of any workplace. And it is clear that nowhere near 800 workers walked out in the Bay Area. In all likelihood no more than 300 or 400 people took part in the actions throughout the entire day and many of these people were union/nonprofit staff and their members.
Regardless, we should be committed to the self-organization of workers and always support workers when they walk out. Going forward, it will be interesting to see what shape this campaign takes and whether or not workers will at some point take control of the organizing drive. If not, it seems likely that the campaign will continue to be a media stunt for SEIU to leverage the Democratic Party into supporting slight wages in the minimum wage. If this happens, the struggle will cease to become a workers movement entirely and a great opportunity will have been missed.