Old MacDonald Had A Strike: The story of striking fast food workers across the globe

In September 2012, 100 New York fast food workers went on strike. They were employed by such big franchise names as McDonalds, Burger King, KFC and others. They had two core demands:

  • that they receive a $15 ‘Living Wage’, and;
  • that they have a Union presence in their worksites.

Despite tremendous employer intimidation, severe anti-Union laws, and; the constant threat of being dismissed ‘at the will’ of their employers fast food workers in New York took to the streets. Since then, the movement of fast food workers for a Living Wage and Union Rights has snowballed into a growing campaign with fast food workers taking solidarity action and making their own demands all across the globe.

Four representatives from this movement are currently touring New Zealand and giving free public talks. Two are workers from Los Angeles who are employed by McDonalds, two are organisers of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) who are trying to organise these workers on a global scale, both of whom are based in the United States.

Both the workers have actively participated in strike action, one a single mother had been working for Mc Donald’s for over 6 years and received no pay rise for that entire time until she became involved in the strikes. She is currently on $9.50 an hour, a slight improvement from the $9.00 she had been until November last year. The other worker was 19 years old and still in High School, she took a job at McDonalds to support her mother and her family and has been paid $9.00 an hour for the 3 years she has worked in the store.

While both workers say they have made considerable gains since the movement began, they still live paycheque to paycheque. On a weekly basis, these workers have to make harrowing choices, for example; between having to buy food or clothes for their children. But paycheques now arrive on time, pay is slowly rising and workers are no longer docked for misbalanced tills.

The Union organisers say that even among the militant Unions, the idea that fast food workers could be organised to take industrial action was hard for many to believe. Without access to a Union due to the draconian anti-Union laws in the States, the workers organised themselves into committees while SEIU organisers gave what support they could. One Organiser in Los Angeles describes how these committees started as workers from different chains gathered together to consider what political and social pressure they could exert on their bosses for better pay and Union rights. At first, the organiser explained: nobody in Los Angeles dreamt of striking but the first strikes in New York sent a ripple effect throughout the country and workers in LA and in other centres soon began to feel confident to take their own actions.

Workers confidence is growing in the fast food industry and the ripples of the movement are being felt globally. The employers being challenged are some of the largest and most powerful on the planet, the SEIU organiser based in New York says that McDonalds is the second largest employer in the world after Walmart. People who have been used to being treated as if they are at the bottom of the capitalist food chain are now striking, being arrested, being beaten and being noticed.