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Fast food workers strike in the US, but who will unionise the UK’s chippies?

Low-waged workers in small workplaces are, statistically, the least likely to go on strike. They are unlikely to be unionised, are under close supervision from the boss and are easily replaceable. Traditionally…

Do you want a living wage with that? Wisconsin Jobs Now, CC BY-NC

Low-waged workers in small workplaces are, statistically, the least likely to go on strike. They are unlikely to be unionised, are under close supervision from the boss and are easily replaceable. Traditionally, unions have paid little attention to these workers. Organising in small workplaces with high staff turnover provides little return for lots of effort.

Yet in the US, thousands of fast food workers from outlets such as McDonald’s, Domino’s and KFC have walked out of their workplaces taking their colleagues with them in a series of day-long strikes that began in 2012. The most recent of these involved coordinated action in 150 cities across the US last month.

But nothing of a similar scale has happened in the UK, and it doesn’t look like it will happen any time soon. The reasons for this go to the heart of the differences between unions on either side of the Atlantic.

Poverty wages

It is easy to see why campaigners in the US have targeted fast food. The industry’s workers are the lowest paid in the country, according to government data. Their median salary is just $11,000 per year. They also suffer a high degree of “wage theft”, where employers dock their pay or force them to work unpaid hours.

Workers are demanding the right to join a union and are pushing the Obama government to increase the minimum wage nationwide. Currently, the federal minimum wage stands at $7.25 but individual states and cities have the power to set their own rates above this figure. Since the strikes began minimum wages increases have been secured in seven states and two cities. SeaTac, near Seattle, in Washington State was the first city to win an increase to $15, followed by the city of Seattle itself.

Complex labour laws mean unions face difficulties getting recognised by employers and the unions often experience expensive legal challenges from employers. The unions and unionised workers also face intimidation and bullying from multi-million dollar union-busting companies. To avoid this, unions have adopted a new tactical approach to organising in this sector.

New tactics

Campaigners have targeted the state and federal legislatures to increase the minimum wage. As many fast food restaurants are franchises, the owners have little room for manoeuvre when it comes to wages, as the price of supplies and food is set and regulated centrally by companies like McDonald’s and Wendy’s. Low profit margins mean the owner of an individual McDonald’s franchise has little scope to increase wages.

The unions also chose to organise fast food workers in the community as opposed to in the workplace. They set up Fast Food Forward – a community coalition – where they have funded organisers to work with local groups and workers centres. Faith leaders in local churches and community activists have shown their support for the strikers. In one example, from late last year in New York, “Clergy and city council members walked a Wendy’s worker back in after her manager told her she was fired. The high-powered delegation convinced the manager to ‘unfire’ her”.

Workers are also legally protected from dismissal (largely), as it is unlawful to fire workers for attempting to organise a union.

Could these tactics work in the UK?

One reason this form of organising hasn’t spread to the UK is that local councils don’t have the power to set minimum wages. A minimum wage campaign could be directed at the national government, but unions in the UK have tended to use their political links with the Labour Party to press for demands for worker-friendly legislation and are unlikely to think it worthwhile to demand progressive labour laws from the current coalition government.

Unions in the UK also tend to be too focused on servicing their current members rather than on expanding into new, non-unionised workplaces. While some unions have adopted the language of organising, where this does take place, it tends to be where unions already have membership. For a typical UK union, a trip round the local high street’s fast food places would be a leap into the unknown.

It’s a leap the unions might be willing to take, if it weren’t for another problem: they simply don’t have the resources of their US counterparts. The UK trade union sector has seen merger after merger (a consequence of a failure to invest in organising) as unions need to consolidate in order to cut costs and survive.

In the US, unions are able to draw strength from being part of a wider tradition of community-based organising, including a number of national networks of faith-based and community coalitions. Geographically based community organising – while starting to take place in Unite, the largest private-sector union – is not a feature of UK trade unionism. But even Unite’s community membership is aimed at organising those not in work to campaign for social justice rather than workers in the workplace.

For unions in the UK looking enviously at the success their counterparts have had across the Atlantic, there are lessons to be learned. British trade unions could recast themselves as broader social justice organisations where their role is to create benefits for all workers rather than just their members. Forming genuine common-cause coalitions with progressive community organisations campaigning for social justice, instead of just requesting assistance when unions need support for an industrial dispute or campaign, could prove valuable in reaching into communities where unions do not have a base.

Further, the campaign for a living wage began in London in 2001 when London Citizens – a community coalition explicitly based on US organising tactics – began working with unions to secure wage increases for hospital workers in East London. Since then, this small organisation has managed to persuade dozens of employers to pay a living wage of £8.80 in London (£7.65 outside of London) per hour – £2.49 (£1.34) more than the national minimum. More than 100 local authorities have now committed to paying the living wage.

At the same time they have managed to shift the political discourse around low wages to that of a “living”, rather than a “minimum” wage, such that the Labour Party has committed to its introduction, should it be returned to government.

Unions need to get smarter and more flexible in the way they organise in order to adapt to the constantly changing labour markets and laws that make organising workers difficult. It can be done, but it requires a fundamental shake-up of the way unions currently operate and the adoption of more innovative and tactical approaches to organising.