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A Historical Turning Point for Labor? Maybe, as Fast Food Workers Organize

David Callahan

The fight to raise wages for fast food workers has now spread to the American West, with employees of a Seattle Taco Bell walking off the job on Wednesday night, forcing the store to close. 

Workers at other fast food restaurants in the city walked off their jobs on Thursday. 

Big historical shifts often begin with barely noticed events. And while the recent walkouts and work stoppages by low-wage workers in a number of cities -- including New York, Chicago, and now Seattle -- haven't gotten much media attention, they may well be remembered as a turning point in America's political economy. 

Consider where we are in the grand scheme of things: The industrial unionism that peaked in the mid-20th century has been largely moribund for years, following the rise of globalization and the de-industrialization of the American heartland. 

And for years, unions have struggled to find their sea legs in a new service economy where workers tend to be more spread out and harder to organize (compared to the big factories of the past.) Service unions, particularly the SEIU, have scored some notable victories in organizing hotel and healthcare workers, among other industries, but the overall trajectory of union membership has continued downward.

The retail and restaurant industries, two of the largest sectors in the new economy that together employ tens of millions of low-income workers, have remained largely un-unionized. 

If workers can make real progress in organizing these two sectors, the results could be profound. As I have written here often, and as Demos documented in our recent report on retail, many of the top employers in the service sector -- be it Walmart, Yum! Brands, or CVS -- are hugely profitable corporations with plenty of spare wealth to better share with their workers, if they are ever forced to do so. Yum! Brands, for example, paid its CEO, David Novak, $55 million last year and piled up $1.4 billion in net income. It can more than afford to give raises to its workers at Taco Bell and KFC, many of whom make $7.25 an hour. 

Such downward redistribution of profits would not only greatly raise living standards among low-wage workers, but also generate stronger overall growth and reduce reliance on tax credits and public assistance that many workers now depend on for survival.

While the inequality caused by globalization is hard to mitigate given the advantages of offshoring, many service sector jobs can never be shipped overseas. Which means that raising the pay for these jobs could be a permanent game changer.

So how's it going so far with the recent actions? According to the Huffington Post:

Other strike participants have won small raises at various franchises of Little Caesars, Popeyes, McDonald's, and Burger King. "They're getting more pay and hours and better scheduling, and are feeling emboldened to speak up on the job," said Rev. Martin Rafanan, an organizer with the community group Missouri Jobs For Justice. "The victories achieved by strikers are compelling others to get involved."

What remains to be seen now is whether things will rapidly snowball. Social movements are often born out of anger and frustation. But whether they achieve change depends on how much positive feedback activists receive and thus how much efficacy they feel. We will stay tuned.