Fast Food Workers Take Next Step, Create National Union

VILLA PARK, Ill.–Fast food workers nationwide, realizing their 1-day strikes did not convince employers to yield on giving them a living wage, are taking the next step: Creating a national union, uniting their local campaigns for living wages and the right to organize.

The 1,300-1,500 delegates from fast food chains around the country set that goal in their meeting in late July in the Chicago suburb of Villa Park – near the Elmhurst corporate headquarters of the largest fast food chain, McDonald’s.

And they also decided to up the ante of recognizable action, employing tactics up to and including peaceful civil disobedience to dramatize their cause.

Their convention preceded, by several days, a decision by the National Labor Relations Board’s top enforcement officer, General Counsel Richard Griffin, that will help the workers.

Griffin said McDonald’s is jointly liable with its franchise-holding fast food restaurants nationwide for those eateries’ labor law-breaking.  His ruling could also make it easier to organize fast-food franchise workers (see separate story).

The fast food workers are part of a nationwide movement of low-wage workers,  including tipped workers, warehouse workers, Wal-Mart workers, port truckers and retail workers demanding a living wage of $15 hourly and the right to unionize without retaliation.

Most of those workers make at, near, or less than the minimum wage.  Thousands are victims of wage theft by their employers, misclassification as “independent contractors” unprotected by labor law, or both.  Hundreds are fired, especially by Wal-Mart, for speaking up.

The Service Employees, who represent thousands of lower-paid workers, have provided organizing direction, money and support to the fast food workers.  But their president, Mary Kay Henry, told delegates the living wage movement “happened because of the people in this room.  Because of you, the movement for $15 is getting stronger.  It’s getting larger.”

Added Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn.: “What you are doing right now is the most important worker movement of today.”  Ellison has inserted pro-living wage provisions in money bills covering federal contracts, and raised the issue with Democratic President Barack Obama.

“The focus is to escalate the campaign.  We’re going to have to escalate, make it a crisis.”

Convention delegates decided the fast food workers will do “whatever it takes” to win the higher wages and a union, said Kendall Fells, an organizing director of the fast food workers and an SEIU representative.  One peaceful protest, outside McDonald’s shareholders’ meeting earlier this year, produced 130 arrests after the fast food firm called the police.

“The McDonald’s corporation is here.  They’re a big target for us,” organizer Terrance Wise, who makes $9.40 an hour at a Burger King in Kansas City, Mo., told local media.  “They’re the head of the snake.”  Nationally, the average McDonald’s worker earns $8.90/hour.

“We need to get more workers involved and shut these businesses down until they listen to us,” perhaps even occupying the restaurants, added Cherri Delisline, a single mother from Charleston, S.C., who earns $7.35 hourly after toiling at McDonald’s for a decade.  She and her children live with her mother and she hasn’t been able to afford seeing a doctor for two years.  She also goes unpaid if she stays home sick.

“We make the owners enough money that they have houses and cars and their kids are taken care of.  Why don’t (they) make sure I can be able to do the same for my kids and my family?”