Fast Food Strike Wave Spreads to Detroit


by Josh Eidelson


Four updates appear below.

Hundreds of Detroit fast food workers plan to walk off the job beginning at 6 am today, making the motor city the fourth in five weeks to see such strikes. Organizers expect participants from at least sixty stores, including McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Subway, Little Caesar’s, and Popeye’s locations. Like this week’s strike in St. Louis, and last month’s in New York and Chicago, today’s work stoppage is backed by a local coalition including the Service Employees International Union, and the participants are demanding a raise to $15 an hour and the chance to form a union without intimidation.

Organizers say that over a hundred workers joined the St. Louis strike between Wednesday and Thursday. That included a group of Jimmy John’s workers who alleged that management humiliated them by requiring them to hold up signs in public with messages including “I made 3 wrong sandwiches today” and “I was more than 13 seconds in the drive thru.” “Sometimes I walk for more than an hour just to save my train fare so I can spend it on Ramen noodles,” St. Louis Chipotle worker Patrick Leeper said in an e-mailed statement Thursday. “I can’t even think about groceries.”

A spokesperson for Jimmy John’s declined to comment on Thursday’s strike. McDonald’s did not respond to a Tuesday inquiry about the fast food campaign; Wendy’s did not respond to an inquiry last night.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the fate of the fast food strike wave carries far-reaching implications: Fast food jobs are a growing portion of our economy, and fast food–like conditions are proliferating in other sectors as well. Organizers say the fast food industry now employs twice as many Detroit-area workers as the city’s iconic auto industry. These strikes also come at a moment of existential crisis for the labor movement, a sobering reality that was brought into sharp relief in December when Michigan, arguably the birthplace of modern US private sector unionism, became the country’s latest “right to work” state.

Along with a shared significant supporter—SEIU—the campaigns in New York, Chicago, St. Louis and Detroit have apparent strategies in common. Rather than waiting until they’ve built support from a majority of a store’s or company’s workers, they stage actions by a minority of the workforce designed to inspire their co-workers. Rather than publicly identifying the campaign and its organizers with a single international union, these union-funded efforts turn to allied community groups to spearhead organizing. Rather than training all their resources on a single company, they organize against all of the industry’s players at once. And—faced with legal and economic assaults that have weakened the strike weapon—these campaigns mount one-day work stoppages that are carefully tailored to maximize attention and minimize, but not eliminate, the risk that workers will lose their jobs.

Whether these strategies can ever compel a fast food giant to negotiate with its employees remains to be seen.

“After what I would consider well over three decades of wage suppression, workers in this particular industry—and then I think it’ll go to others—are realizing that their only way up the wage ladder is through their own organizations,” CUNY labor studies lecturer Ed Ott said Wednesday. Ott, a board member of the community organizing group that spearheaded the New York fast food strike, added, “The only way these workers are going to be able to advance these jobs is through unionization. And I think that idea has finally gotten traction.”

Update (9:15 am Friday): According to the campaign, a walkout by twenty workers at Detroit’s 10400 Gratiot Avenue McDonald’s prevented the store from operating. Some workers brought in as strikebreakers to replace those striking workers chose to join the strike instead.

Organizers say that by day’s end, today’s strike could be the largest fast food work stoppage yet, topping last month’s 400-strong strike in New York.

Update (11:50 am): Along with the Gratiot Avenue McDonald’s, organizers say that strikes shut down at least three others stores: a McDonald’s on Van Dyke; a Long John Silver’s on 8 Mile; and a Popeye’s on Grand River, where strikers were joined by US Congressman John Conyers. Strikers plan to converge for rallies at 1 and 4 this afternoon.

McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Chipotle, and Long John Silver’s did not immediately respond to requests for comment this morning.

Update (2:05 pm Friday): The campaign now says there are over 400 workers on strike in Detroit, making today’s action the largest fast food strike in US history. That figure includes workers who woke up today planning to work and then changed their mind; at one McDonald’s store, the campaign says eight workers decided at the last minute to join the strike after watching four of their co-workers walk off the job.

In an e-mailed statement, McDonald’s worker Nathaniel Gaines said that after management called him into work early to break the strike, he decided upon arrival to join the work stoppage instead. “I am constantly training new workers, while working the grill at the same time, all at minimum wage,” said Gaines. “Management always changes my hours, so I never have a consistent paycheck…The strike made me feel empowered to do the right thing for myself and my son.”

Update (3:30 pm Friday): In an e-mailed statement, McDonald’s said, “We value and respect all the employees who work at McDonald’s restaurants. The majority of McDonald’s restaurants across the country are owned and operated by independent business men and women where employees are paid competitive wages, and have access to flexible schedules and quality, affordable benefits.” The statement, which also touts “training and professional development opportunities” for workers who want to advance to management, is the same one provided by the company regarding protests in New York and Chicago last month. A McDonald’s spokesperson did not immediately respond to The Nation’s follow-up inquiry regarding the company’s stance on the strikers’ demands; whether management would meet with the striking workers; and whether any strikers would be punished or “permanently replaced.”


Categories: Economic Exploitation, Economy, Imperialism, Labor, Statements, U.S. News, Workers Struggle

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