3 organizing lessons from Seattle's fast food strike

What community organizers can learn from the Seattle strike that's gone national.
Crosscut archive image.

Strikers outside a downtown Seattle Specialty's

What community organizers can learn from the Seattle strike that's gone national.

I love a good burger as much as anybody. And I love a good bargain. But I cannot understand all the criticism of fast food and hospitality workers’ strikes for better pay last week. 

These strikes are a learning opportunity for the rest of us. A chance to understand workplace conditions, corporations’ public relations vulnerability and politicians’ pre-election desperation. Which is why I spoke with fast food workers at last Thursday's protest to understand the lessons they've learned about organizing for social justice:

1. Organizing for social change changes the organizer.

Carde Boles, who supports himself and his daughter, works at a fast food burger chain. He describes himself as a hard worker, saying, “I like to work hard. It makes the day go faster.” At work, he finds things to keep busy, like scrubbing the dining area floor when he notices it’s dirty. But he doesn’t feel appreciated or respected.

Crosscut archive image.

Carde Boles (left) with fellow striker Juanita Porter. 

Thank yous are few and far between. Worse, his hours can be (and have been) slashed for no apparent reason. For Boles, the strike is about more than changing the pay scale. It is also about changing how fast food workers are treated. And during the three and a half months he has been involved with the fast food workers' campaign, he has noticed a change – in himself. Boles said that since his first strike, “I’ve stood up for myself at work.”   

2. We’re all in this together.

Karl Balogh, a 20-something who supports himself, works at Arby’s in Tacoma. During our brief chat, he rattled off some of his reasons for participating in the fast food workers’ campaign:

Crosscut archive image.

Low pay: Balogh works 70 hours per week so that he doesn’t have to choose between rent and groceries,

The injustice of income inequality: CEOs of big corporations are living large on the backs of underpaid workers and taxpayers who subsidize workers’ health care and food assistance.

Inadequate employer-provided health insurance: Balogh says that his “covers enough to get [you] a diagnosis, but you’d better hope that nothing’s wrong.” In Balogh's case, while getting a diagnosis led to needed medical treatment, it also resulted in a $4,000 medical bill he is struggling to pay. What, he wonders, will he do if he needs additional treatment?

As we talked, Balogh scanned the crowd, pointing out the presence of a contingent of Walmart workers. “I’m thinking about going to the Walmart strike,” he told me. Why? “Because we’re all fighting for the same thing.”

It's not just fast food workers who have an interest in promoting living wages and respectful, dignified working conditions. What would happen if child care workers, truck drivers, taxi drivers, nonprofit employees, maintenance people, home health care workers, teachers, teachers’ aides and other people losing income and benefits by becoming part-timers, free-lancers, contractors … and the parents they have moved back in with …  What if more of us showed up at fast food workers’ rallies, Walmart protests and teachers’ protests?  

3. Good things come to those who wait.

“It’s gonna take time.” This is what Boles says when I ask what he would say to other fast food workers who might be thinking about striking. He adds that organizing is not different from the many other things in life that take time and are worth the wait.

This is an important lesson for organizers, present and future. So that if and when you find yourself organizing for better wages, you don’t sabotage your own campaign with unrealistic expectations. So that yours is not the organization that runs a powerful campaign for better jobs and gives up after three months, mistakenly believing you had lost, when it would be more accurate to say that you simply had not yet won.

  

About the Authors & Contributors