Additional reporting by Brendan Kiley, Anna Minard, and Ansel Herz
About 20 supporters and a couple of TV news cameras had gathered outside the Ballard Taco Bell the night of May 29 in anticipation of the kickoff to a one-day citywide fast-food strike. But a half-hour later, the planned walkout had yet to materialize.
Inside the garishly lit, glass-walled building, the three late-shift workers and a labor organizer remained huddled in conversation as the crowd outside started to wonder if the strike would kick off with a fizzle instead of a bang. These are among America's least-empowered workers, so it would have been no surprise had they lost their nerve for fear of losing their jobs.
Then, shortly before 11 p.m., a car pulled into the drive-through lane. "Everyone's going on strike, apparently, but I can take your order," a voice cheerfully offered from the order kiosk speaker. The crowd cheered and the cameras rolled as the car slowly backed away.
Minutes later, a triumphant Caroline Durocher emerged from the restaurant, the first of hundreds of Seattle fast-food workers to join the strike over the next 24 hours. "We fast-food workers can't afford to lose our jobs," explained 21-year-old Durocher, but "it's the right thing to do, and that's all it comes down to." Within the hour, Durocher's coworkers locked the doors, turned off the lights, and posted a sign that they shut down early "due to short staffing."
Early the next morning, a Burger King in Lake City shut down after all its nonmanagement employees walked out. A few hours later, strike organizers reported that two Subways and a Chipotle on Capitol Hill had also locked their doors. Seattle's strike was not only the latest in a rolling series of nationwide fast-food walkouts, it was proving to be the largest: By the end of the day, at least eight—and as many as 14, by some counts—local fast-food restaurants had been forced to shut down, at least temporarily. Many other stores were left to operate shorthanded. As one striker put it: "When a manager has to make fries, that's a victory, too."
Their demands? A $15 an hour minimum wage and the right to organize without retaliation: "Supersize our salaries now!" the picketers chanted.
According to federal data, there are approximately 33,000 fast-food workers in the Seattle metro area, earning a median wage of $9.50 an hour, one of the lowest wages of any occupation in the region. But even that overstates the annual earnings of most fast-food workers, who managers typically limit to less than the "full time" 30 hours a week that qualifies for health care, vacation, and other benefits. "Exactly 29.75," laughed striking Arby's worker Amanda Larson when asked about her weekly hours.
At $9.50 an hour, a typical Seattle fast-food worker would earn less than $12,000 a year, with no health care, no vacation, and no paid sick leave. But thanks to Washington's highest-in-the-nation $9.12 an hour minimum wage, workers here have it relatively good. At the federal minimum wage of only $7.25 an hour, a typical fast-food worker earns about $9,000 a year.
It is poverty wages like this that help make "dollar menus" possible. After five years of working at the University District Taco Del Mar, Fernando Cruz earns only $10.50 an hour. "I like this job," Cruz said while picketing his employer. "I like talking to customers." But he still wants "a better salary, benefits, and, most importantly, respect."
"Sometimes I can't afford to eat," said one striking worker, a shocking admission for an industry that specializes in selling cheap calories.
It wasn't always this way. Had it merely kept up with inflation from its 1968 peak, the federal minimum wage would be $10.69 an hour today. But as economist Dean Baker of the DC-based Center for Economic and Policy Research points out, up until the late 1960s, the minimum wage actually rose in step with productivity, not inflation, meaning that minimum-wage workers shared evenly in economic growth. Between 1948 and 1968, the real value of the minimum wage rose 170 percent. Had lawmakers continued to raise the minimum wage in step with productivity, Baker conservatively estimates that it would be at least $16.54 an hour today.
Merely indexing the minimum wage to inflation would improve a lot of lives, said Baker, but would still result in "an ever-growing gap between workers at McDonald's and people in the rest of the economy." Seventy percent of minimum-wage workers are adults, said Baker, while 40 percent have a kid at home. "This is not just spending money for middle-class teens."
Organizers from Good Jobs Seattle—a campaign supported by OneAmerica, Washington Community Action Network, and labor-backed Working Washington—reached out to local fast-food workers and found them receptive, but once the strike started, it spread spontaneously, exceeding the organizers' expectations. In one of the most poignant moments of the day, Spanish-speaking marchers from a late-afternoon rally walked into a nearby Subway, and after a few minutes of conversation, convinced the young employee named Sophia Garcia to leave the shop and lock the doors. The crowd went wild as she smilingly made her way into their midst. "I'm very happy that you're doing this," Garcia said in Spanish. "Si se puede!"
But what of the impact on the economy?
"The minute the minimum wage goes high, I tell you, the fast-food restaurants will collapse," warned Hasan Zeer, the owner of eight Subway franchises in Seattle, including several that were shut down by the strike. Even Jim Spady, vice president of Dick's, known for paying some the best wages and benefits in the fast-food industry, cautioned that a higher minimum wage would cost some workers their jobs.
Baker, the economist, said these fears are overblown. A moderate increase in the minimum wage to $12 or $13, phased in over a few years, would have "little or no effect on employment," he said. That doesn't mean that some firms wouldn't hire fewer workers, but in the aggregate, he said, "the numbers are really small." (Washington State appears to bear this out. Our minimum wage is 22 percent higher than neighboring Idaho, yet our minimum-wage jobs aren't fleeing across the border.)
But while the economics seem obvious, the politics are not. "In the fast-food industry, the real power is in the corporate brands," said Service Employees International Union vice president David Rolf. Rather than bargaining with individual franchisees, Rolf said the goal is to disrupt the status quo.
The day after the strike, local elected officials including Seattle City Council member Mike O'Brien and state representative Gerry Pollet escorted strikers back to work and reminded their bosses of their legal rights. So far, no striker has been fired.
In the eight weeks since they began, the strikes have also taken place in New York, Chicago, Saint Louis, Milwaukee, Detroit, and DC. "This is a beginning," said Rolf. "I think we have to see if we can build a movement."