"Rain, rain, go away, give your workers higher pay," about a hundred soaking-wet protesters chanted outside a Panera Bread on Capitol Hill as the heavens opened up and dumped rain on striking fast-food workers and their supporters. It was a fitting end to Seattle's part in a nationwide walkout last Thursday by low-wage service workers demanding a $15 an hour minimum wage and the right to organize without retaliation.
Building on the success of a one-day strike earlier this year in Seattle and eight other cities, organizers had planned the mass action for August 29 in about 50 cities, only to see the strike spread as workers spontaneously walked out on their own in about a dozen more cities. Altogether, thousands of workers from Boston to Tampa to Topeka to Missoula walked off their jobs in solidarity, including workers throughout the Deep South, the most anti-union part of the country.
Here in the Seattle metro area, the strike spread to Tacoma and Shoreline, while expanding to include baristas. A few dozen stores were struck, according to organizers, although this time, only one was shut down: Unlike Seattle's May 30 strike, the chains were prepared, staffing stores with extra managers. But, as one striking worker put it, "When a manager has to make the fries, that's a victory, too."
It was not only a battle over pay and better working conditions, it was also a battle for respect of long-powerless low-wage workers. This newfound (dare I say) class consciousness was most clearly displayed at a downtown Specialty's Coffee, where Jonathan, a barista, got a call to fill in on an understaffed shift, only to discover that he was replacing striking coworkers. So he too walked out. "They called me in to work to keep the store running," he told strike organizers. "But I can't be a scab."
"That's one more way movements grow, by shifting expectations about what's normal and acceptable," says Sage Wilson of Working Washington, the labor-backed community group that organized Seattle's strike. Given labor laws that would require collective bargaining with thousands of individual franchise owners rather than corporate giants like McDonald's and Subway, fast-food workers may never be able to form a traditional union—but they are already beginning to display the solidarity that comes with one.
And they are also displaying the sort of media savvy that promises to keep their demands for a living wage on the front burner. Cynics might dismiss these one-day strikes as symbolic made-for-TV events, but in a nation where most people get the bulk of their news from TV, this coverage is exactly the point. And the cameras just ate it up, rebroadcasting tales of fast-food workers paid so little that they sometimes can't afford to buy food. Until the cameras tire of the workers' plight and their David-versus-Goliath struggle, it's hard to chalk up these strikes as anything but a win.
But if there was ever a yardstick of the fast-food strike's success, it was the angry, spittle-filled, right-wing backlash it generated. As strikers marched, the internet was set ablaze with contemptuous tweets, blog posts, and comments belittling both the workers' demands and the workers themselves. Fast-food workers are "lazy," "unskilled" "scumbags" who should've stayed in college and gotten a "real job," the twitterverse screamed while reviling the active role of unions in the day's events as some sort of moneymaking scam. No, we wouldn't want organized labor to actually organize laborers. That would be just wrong. Or something.
Meanwhile, the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB)—the staunchly conservative lead plaintiff in the lawsuit to repeal Obamacare—spent much of the day purchasing promoted tweets with the fast-trending #829Strike hashtag, warning of the adverse impact a higher minimum wage would have on the workers it's supposed to help. "Raising #minimumwage denies more low-skilled workers the opportunity to get a job," one NFIB tweet cautioned. Because nobody cares more about the welfare of low-skilled workers than the corporate-funded, minimum-wage-hating NFIB.
Whatever. Make what you will of the strikers and their cause. But it's not often you see low-wage workers put corporate lobbyists on the defensive. And that is a victory in itself.