A brief article by John O'Reilly on Socialist Alternative's efforts in fast food organizing.
The IWW is hardly the first organization to attempt to take on the terrible conditions that rule today in the food and retail industry in North America. In the heyday of industrial unionism, restaurants were frequently organized as part of larger drives by unions to organize basic industry. In some places, like Detroit, workers wanted to organize and unions were so effective in organizing food and retail industries that large union federations had competing food and retail affiliates that routinely raided each others memberships. Imagining such a high level of union density in contemporary food and retail industries seems preposterous today. But even in the current moment of anti-worker legislation and dwindling union membership, other unions and left organizations have attempted to organize in this important sector of the service economy.
In late 2003, organizers with the Trotskyist political group Socialist Alternative initiated a campaign amongst Pizza Hut workers in western Washington state. Their organizing began at a franchise that initially had 61 stores. The record of their organizing, their approach and their analysis of the industry is contained on their website as a pamphlet “Manifesto of the Fast Food Worker.” Along with that text, the analysis below comes from a few articles posted on Socialist Alternative’s website relating to the drive and an interview with one of the authors of the “Manifesto”. The campaign collapsed after a vicious anti-union response from management but the organizer I spoke with suggests that the pamphlet represents the most complete picture of the drive. Reading the “Manifesto” and the various news pieces from the campaign’s “underground newspaper” shows a picture of a drive with many similarities with IWW organizing in the fast food industry and but also points towards some key differences.
An important feature of the “Manifesto” is a long section detailing the economic conditions which have brought the rise of fast food and its prevailing low-wage, no-benefits trend. This analysis discusses the ways in which fast food owners as a whole, Pizza Hut and even specifically the franchise where they campaign was undertaken, have structured work in a way that gives the in-shop employees and drivers few options. The authors also do an excellent job critiquing the way the industry has consistently lobbied for a lowering of the minimum wage and against any attempts to raise it. The “Manifesto” itself also raises important ideas about how surplus value is extracted from workers during the production process and explains it in easy language that applies directly to the food production and service industry. They also mention the importance of organizing all pizza shops so as to bring industrial strength to the campaign. As a piece of educational material, the “Manifesto” shows that the authors were deeply committed to connecting their struggle with an industrial outlook and a socialist analysis.
The authors also provide important ideas on how to organize at the workplace for interested workers. Some of their advice, like organizing a committee and staying low-key until the time is right to strike, is classic labor organizing advice and speaks of their ability to organize effectively. The pamphlet also touches directly on the question of labor law, encouraging workers to avoid the NLRB election process and instead to rely on voluntary recognition from the employer. This approach is interesting because it highlights the important weaknesses of the NLRB election approach. It does not explain how exactly one would achieve voluntary recognition, other than through sheer numbers, a situation which is much easier to imagine than create. The “Manifesto” also suggests that interested fast food workers should organize and then affiliate with a left-leaning union in their area, pointing to the ILWU in the case of workers in western Washington. The organizer told me that the campaign was initially organized with a union that claims jurisdiction over fast food workers but that organizers felt the ILWU would have served the drive more effectively.
The pamphlet’s organizing advice seems mostly useful, but it is interesting to see a lack of emphasis on direct action. The tone of the piece is quite militant and promotes a rank-and-file approach to organizing, yet the main focus seems to be on slow building and going public in a large way with overwhelming support and then immediately demanding recognition. Experience has shown many IWW organizers that direct action taken on the shopfloor before going public is an important way for union members to build their confidence and up their dedication to the organization, as well as bringing about concrete gains before publicly attempting to negotiate with the boss. By encouraging coworkers to walk through struggle before standing openly to the world as union members, our organizers have often found success in building workers’ experiences over time. The campaign organizer I spoke to mentioned that the campaign was not able to go public on its own terms, but was discovered by management after they got ahold of the underground news bulletin. In new articles associated with the campaign, a member mentions that the campaign only had support in 15 out of 61 franchise stores and the organizer I spoke with stated that there were only a handful of stores with lead organizers. While this is certainly no small number, it brings up questions of capacity and the need to build underground in a way that engages workers for as long as possible before going public on our own terms.
Fast food is an important sector of the food and retail industry as along with sweatshop production facilities it sets the lowest bar against which employers can measure conditions. As Wobblies working in food and retail, we should familiarize ourselves with other campaigns to organize workers in our industry and see what kind of approaches have been successful and where campaigns have fought hard but encountered roadblocks they have been unable to get past. If conditions will ever change in our economy, those of us who struggle at the bottom of the economy will have to be those who organize the most effectively.
Author interview with T.W., organizer with Tacoma Socialist Alternative (1/27/12)
Originally posted: January 24, 2012 at Thoughts on the Struggle