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'15$ and a union!': The international campaign for fast food workers

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The International Union of Foodworkers (IUF) convened a conference on May 5 and 6, 2014 in New York City bringing together over 80 workers and union representatives from 26 countries to build an international union network of fast food workers. The conference launched an international campaign to organise fast food workers.

Unite Union of New Zealand sent a delegation of four workers and officials to attend. What we saw in the U.S. made us more confident than ever that we may be at the beginning of a new upsurge of the labour movement there and globally.

On May 7, participants joined an action in front of a Manhattan McDonald’s restaurant and then delivered a letter to McDonald’s calling on the fast-food giant to raise wages and respect workers' rights worldwide. At the same time, they announced U.S.-wide strike action at fast food restaurants on May 15 in support of their demand of USD $15 per hour and the right to form a union without fear of retaliation.

"The Fight for 15 in the U.S. has caught the attention of workers around the world in a global fast-food industry where workers have recently been mobilising,” said IUF General Secretary Ron Oswald. “It has added further inspiration and led them to join together internationally in a fight for higher pay and better rights on the job. This is just the beginning of an unprecedented international fast-food worker movement-and this highly profitable global industry better take note.”

The call for action on May 15 took off globally. Workers in dozens of countries and hundreds of cities participated in what became an international day of action. Unite Union kicked off the day in Auckland because with our time zone, we are the first in the world to see the new day.

#FastFoodGlobal was the number one trending topic on Twitter around the world. Media coverage was excellent. The aggregate of all the actions sent a clear signal to the fast food multinationals that workers around the world are demanding fair wages and rights on the job and that a movement is growing that is truly global in scope. You can see most of the highlights here: www.fastfoodglobal.org

In the U.S., May 15 was a big success. Strikes were held in over 150 cities, the most ever. Fast food workers in a dozen cities spontaneously walked off the job to join the movement. I was able to participate in an action on Oakland, California that involved occupations of both a McDonald's and a Burger King store. My speech of solidarity and support was well received.

This week, McDonald's workers will be taking their message of $15 and a union to the McDonald's shareholder meeting in Oak Brook, Illinois. One hundred and thirty people were arrested on Wednesday, May 21 outside the corporate HQ of McDonald’s in a preliminary action.

A delegate of Unite Union at McDonald's in West Auckland, Taylor Mcloon, was part of our delegation and became a media star during her time in the U.S.. Her message was simple and based on what we have done in New Zealand and what we heard at the international conference.

Firstly, fast food workers can organise a union and win wage rises against the bosses opposition. We did that in NZ. Secondly, the company is lying when it says it cannot afford wage rises in the U.S., or anywhere else for that matter. For example, a Danish McDonald's worker told the IUF conference that they have a union contract, a 40-hour week, and earn the equivalent of USD $21 an hour. Yet the Big Mac is cheaper in Denmark than in the U.S.

Taylor and myself visited a McDonald’s in Philadelphia and talked to the workers inside and during shift change. We discovered that workers in a McD's store in the U.S. are exactly the same as workers in NZ and want the same things: better pay, job security and protection from abuse. In the U.S. they summarise this as "$15 and a union!"

More importantly, we discovered workers were willing to join a union and take action to get their demands. What they needed was a bold, visible campaign that had a chance of offering them protection and support if they did so. We had the same experience in New Zealand before we launched our campaigns in 2005-6. We also participated in a rally there in support of an increase in the minimum wage. Unite Union officials Joe Carolan and Heleyni Pratley went to Boston after the international conference and reported similar experiences.

The Obama government is proposing an increase from the current level of $7.25 to $10.10 over some years. But his proposal is being overtaken by a more meaningful demand -- for $15 an hour now. This demand has been approved in city-wide referendums in Seattle and other cities. The Obama proposal looks like it is getting nowhere in the Republican-dominated Congress, so activists are turning to city and state governments to implement more radical change -- with success. In speeches to U.S. workers, we gave encouragement to their campaigns and used the example of moving the minimum wage in NZ from 30 per cent to 50 per cent of the average wage as an example to follow. 

An article in Jacobin magazine by a low-wage worker who has been part of the campaign drew some important conclusions: “Despite the massive attention it’s gained, this movement is still in its infancy. It must be built with strong workplace and community networks. The more radicals involved in the project, the stronger it will be.

"This summer, we went on strike for very concrete demands. But we also went on strike for dignity, respect, and power. Our movement has to build concretely, demand the tangible, and lay the groundwork for a new generation of working class militancy. Because militancy works. My bosses don’t taunt me about going on strike anymore. After striking, I got a raise; and more than a dozen coworkers asked me how they could join the union.” That’s a lesson tens of thoousands of working people are learning across the U.S."


The original version of this article was published on the website of the Unite Union in New Zealand. Mike Treen is a founder (2004) of Unite Union and its National Director.

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