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Jan Lee headshot

Fast Food Workers Join Global Wage Strikes

Words by Jan Lee

Fast-food workers in more than 140 U.S. cities joined ranks with international labor organizations last week to send a message to global leaders: raise and enforce pay standards for the world’s lowest paid workers.

In an unprecedented effort to put pressure on companies that pay their employees less than what is considered a living wage, workers from 33 different countries staged walkouts for better pay and working conditions. Legislation concerning the right to strike is being considered in several countries including Iceland and the U.K. Nevertheless, workers stepped out in force on six continents to lobby for better pay and working conditions.

In Australia, workers staged a teach-in at McDonald’s headquarters in Auckland, while in the Philippines, a flash mob strike turned into a dance to attract attention to workers’ rights. Workers in Italy opted to hold their strike action on Friday, May 16, possibly to coincide with government efforts to prevent the loss of 1,200 jobs at Electrolux facilities.

Here in the U.S., the strikes focused primarily on fast food chains that have historically based their wage structure on the minimum wage. McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC and other restaurants saw protests outside their doors. None of the corporations reported any closures as a result, although workers in St. Louis said that a McDonald’s store was briefly forced to shut down. Attendance ranged from a few dozen to a couple of hundred in most of the 150 cities.

The International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers Associations (IUF) acknowledged in a statement on Thursday that the global strike action is part of an effort to highlight the need for a change in the pay structure for fast-food workers.

“These unprecedented international protests are just the start of a worldwide campaign to change the highly-profitable, global fast-food industry,” said IUF General Secretary Ron Oswald in a press release. “We’re putting the companies on notice: Make changes now, or this fight is only going to spread further and grow stronger.”

IUF representative Massimo Frattini said that the global strikes were planned in concert with strike actions organized by the Swiss union UNIA.

“At global level common demands are: Raising wages, better working conditions, full time employment; stable employment, [and] freedom of forming or joining a union without retaliation,” said Frattini in an email to me last Thursday. “So far we are receiving good reports from all over the world in terms of participants.”

Other events included:

  • Some states and local municipalities have considered implementing their own increases to the minimum wage. The city of Seattle is considering upping the minimum wage to $15, a proposal that has galvanized worker groups like 15 Now, and led to a petition drive. City Councilmember Kshama Sawant stepped up to sign the organization’s petition, citing her support for immediate changes to minimum pay laws. “These workers can’t wait till 2025. The Mayor’s proposal is a step forward but it falls short of what workers need by adding unnecessary delays of three, five or even 10 years before getting up to an inflation adjusted $15,” said Sawant. If the council should oppose the raise, she said it would be up to the voters to decide in November.

  • Lutheran Minister Martin Rafanan in St. Louis has also called for changes to the minimum wage. Rafanan is part of a greater coalition of local community groups that are supporting workers with actions like walk-backs to job sites. Workers who participated in the strike were accompanied back to the workplace by a group of community members so they would not have to return to work alone. “We go into a restaurant with the workers, we return them from their strike, we tell management they cannot in any way retaliate against the worker … We’ve done that numerous times in restaurants across the city, where we have had workers terminated and had gone back and gotten workers re-hired,” Rafanan told Forbes in an interview yesterday.

  • Workers in Italy celebrated on Friday after the government signed an agreement with Electrolux Italia to keep one of its factories from being moved to Poland. The nine-month-long negotiations resulted in Electrolux agreeing to invest $250 million in its plants and cancel layoffs in exchange for tax breaks for four plants in Italy. The news came on the heel of workers strikes on Friday.

  • Strike actions have been growing in several areas of the world where cutbacks have been a concern. The editor of LivingInGreece.gr notes that protests are a common occurrence in Greece, not just Athens. He offers a help page of 10 insightful tips for visitors, noting that in Greece, "We know how to navigate around strikes."

  • Not all workers' rights actions were a success in Geneva this week: The Swiss voted overwhelmingly to reject a minimum wage increase to $25 an hour. Had it passed, it would have been the world's highest minimum wage.

According to Frattini, the IUF’s executive committee met last week to assess the outcome of the strikes and decide on future strategies. “Starting from today [Thursday, May 15] members and the IUF will discuss how to continue the fight,” said Frattini. No actions have been planned as of yet, but with minimum wage increases stalled in Congress, and similar concerns in other countries, it's a fair bet that fast-food corporations will see more picketers outside their doors as summer business and temps heat up.

Image of Richmond, Va. strike courtesy of Bernard Pollack/AFL CIO

Images of Geneva and Karachi strikes courtesy of IUF

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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