'This Is What the Middle Class Looks Like' ... Fast Food One-day Strikes and the Next Upsurge in Unionism

"This is what democracy looks like." Even though this chant originated with the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO), which haven't yet led to major reforms, the phrase nonetheless captures the idea of a social movement that has crystallized its demands and has a better chance to succeed because of it. Other examples include the right to vote in the civil rights movement, or the fight to legalize gay marriage, a simple modern demand that culminates a fight for equality in all its dimensions.

One challenge in the U.S. fight for economic justice since inequality began to yawn wider in the 1970s has been the lack of a simple demand that either working people or elites thought could bring back the middle class. Having such a demand fuels social movements because it gives members of the movement confidence — conviction — that there is a way for the world to give them what they want. It also fuels social movements because it gives the broader society a way to let the protesters get a win.

The fast food workers engaging in one-day strikes across the country may be on the verge of crystallizing a simple demand to which their low-wage employers could accede — and, in the process, cracking the code to the next U.S. middle class.

Today's story on these strikes in The New York Times says that the organizers aren't actually clear yet on the path to victory. The demand is a $15-per-hour wage — a ticket to the middle class. But will progress result from a higher minimum wage, local living wage requirements for big chains, or companies themselves raising wages to get off the front page? (This is where you say in your best pompous pundit voice, "Well, ah, um, cough, good question.")

Because these protesters have a practical, confident vision of the end point they want — an economy that pays lower-wage workers a middle-class wage (so what if Big Macs cost 50 cents more) — they have a good chance of finding the mechanism that can get them there and keep them there (or forcing the rest of us to figure out the mechanism).

I think the mechanism is pretty simple — it's a union of all fast food workers in a metro area, across multiple companies. It would borrow heavily from building trades union models, such as electricians and carpenters. It would set area-wide wages, $15 an hour to start, as well as establish multi-employer health and pension plans. Most of the basic institutional solutions here were anticipated by SEIU's Justice for Janitors campaigns going back to the late 1980s. Former KRC Research Director Howard Wial wrote a brilliant article about this back in 1993. Howard, another colleague, and I wrote a shorter version of the same pitch in the house organ of the Democratic Leadership Council (The New Democrat) in 1998. These ideas also overlap those in Dishing It Out, a history of waitress unions published by Dorothy Sue Cobble in 1991, in part because Cobble recognized the relevance of these unions to the contemporary low-wage service sector.

The same basic union model works in any service industry sector that cannot relocate because it has to be near customers — in other words, for virtually all the nation's low-wage jobs. This includes workers in hotels, supermarkets, hardware stores, and other parts of retail; in non-fast-food restaurants; in child care, long-term care, and health care as a whole — doctors and some nurses are well paid, but too often workers on the lower end of the pay scale do not get middle-class wages even though their compensation is a small fraction of health-care costs. The generic formula: $15 per hour starting wage, decent benefits, and, if some businesses and policymakers are smart about it, more investment in training and the creation of career ladders.

This is what the middle class looks like.

If we can cross the Rubicon to this type of institutional solution and lock in $15 per hour in just one or two places, it will take off. We'll have a mass variation on the old line from When Harry Met Sally — "I'll have what she's having." Except, in this case, it will be, "I'll have that kind of unionism New York, or Chicago, or St. Louis fast food workers are having." This take-off would be analogous to when the United Auto Workers broke the code to establish a union at GM after the Flint sit-down strike, which paved the way for unionism at Chrysler, Ford, GE, Westinghouse, and in the steel industry. It paved the way for industry-wide wages and benefits through mass manufacturing. And the American middle class was born with employers paying, who knows, maybe twice what they paid before the upsurge.

So, with respect, I disagree with labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein who says in The New York Times that these protests won't lead to unionization.

Of course, to paraphrase an old joke about economists and recessions ("I've predicted seven of the last three recessions"), I've predicted three of the last zero "New Deals for a New Economy."

Still, I stand by my conviction. This IS what the middle class looks like. And it's just right there, waiting to be born.

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