The Rise Of alt.labor in the USA

Last week at the Workers Uniting Conference in Toronto, I heard a new term. A speaker referred to strikes currently spreading across the USA in fast food outlets by non unionised workers as ‘alt.labor strikes’.

She was referring to the events of the past few weeks, where momentum has been built up via protests in Chicago, St. Louis, New York, Milwaukee and Chicago with workers from fast food joints demanding higher wages.

ABC Chicago reported: “dozens” of workers protested outside the Rock N Roll McDonald’s in the busy River North Entertainment District calling for an increase in pay to $15 dollars an hour.

“I’m frustrated. I’m doing the best I can,” McDonald’s worker Tyree Johnson told ABC. “I’m a hard worker, I’m dedicated. And I cry my heart out to my employer every day saying, can I get a raise, can I get a raise, a decent raise.”

The protests follow up the massive strike in April when hundreds of Chicago-area fast-food and retail workers walked off the job in protest for a living wage.

The city’s fast food and retail workers joined demos and protests, held by the “Fight for 15” campaign, and originally spearheaded by the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago, according to DNAinfo Chicago.

The website HuffPost has reported that: since the recession officially ended, lower-wage jobs paying less than $14 an hour have grown nearly three times faster than jobs that pay more.

Workers pay has remained low even as low-wage employers post record profits.

Following the protest at McDonalds workers headed for McDonald’s headquarters in the Chicago suburb of Oak Brook to hand-deliver a petition at the company’s annual shareholder meeting.

These workers are not unionised and work in jobs traditionally ignored by US unions – as the fast-food industry relies on students and teenage workers holding part-time and seasonal jobs.

However the recession, has seen more adults with families getting jobs in the fast-food industry.

A statement from law firm Armstrong Teasdale LLP, which has offices in St. Louis and Kansas City, pointed out that the recent wave of strikes differs from traditional union organising campaigns. “Although strikes are often associated with labor unions, the workers involved in these impromptu strikes are not unionized. Instead, the efforts are being supported by a coalition of organizations, including labor groups, nominally coined ‘alt-labor,’ that are not legally unions,” the statement says.

Armstrong Teasdale goes onto give advice on disciplinaing workers who take strike action but warns: “Just because the workers aren’t unionized doesn’t mean the strikers aren’t protected by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the law firm’s statement points out. The NLRA gives workers the right to engage in concerted activities to improve their pay and other terms and conditions of employment”.

The “Fight for 15,”, “Slice Of Justice” and “Fast Food Forward” are using social media techniques such as online petitions and Twitter to organise strikes and demonstrations to secure a pay increase and better working conditions.

The “Fight For 15” website says they’re demanding $15 per hour and the right to form a union without retaliation. “Employers like McDonalds, Whole Foods, and Sears are raking in enormous profits while workers like us, mostly adults with families, don’t get paid enough to cover basic needs like food, rent, health care, and transportation,” the website says.

New York City workers joined together to form Fast Food Forward. The group’s website says it is part of a national movement of low-wage workers. The group’s website proclaims, “We can’t survive on $7.25!”

Although the workers are not members of unions as such, a number of unions are working with and supporting these efforts, notably the United Steelworkers campaign with Palermo Pizza workers.

According to Mary Kay Henry of SEIU: “These workers are taking a stand and sending a clear message that they will not sit idly by and continue to make do with so little while the rewards of their hard labor go to already wealthy CEOs. The 2.1 million SEIU members stand in solidarity with these workers and support their fight for higher wages.”

The Rise of alt.labor 2 will appear on this blog later.

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