Supersized Labor: Detroit Sees Largest Fast-Food Strike in U.S. History

The walk-off follows similar actions in New York, Chicago and St. Louis.

Detroit fast-food strike

Workers demand a base-pay rate of $15 an hour. (Photo: detroit_15/Instagram)

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

When Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder signed controversial “right-to-work” legislation last December, it was a significant policy defeat for the American labor movement. But the symbolism of anti-union laws passing in Michigan was even more potent. In 1936, United Auto Workers members occupied a General Motors factory in Flint, MI, beginning what came to be known as the Flint Sit-Down Strike. The action led to the organizing of the automotive industry and helped spur the modern labor movement in the United States.

Today, workers are striking in Michigan once again, but the picket line isn’t in front of an automotive factory. Following surprise strikes in New York, Chicago and, earlier this week, St. Louis, fast-food workers across Detroit walked off the job today, demanding the right to form a union and a base-pay rate of $15 per hour.

In the introduction to a petition on detroit15.org, a group involved in organizing the walkout, the impetus for the strike is laid out in more detail

Our employers—thriving corporations like McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, Dollar Tree, Little Caesar’s, Domino’s, Long John Silver’s and others—are making billions of dollars, but they pay us poverty wages as we struggle with our coworkers to support our families and cover our basic needs.

More than 400 workers have walked off the job today, making the Detroit action the largest fast-food strike in American history. Furthermore, this is the first strike to take place in a “right-to-work” state. 

With their low pay and limited benefits, fast-food jobs are by no means ideal employment. And while working for minimum wage and no healthcare may be perfect for the proverbial burger-flipping high school student, that clichéd notion of a fast-food employee is increasingly dated. The median age of fast-food workers is 28, and that number skews four years older for women, who make up two-thirds of the workforce. Rent, utilities, car payments, groceries, childcare and other financial responsibilities have to be covered with an annual average annual salary of just $18,810.

The growing momentum of these fast-food strikes suggests that a new approach to labor actions may be gaining traction and proving successful. Reporting on the Detroit strike for The Nation, Josh Eidelson writes,

Along with a shared significant supporter—SEIU—the campaigns in New York, Chicago, St. Louis and Detroit have apparent strategies in common. Rather than waiting until they’ve built support from a majority of a store’s or company’s workers, they stage actions by a minority of the workforce designed to inspire their co-workers. Rather than publicly identifying the campaign and its organizers with a single international union, these union-funded efforts turn to allied community groups to spearhead organizing. Rather than training all their resources on a single company, they organize against all of the industry’s players at once.

This strike may be taking place in Michigan, but the tactics couldn’t be more different than those of the UAW.

It’s too early to determine the successes or failures of today’s work stoppage, but Detroit’s union culture appears to be giving the strikers a boost: Organizers are reporting that replacement workers called in to reopen one McDonald’s location refused to cross the picket line and joined the strike instead.

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