Assessment of the August 29, 2013 fast food strike in Atlanta — letter from last year

The following article comes from a lengthy letter that I wrote last fall to members of the socialist group that I belonged to at the time. The letter — which is dated September 11, 2013 — summarizes the fast food strike protest that took place in Atlanta on August 29 of that year as part of the SEIU-backed fast food workers’ organizing campaign. 

For a number of reasons — first and foremost being problems of internal democracy — I never actually got around to emailing this message out to Atlanta branch members. Recently, however, I discovered a copy of the letter saved on my hard drive. Since the document contains some worthwhile insights about the fast food workers’ organizing campaign — both in regard to Atlanta specifically and on a nationwide level, as well — I thought it might be useful to finally publish it here. Notably, in preparation for doing this, I have removed several sections of the letter for reasons of relevance. In addition, I’ve also edited the piece for readability and style.

In terms of broader context, it’s worth adding that the August 29 strike protest described below was the first action that the fast food workers’ organizing campaign sponsored in the Atlanta area. Since then, the SEIU and forces within the local labor movement have backed the formation of an established fast food workers group — ATL Raise Up. Over the past year, this group — which now has the support of a number of militant local fast food workers — has coordinated the Atlanta strike protests staged in conjunction with the national campaign. Most recently, this included the civil disobedience strike protest held on September 4, 2014.[1]

 –Ben S, Atlanta

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This document is intended to provide a report back and assessment of the fast food strike demonstrations that took place in Atlanta on August 29, 2013 as part of the one-day nationwide fast food walkout.

On a national level, the August 29 strike represents a massive expansion of the fast food workers’ organizing campaign, which is being backed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Prior to the nationwide strike, the fast food movement had been confined to just seven cities – all of them located in areas with traditionally strong labor movements: Chicago, New York, Seattle, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Detroit, and Flint, Michigan. On August 29, the SEUI brought this struggle – known as the “Fight for 15” in Chicago – to much of the rest of the country. In total, fast food strike protests took place in some 58 cities, including numerous cities in the traditionally non-union South.[2]

This constitutes an extremely important development in a labor struggle that has, I’d argue, the capacity to serve as a galvanizing force within the broader labor movement. With this in mind, the following document seeks to provide comrades with a brief account and assessment of my experience in attending the August 29 strike protests in Atlanta. It is my hope that we’ll be able to use these notes in order to begin formulating a collective approach to orientating to the local fast food organizing campaign – if and when the SEIU decides to provide funding to permanently bring the campaign to Atlanta.

To begin with, on August 29, there were a total of three fast food protest actions that took place in Atlanta. All of them were staged in front of individual chain stores in areas with high concentrations of fast food restaurants. I attended two of these protests – the first of which was staged at the ungodly hour of 5:30 a.m., right next to the McDonald’s on Moreland Ave. This store is in close proximity to a number of other chains, including a Wendy’s, a Long John Silver’s, and a Krystal. Later, at 4 p.m., I attended another action, which took place at the food court atop the Five Points MARTA station. Specifically, the protest was staged in front of a joint Burger King/Popeyes store and the McDonald’s that abuts Marietta Street. In addition to the actions that I attended, another protest took place around mid-morning at a Church’s Fried Chicken store that’s also located on Moreland Ave.

In general, these protests had a distinctly top-down feel. At the same time, both the actions I attended did, nonetheless, attract an impressive number of demonstrators. The early morning rally drew more than 80 protesters, as estimated by Atlanta Jobs with Justice (JwJ), while more than 100 attended the afternoon rally at Five Points. This included scores of working-class people who stopped to chat with demonstrators while passing through Five Points.[3] But despite the strong turnouts, one of the most notable parts of these protests was that the vast majority of the participants weren’t striking fast food workers. Rather, most of the crowd consisted of community supporters, activists, and – not surprisingly – large numbers of local union staffers. Nonetheless, according to Atlanta JwJ, a total of 20 fast food workers walked off (or did not attend) their scheduled shifts during the one-day “strike” event. The strikers included workers from Subway, Arby’s, McDonald’s, TJ’s Sandwiches, Great Wraps, and Church’s Fried Chicken.[4]

While this is undoubtedly an exciting development, the August 29 strike protest in Atlanta – much like the protests in other cities across the country – had a number of serious shortcomings. For one thing, it’s worth noting that none of the workers that participated in these protests actually engaged in anything approaching an old-fashioned STRIKE! where workers collectively walk off the job for the purpose of shutting down production. Instead, this “strike” – which was coordinated by a pair of SEIU organizers – took on a far more atomized character. Out of the 20 strikers, the vast majority came from workplaces where they were the sole participant in the strike protest. (To my knowledge, the only exception to this was the Church’s Fried Chicken location that was the site of the day’s second protest. In total, three workers from this store participated in the strike.) This means that, as it exists today, Atlanta’s fast food campaign has almost no real shopfloor organizational presence in Atlanta.

In addition to the atomized nature of this action, the Atlanta strike protests – like most of the strike protests in other cities around the country – were organized in a highly bureaucratic manner. Apparently, prior to August 29, SEIU organizers filed legal documents (presumably with the National Labor Relations Board) in order to secure official protection for each individual striker under U.S. labor law, which technically bars employers from terminating workers for engaging in certain types of strikes and protest actions. As it was, the group of workers that participated in the strike initially became involved in this movement after signing up on the fast food campaign website maintained by SEIU. In total, I am told that — as of several weeks ago — around 500 workers from the Atlanta area had signed up online. Organizers from the SEIU then contacted and subsequently recruited a small fraction of these workers to take part in Thursday’s protest action.

The SEIU’s atomizing approach to organizing Thursday’s strike action meant that, for the most part, none of the walkouts that took place were spontaneous or collective. This reality contradicts much of the media coverage about the protests by local news sources. For example, a local story about the initial early-morning protest — published online by WSB-TV (News Channel 2) — claimed that “employees at an Atlanta McDonald’s walked out early Thursday morning as part of a nationwide strike.”[5] The story ran alongside a picture depicting dozens of picket-sign toting demonstrators marching in front of McDonald’s. In this way, the story seemed to imply that that the crowd of protesters – none of whom actually worked at that store – had just staged a mass walkout! Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case. This said, despite the factually erroneous nature of this claim — the depiction of this protest as a full-blown strike at McDonald’s does, however, provide an accurate portrait of the brand of substitutionism that characterized this protest.

This isn’t to say that the workers at this and other stores aren’t supportive of the Fight for 15 campaign. For one thing, I am told that several workers at that location had initially expressed an interest in walking off the job. Tellingly, however, not one of these workers ultimately made the decision to participate in the day’s protests. The reason for this relates, in part, to the actions by the SEIU organizers and officials that helped coordinate the protest. From what I am told, at the start of the rally prior to my arrival, a lawyer from the SEIU kicked off the protest by announcing a series of strict parameters to which protesters were advised to adhere. The lawyer explained that these stipulations were designed to ensure that the protest did not cross any boundaries that might jeopardize legal protections baring the termination of striking fast food workers or else put the SEIU at risk of being hit with an unfair labor practice complaint. To this ends, protesters were instructed not to conduct a traditional picket by marching together in a circle. This policy, as well as the generally bureaucratic parameters imposed upon the protest by organizers, turned the morning action into a stuffy, top-down affair. For the most part, rank-and-file demonstrators were restricted to standing passively on the sidewalk and partaking in call-and-response chants led by the organizers. This top-down atmosphere was further engendered by the presence at the scene of the protest of no less than three television news vans – all of which were parked directly adjacent to the “picket line” with giant flood lights perched atop each truck. To make matters worse, as soon as the protest started, the entire section of Moreland in proximity to the McDonald’s was beset by swarms of police cars, many of them stationed in the parking lots of adjacent fast food stores. Without a doubt, the decision by the police to situate themselves in these locations was intentionally designed to discourage any would-be fast food strikers from stepping outside to see what all the commotion was about.

The scene at the early morning "walkout" at McDonald's on August 29, 2013. (From WSB-TV)

The scene at the early morning “walkout” at McDonald’s on August 29, 2013. (From WSB-TV)

It goes without saying that this environment did much to dissuade nearby fast food workers from joining the protest. This assumption is confirmed by a conversation that I had during the morning protest with one fast food worker from a different store located elsewhere. Apparently, at the location where this man works, he’s employed as the main griddle cook for the breakfast shift. Shortly after I arrived to the morning protest, I spotted this man, dressed in his sharply-pressed work uniform, standing across the street from the picket line. Since I was bored with the stuffy, top-down protest, I crossed the street and sparked up a conversation with the man, who appeared eager to chat about the demonstration. The man told me that he had worked at the same store for the better part of a decade. Furthermore, he was a skilled worker. As the lead griddle cook during the busy morning shift, he occupied a position at the very heart of the store’s production process. If he were to stop working during the morning rush, he explained, then production would slow to a stop.

Consequently, the man informed me that his main complaints about work weren’t related to pay since “he made pretty good money.” Instead, his grievances pertained to disrespectful treatment by management; high turnover on account of the miserably low wages provided to most other workers; and excessive workloads, a product of high-turnover and understaffing. Thus, while this man clearly shared many of the same complaints raised by his low-pay fellow workers in the fast food industry — and while he wholeheartedly agreed with the demands raised by the Fight for 15 campaign — he wasn’t in the same situation as those workers that are struggling just to survive on $7.25. Nonetheless, this worker expressed strong support for the idea of organizing a union. Crucially, the fact that this man held these views — and the fact that he had shown up some 45 minutes prior to the start of his shift to scope out the picket line — says much about the potential for building a bottom-up fast food workers’ union movement with the power to challenge the bosses.

Tellingly, however, when I asked the man what he thought about the strike protest taking place across the street, he responded, “I’m with it – but I can’t walkout by myself.” He added, “I wish that y’all had come and talked to us beforehand because we might have agreed to walk out.” Apparently, during the previous day’s shift, he and his fellow morning-shift cooks were making jokes about going out on strike. “We were joking,” he told me, “but there was something serious there.” Clearly, this potentiality was squashed as a result of the stuffy, media-centric nature of the strike protest. After about twenty minutes of chatting, the man gestured that he had to get to his car. The two of us began to cross the street together. When the man caught sight of the trio of local news vans, however, he became extremely nervous. He stopped talking and made a B-line in the opposite direction from me. When I turned around, he was gone.

This workers’ response to this protest is indicative of the problematic way that the action was coordinated by the SEIU organizers. Their approach centered on recruiting individual workers to take part in a pre-planned, top-down rally. By connection, rather than incorporating these workers into the movement as organizers themselves, the SEIU organizers put them in the position of being — for the most part — passive participants in a PR campaign.

This type of top-down unionism, it should be noted, is not necessarily reflective of the approach favored by Atlanta JwJ and other local trade union organizers. Within the local labor movement, there is a partial current of support for bottom-up organizing initiatives dedicated to building workers’ power. In teaming with SEIU to coordinate these actions, however, Atlanta JwJ organizers were undoubtedly compelled to “go along to get along.” The reason for this is simple: the SEIU has yet to make a commitment to providing funding and support to sponsor a fast food campaign in Atlanta. To this ends, the SEIU viewed the August 29 strike in Atlanta – as well as the actions in other cities throughout the country – as a test run designed to gauge the viability of a fully-funded Atlanta campaign. Presumably, the national union will make their decision based on an assessment of the turnout during the fast food strike, the amiability and cooperativeness of the local union bureaucracy, and the quality and quantity of news coverage generated by the protests. For obvious reasons, JwJ did not wish to jeopardize this by pushing the envelope during negotiations with SEIU.

The top-down approach adopted by SEIU organizers in Atlanta is congruent with the national union’s strategy for this campaign. In statements to the press, top officers of the SEIU have projected a vision for the fast food strikes that is akin to a PR campaign, designed to draw press coverage and influence discourse. To this ends, the union hopes to use media coverage and increased public debate as a mechanism to place pressure on politicians and fast food companies. This strategy is evinced in a statement made by the SEIU’s director of organizing, Scott Courtney, as quoted in a story from August 14 by labor journalist Josh Eidelson. In response to a question about the SEIU’s vision for the fast food campaign, Courtney asserted that, “The story [of the strike] is leverage in and of itself.” Courtney quickly added a caveat to this statement, noting that, “the fact that workers are taking these risks I think is our leverage.”[6] Nonetheless, Courtney’s initial response to Eidelson’s question reveals much about the SEIU’s media-centric approach to this campaign. As one Left-wing commentator has pointed out, “[Courtney’s] initial statement could be seen as a tacit admission that the campaign’s perception of its power lies largely in its ability to drive a media narrative about low-wage work, rather than directly building worker power on the job.”[7]

In terms of tactics, top officials in the SEIU seem to envision the fast food campaign and strike wave largely as a means to compel employers and politicians to cut backroom deals with the union. As evidence of this, in his August 14 story, Josh Eidelson goes on to cite information provided to him by an unnamed organizer that attended a private meeting about this campaign with SEIU leaders, held in Las Vegas in early August. According to the anonymous organizer, during this meeting, SEIU leaders identified two potential tracks to follow in order to transform the fast food industry. Eidelson summarizes these scenarios as follows:

First, escalating pressure on fast food corporations – McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s, in particular — with the goal of reaching a joint agreement under which the corporations would cover the costs of improved labor standards in their stores. And second, a legislative push for local living wage laws requiring improved compensation for fast food workers. Because most cities lack the legal authority to mandate higher wages for jobs that aren’t publicly subsidized, that push would involve statewide ballot measures in 2014 to allow cities to hike private sector workers’ wages. [emphasis added][8]

As Eidelson’s article further points out, if the union follows through on the first track, one possible outcome could be “a deal where corporations agree to pave the way for union negotiations and the union agrees before formal bargaining to carve out some parts of the country or cap the potential increase in labor costs.” In other words, the SEIU would negotiate a settlement that preemptively restricts the reach and the demands of this campaign in exchange for a neutrality agreement from fast food companies. It goes without saying that such an arrangement would greatly hinder the ability of workers themselves to play a lead role in determining the direction of this campaign. It’s worth noting that — outside of this specific struggle — the SEIU has a long history of cutting similar behind-the-scenes deals with employers. At this point, however, it doesn’t seem that SEIU officials have made up their minds about what path to pursue in this campaign. For instance, when Eidelson asked SEIU leader Scott Courtney if the union was planning to use the fast food strikes to negotiate a neutrality agreement, Courtney replied that, “It could be something like that.” He added, “I think anything you know about traditional collective bargaining is possible and then things we haven’t even imagined.”

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Fortunately, the shortcomings in the SEIU’s approach have already prompted some substantial debate from Left-wing militants involved in the campaign. In one particularly sharp and politically sophisticated commentary about this campaign published on August 29, a fast food worker from Seattle that belongs to the International Marxist-Humanist Organization argues that — despite all its shortcomings — the Fight for 15 campaign nonetheless provides an opportunity for workers to engage in struggle in opposition to their corporate bosses. In so doing, he argues, this campaign creates the possibility that, over time, fast food workers might come to break away from the parameters that currently define this campaign. As this worker puts it, “Despite the tendency of union influence to create a hierarchical structure in the movement, the trade union bureaucracy’s control over the movement is by no means total. Therefore, it is vitally important for radicals to continue to participate in the movement.”[9]

As far as my opinion is concerned, I agree that – despite all of its shortcomings – the  SEIU’s fast food campaign provides an important opportunity for activists and labor radicals looking to build workers’ power and revitalize the labor movement. For one thing, it isn’t a stretch to imagine that, in the future, this campaign might spin out of the control of the SEIU leaders that helped to set it in motion.

What does this all mean for Atlanta? At this point, it isn’t completely certain that the SEIU is going to back a campaign here. Apparently, since the August 29 strike, JwJ has submitted an official grant proposal to the SEIU requesting funding and support for an Atlanta campaign. Several people I’ve talked to, however, believe that it’s highly likely that Atlanta will be selected. For one thing, fast food workers here have registered online with the fast food campaign in greater numbers than in any other location in the country. What’s more, I’ve also been told that Atlanta’s August 29 strike was perceived by local union leaders as a smashing success. The protest events attracted greater numbers of demonstrators than expected and also generated a great deal of media coverage. Finally, the fact that Atlanta is a major regional hub in the heart of the South – which is, of course, the longstanding Achilles heel of organized labor – also boosts the city’s chance of being selected by the SEIU. Notably, in recent years, top labor officials have begun to call for renewed efforts to build union strength in the South. Most notably, during this year’s AFL-CIO Convention held in September, the union federation adopted a resolution calling for the development of “a Southern Strategy that will include a long-term commitment to organize the South.”[11] While the SEIU is affiliated with the Change to Win Federation and not the AFL-CIO, in recent years, the entire labor movement appears to have become increasingly cognizant of the importance of organizing the South.


 Notes

1. For details about the September 4 strike protest on a national level, see Steven Greenhouse, “Hundreds of Fast-Food Workers Striking for Higher Wages Are Arrested,” New York Times, September 4, 2014; For details about the September 4 action in Atlanta, see Tamika Middleton, “Broadening the Fight for $15,” TalkPoverty.org, September 11, 2014.

2. Josh Eidelson, “Largest fast food strike ever today: 58 cities will be affected,” Salon, August 29, 2013.

3. Roger Sikes, “Atlanta Fast Food Strikes Play-by-Play,” press release for Atlanta Jobs with Justice, September 1, 2013. See also, Max Blau, “Atlanta fast-food workers demand better wages, right to unionize,” Creative Loafing Atlanta, September 3, 2013.

4. Sikes.

5. “Fast-food walkout: McDonald’s employees push for higher wages,” WSB-TV, August 29, 2013.

6. Josh Eidelson, “Fast Food strikes to massively expand: ‘They’re thinking much bigger,’” Salon, August 14, 2013.

7. Micah Uetricht, “Fast Food Strikes Hit a Record 58 Cities, As Campaign’s Tactics Are Debated,” In These Times, August 30, 2013.

8. Eidelson, “Fast food strikes to massively expand.”

9. Eric, “Fast Food Workers to Go on Strike Across U.S.,” The International Marxist-Humanist, August 29, 2013.

10. “Resolution 26: Resolution to Develop a Southern Organizing Strategy,” AFL-CIO 2013 Convention.

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