by Mo Karnage in Richmond, Virginia
The South isn’t known for our good labor practices – and that might be an understatement.
In the Southern context labor has always looked different. Exploitation of workers has often taken a grim tone, slavery and coal mines being just two examples. I’m not giving yall Yankees or Capitalism in general an out here, both perpetuate a classist society, exploit workers out of greed, and generally benefit from the extra exploitation workers in the South put up with. But anyone from the South will tell you, exploitation down here has a different feel.
In the South, we don’t have a living context for unions- instead we have the “right to work”. The “right to work” laws are actually just anti-union and anti-labor laws with a deceptive name. While historically all states had extremely exploitative labor practices and anti-union laws, currently, the spread of “right to work” policies holds almost the entire South back in terms of labor organizing. This is just one way in which Southern workers have it worse than workers else where.
Unions have been so repressed that the work to build one is really complex. There is a lot of anti-union rhetoric out there, even to the point of being included in employee training videos by giant corporations. The economy has changed since the hey day of unions, and it is difficult to imagine what a union in the South would look like now.
Well, the Fast Food Worker’s are about to show everyone one way a union can look on Thursday, December 5th.
I heard about these strikes several weeks ago, when an organizer came out to help cook for Food Not Bombs.The organizer had fliers from the strikes that happened in North Carolina, and spoke passionately about the folks who need solidarity to improve their economic position. He was trying to network with local political, religious and community organizations who might want to lend support and help promote the movement.
The two main themes of these fast food worker strikes across the country are a $15 dollar an hour minimum wage and the right to unionize without retaliation. If the minimum wage had been raised to keep up with inflation, it would currently sit at about $16 an hour. And while even in right to work states unions are legal and companies are not technically supposed to retaliate towards union members or organizers, any worker on the ground can tell you that this is still a very valid fear.
Fast Food Workers are incredibly undervalued in this economy. All the bullshit slogans about bootstraps and whatnot clearly do not apply here. The low amount that these workers are paid, combined with the refusal to provide enough hours or benefits, traps people in a cycle of poverty. Folks who work for just the top 10 fast food companies rely on around 7 billion dollars in government assistance each year just to scrape by ( http://business.time.com/2013/10/15/fast-food-workers-are-costing-the-u-s-7-billion-a-year-in-public-aid/).
Fast Food Workers have a lot to lose. Many of them are parents or caretakers of other family members. But they are taking a stand here, because they can’t keep carrying the burden of low wages. They are the new face of labor struggles and the struggle for a living wage. You or I might not work in fast food, but it isn’t hard to see why this fight is so important to all workers. Service industry jobs are a huge part of the economy these days. A rising tide lifts all boats, and though you might not work in fast food, you will be better off when fast food workers are better off.
Locally, different areas are developing demands beyond the two unifying ones. As campaigns develop, local organizers are able to hold more meetings, become more structured, and really get to work solving the problems specific to those areas. New York City has Fast Food Forward, and Chicago has Fight for 15.
The campaign was initiated nationally about a year ago, and there have been a variety of strikes and days of action around the country since then. December 5th will be the largest, with strikes planned in 100 cities. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) funds a lot of the organizing that is happening, which is not a secret. The SEIU has around 2 million members.
Being funded by SEIU means this movement isn’t entirely grassroots. My understanding is though that the funding comes with few or no strings attached. What I can see is that the passion of the people behind it are really pushing it forward. There is one organizing group for 6 southern cities in 3 states- Richmond, Raleigh, Durham,Greensboro, Charlotte, and Charleston. There isn’t a legitimate webpage yet for this movement- just one facebook page for all 6 cities- NC Raise Up. This is a movement with room to grow.
It is significant that the fast food worker movement is taking place in the South – and it seems like the organizers are well aware. I spoke with one organizer, Zaina from North Carolina, who said she “really believes in organizing the South”. Organizers are able to gain ground and honor the past by drawing the connections between this movement and the civil rights movement. In Durham, NC the fast food strike is happening near the site of the first Civil Rights Sit-in.
For Richmond, this marks our first fast food strike. I talked to Crystal a 28 year old local with 2 sons and a 3rd child on the way, who works at a local Burger King. Crystal heard about the strikes in other places last year, and started to get involved. When I asked her what the most important message of the strikes was, she said “Hope”.
Building a movement from scratch, unlike fast food, is a complex project, requiring love and patience, like a good batch of biscuits and gravy. In some cities, the day of strike may end up being more of a flash action for the time being. In others, these strikes are the catalyst for growing movements expressing the increasing frustration of workers who work hard but still can’t make ends meet. From Richmond, Crystal says her message to other workers is, “If you don’t come together, how you ever gonna be heard, how you gonna make a difference?”. Her understanding of the process is that it takes time, and that this work is for the future, for her children, because something has to change.
There might be a strike in your city tomorrow- go out and talk to the workers to get a better understanding of their reasons and what they need to see changed. Maybe you’ll decide to help.
Around here, they call the campaign Virginia Rai$e Up. I’m going to the strike tomorrow, and bringing some Food Not Bombs food to share with the picketers. I hope to talk to more workers and get a feel for where this movement is headed in Richmond. The strikes in New York and Chicago and other areas might be bigger and better organized. But for me, the important battle is the uphill one we have right here in the South. It’s a Southern thing.