The movement for higher wages in the fast food industry is gaining widespread attention and public support, but it’s unlikely to change workers’ paychecks any time soon.
The most effective labour movements in U.S. history won concessions from employers by unionizing and organising strikes that shut down entire factories, railroads, and coal mines.
By comparison, a two-day protest held at McDonald’s headquarters this week caused little more than traffic problems, forcing some corporate employees to work from home for a day.
A global day of strikes one week earlier also failed to interrupt business at the chains they targeted, which included McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, and KFC. Protestors claimed a handful of restaurants were forced to shut down for at least several hours, but the companies denied those claims.
“This is a nascent movement,” said Tom Juravich, the director of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Labour Relations and Research Center. “It has a long way to go in terms of actually making a difference.”
Fast Food Forward, the union-backed group organising the protests, is demanding a $US15 hourly minimum wage. The minimum wage in the U.S. is currently set at $US7.25 an hour.
The movement, now about two years old, has been gaining ground.
But “corporate America is incredibly powerful … and I don’t want to be naive and suggest that a few street protests will bring Walmart or McDonald’s down,” Juravich said.
American workers have been unionizing and striking for better pay and working conditions since the mid-19th century, as the industrial revolution led to a boom in manufacturing and coal mining jobs.
One of first major successful strikes came in October 1902 and involved more than 140,000 unionized coal miners in eastern Pennsylvania. Lasting 163 days, the Anthracite Coal Strike threatened to create an energy crisis. It only ended when the federal government intervened as an arbiter and worked out a deal that gave workers a 10% wage increase — down from their initial demand of 20% — and a nine-hour workday, down from the 10-hour days they were previously working.
Three decades later, General Motors workers inspired similar change in the auto industry through a sit-down strike — where workers take control of a company facility — at several major manufacturing plants in Flint, Michigan. Until then, auto workers had been fighting unsuccessfully for higher wages and shorter workdays through strikes at various smaller plants.
The sit-down strike nearly halted GM’s business, dropping its production rate from 53,000 vehicles weekly in December 1936, when the strikes began, to 1,500 vehicles weekly in February of 1937, according to a report by Joshua Hausman, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Michigan.
GM eventually caved and agreed to recognise the United Auto Workers union as the exclusive bargaining agent for its workers, and the UAW moved on to target Chrysler and Ford.
As a result of the UAW’s actions, average hourly earnings for auto workers rose 22% to 96 cents between October 1936 and and July 1937, according to Hausman’s report.
The coal strike and GM strike were successful because employees unionized and gained leverage over their employers by disrupting production.
But fast food workers have tried unsuccessfully to unionize in the past, and with most major fast food chains owning thousands of restaurants across the world, it will be difficult for workers to achieve the same level of disruption.
“These jobs have extremely high turnover, so by the time you get around to organising folks, they’re not on the job anymore,” explained Ruth Milkman, a sociology professor at the City University of New York, in a 2012 interview with the New York Times.
For now, it appears that fast food workers are going to be in this for the long haul.
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