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Low-Wage Workers’ Movement Catches Fire

The widely publicized Black Friday protests against unfair labor practices and low wages at Walmart are part of a growing national campaign that reaches deep into the grass roots.

Hundreds of Walmart workers and community allies across major US cities took to the streets on Black Friday to protest the multibillion-dollar corporation for poor working conditions, unfair labor practices and wages so low the retailer held a food drive for its own employees this Thanksgiving.

The nationwide campaign under the umbrella of Organization United for Respect (OUR Walmart), supported by the United Food and Commercial Workers, held protests in major cities such as Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, Dallas and Seattle. It was part of a growing movement of increasingly organized and mobilized low-wage workers that include retail, fast food and restaurant workers.

“I’m out here to show the workers not to fear retaliation, because it’s our right to be able to organize and protest what Walmart is doing to its associates,” said Richard Mendoza, an employee at Walmart’s Duarte store in Los Angeles County. “The more times they get away with it, the bigger the problem is going to be.”

As in the past, with consumers often stampeding and fighting for marked-down products, this year’s Black Friday sales were marred by violence that has been deadly for low-paid workers who operate the stores so their employer can make billions in profits on Black Friday. Mendoza said he had to start work at 5:30 PM on Thanksgiving to accommodate a new practice whereby retailers push Black Friday well into the holiday.

In 2008, 34-year-old Jdimytai Damour, a Long Island, New York, Walmart employee, was killed on Black Friday when shoppers stampeded through doors and trampled him to death. Walmart was fined only $7,000 for this tragedy – but to date has not paid.

Beyond Black Friday, public advocacy for low-wage workers is gaining steam. But the heightened push has raised questions: What is being advocated for? Is it specific rights and protections? A minimum wage? Increased unionization? Or is the goal a sea change in the way the economy operates – a larger shift toward real democracy?

High Stakes for the Lowest-Paid

The movement to mobilize the country’s lowest-paid labor force kicked off early last year, seemingly picking up as Occupy was tapering off, and in recent months has swept through the country. Hundreds of workers at fast food restaurants walked off the job on August 29 in historic strikes. A 100-city one-day strike by fast food worker groups including Fight for 15 and Fast Food Forward is planned for this Thursday.

The stakes are painfully high.

As of November 1, 2013, the government cut billions of dollars from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formally known as food stamps). About 48 million, or one in seven, Americans rely on the SNAP program, up from 28 million in 2008, the beginning of the recession – an astounding 71 percent increase. More than half of low-paid fast food workers rely on public assistance programs like SNAP.

There’s been talk of an economic recovery, but it hasn’t benefited the majority of the population. Department of Labor statistics put the unemployment rate at 7.3 percent, but the real number, taking into account underemployed and discouraged job seekers, is roughly double that, hovering around 14 percent. Racial disparity plagues active job seekers, with black unemployment more than doubling white. Research shows the overwhelming majority of income gains from the “recovery,” an astounding 95 percent, went directly to the richest 1% of the population.

Meanwhile wages, particularly in the lowest income brackets, have stagnated despite an almost 40 percent increase in worker productivity over the past two decades, according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute. Simultaneously, labor unions and regulations protecting workers have been systematically hacked away.

But the fight to increase wages is gaining traction. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, but workers are fighting for a significant boost: $15 an hour. In some locales, they are winning their fight. Meanwhile President Obama has shown support for raising the minimum wage.

“If you look at historical graphs, the decline of labor tracks very closely with the decline of purchasing ability by the middle class. So if we want to have a large [middle] class and broad prosperity in this country, we need to have a sound labor movement,” said Paco Fabian, communications director for Change to Win, an organization of unions including SEIU and UFCW. “People are under extreme downward pressure right now when it comes to wages and the economy. A Walmart worker can’t afford to go shopping at Walmart.”

Questions Raised About Organizing Tactics

This miasma of gross economic inequality that now pervades American society highlights the pressing need to organize and empower the lowest-paid and most vulnerable sector of the work force. Excitement is growing over actions like the fast food workers’ strikes Thursday.

But while the urgency seems apparent, journalist Arun Gupta raised concerns about the tactics and motivations behind the fast food workers movement in a deeply researched investigative piece for In These Times.

Gupta interviewed 40 sources, “over half of those are organizers, low-wage workers and officials,” he said. The overriding issues workers and organizers raised are, “what are the end goals, what’s the strategy to achieve them, who are the decision-makers and how does that play out on a day-to-day basis on the ground.”

His investigation revealed that while the campaign has been portrayed as being grass roots and built from the ground up, evidence points to the Service Employees International Union directing it and pursuing a series of specific strategies: In addition to throwing its weight behind campaigns to increase the minimum wage, which have been successful at the state and local levels, SEIU has a detailed strategy it hopes will lead to unionizing fast-food workers.

It’s a four-part plan.

The first step is to challenge the legal distinction between the corporation and its franchise stores so that companies like McDonald’s can be held accountable for workplace violations that occur among its franchisees. Second, SEIU is compiling data on wage theft. Third, it wants to use that information to pressure fast-food corporations to allow workers to freely unionize without retaliation and to pick up any increased labor costs for franchises. Finally, it wants to leverage support on an international level by enlisting the support of organized labor in other countries to pressure the fast-food companies through protests and possible use of union pension funds.

“Nobody had talked about the strategy because there’s this conflation between the union leadership and the workers,” Gupta said. But his sources questioned whether the union leadership’s goals align with what’s best for the rank-and-file workers.

“The feeling among many workers is they are not going to end up with much. It’s not going to fundamentally change the industry or low-wage work,” Gupta said. “People are excited that this could fulfill Occupy Wall Street’s goal of challenging inequality, but there’s skepticism about that inside the campaign.”

Gupta’s sources described a scenario in which union leadership’s strategy is largely geared toward campaigning for the media but lacks the kind of shop-floor organizing needed at the work site and municipal level to build a strong, effective movement in which workers are united by solidarity, defend each other from employer retaliation and develop a democratic decision-making process.

Instead there is the impression that SEIU wants to build its numbers and sees democracy as something of a luxury, which is alienating workers, he said. But Gupta says that workers told him, “Democracy is not a light switch you can turn on and off.”

SEIU spokesman Carter Wright couldn’t be reached by phone for this article to respond but sent an email pointing to a University of California study that outlines the public cost of low wages paid to fast food workers that is being used to demand accountability. He also pointed to two recent viral Youtube videos panning McDonald’s for insulting advice given to workers to help them cope with their low wages, including “singing away stress” and selling Christmas gifts.

“Workers continue to hold meetings and reach out to workers at other stores to build their network and get more people involved in the campaign,” Wright wrote.

Despite the criticism, Gupta notes many workers are enthusiastic about the goals of being able to unionize and a $15 an hour wage, while being wary of what they see as questionable tactics pushed by SEIU’s leadership.

One of Gupta’s sources, who is part of the movement in Chicago, expressed concern about some of the tactics but credited SEIU for “pushing people out into the struggle.”

“It’s very easy to be critical of an organization like SEIU for its behind-closed-doors activities and top-down organizing,” the source told Gupta. “This is an instance when the labor bureaucracy is encouraging people to demonstrate, to go on strike, to take action in the workplace. And I’m excited about that.”

Restaurant Workers Join Struggle

Another sector of low-paid labor getting organized is restaurant workers, who are not only paid minimum wage but also suffer rampant wage theft.

Billions of dollars are withheld from low-wage workers via wage theft, an epidemic that is especially problematic in the restaurant industry. In Los Angeles County, employers steal a whopping $26 million a week from workers. Los Angeles has been deemed the “wage theft capital” by activists.

Erik Padilla, a Los Angeles server who worked at several L.A. restaurants and bars, said he never knew how much he’d be paid week to week.

“I would get paid biweekly. So in two weeks’ time I’d work 120 hours, and my check would come out to a certain amount. Another pay period, I worked the same amount of hours but my check came out to a different amount,” he said.

Padilla tried talking to the owner, but “he would always try to avoid settling the issue. I never got my money, but he would do it to everybody. I thought maybe it was a mistake that someone else made.”

Because Padilla needed the job, he stayed on and continued having his wages stolen until he was able to leave. But he found it kept happening no matter where he worked. A bar he worked at paid him less than minimum wage but got away with it by keeping it under the table.

“Another excuse was, ‘We didn’t make as much money this month, so we have to cut your check.’ The corporate places, it was more like, ‘If you have a problem with your pay stub, you have to call the corporate office.’ But it was not very helpful (to do so),” he said.

Workers seeking recourse can file their grievances with the state’s labor commission. But according to research by the National Employment Law Project, only 17 percent of workers are able to recoup stolen wages even if they win their cases.

Thanks to lobbying by the National Restaurant Association, the federal minimum wage for tipped workers has been frozen for more than 20 years at $2.13, but “the median wage even with tips is under $9 an hour,” Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) co-founder Saru Jayaraman told Al Jazeera’s Faultlines. At the state level, minimum wage for tipped workers varies.

“Basically, this industry is saying, ‘We don’t have to pay these workers at all. They should work for us, but we don’t have to pay them at all. You should pay them, as customers,” Jayaraman told Faultlines.

But workers in all sectors are coming together, despite intimidation and retaliation, to challenge inequality and exploitation.

Padilla now works with ROC’s Los Angeles branch to organize his colleagues.

“The most important thing is for people to stand together and fight for a cause,” Padilla said. “It can definitely happen. Something’s got to give.”

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