more signs of life in the labour movement: non-union workers rising

Of all the reasons for hope that we've seen in recent times - Wisconsin, the Occupy Movement, the Quebec students' actions, the Chicago teachers' strike - this trend gives me the most joy and the most hope. Here are three stories of non-unionized workers organizing themselves to change conditions in their own workplaces.

In September, New York City restaurant workers walked off the job and won a historic victory against their oppressive and vindictive employer.
The restaurant workers who were fired and locked out of their store for organizing a union have won after a week of escalating protests outside the Manhattan cafe. Saturday afternoon, the owner declared that he had bowed to the workers demands to reopen the store, rehire all the workers and recognize their newly formed union, an inspiring labor victory at a time when many are attacking the power of unions.

The 23 workers at the Upper East Side Hot and Crusty, which is one of a string of 24-hour cafes in New York City, have been organizing against the chain's exploitative boss for nearly a year. After enduring below minimum wage pay and verbal and sexual harassment, the workers reached out to labor organizations and began attending Occupy Wall Street meetings last fall. With the support of OWS and the Laundry Workers Center, a volunteer organizing group, the workers organized an independent union, the Hot and Crusty Workers Association, this spring. They won thousands of dollars in backpay and safer workplace conditions.

Two weeks ago, however, the workers learned that the owner, private equity investor Mark Samson, planned to close the restaurant and fire all the workers. . . .
Read more here. Go, read more! It's great.

More recently in New York City, 200 fast-food employees walked off their jobs, demanding a $15/hour minimum pay. (You try to live in New York City on $7.25/hour. It can't be done.)
Two hundred workers from dozens of fast food outlets in New York City—including McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Domino's, and Taco Bell—walked off their jobs Thursday morning to demand $15 an hour in pay and the right to form their own independent union, according to the organizers of Fast Food Forward.

It is the largest strike ever in the United States against the $200-billion-a-year fast food industry and represents the latest in a wave of collective actions by low-wage workers to change conditions in their industries and, in many cases, to form unions. . . . .

Bill Young, 26, went on strike from a McDonald's near 40th Street and Madison Avenue in Manhattan. "It's kind of hard dealing with things on a low income," he said. He makes $7.25 an hour, and unlike many fast food workers he typically works 40 hours a week, even though his work hours are erratic and can be spread over six or seven days of part-time work. "If you think about it," he said, "it's still not enough" to pay rent ($550 a month, nearly half his pre-tax income), help support his two children (one of whom lives with him), and meet other basic expenses.

"It's the money," he said, explaining why he is striking and wants a union, "but it's also the favoritism, no benefits, the schedules — our schedules change every week. It's hard for me to go back to school or get my daughter." A high school drop-out, he wants to go to culinary school, but he can't due to McDonald's erratic scheduling. Young also says his manager makes employees do many tasks "off the clock," illegally forcing them to work without pay before or after punching in. (According to a second employee, the manager has been fired.)

Fast Food Forward started organizing among the 50,000 fast food workers in New York City at the start of the year. Its sponsors are community, labor, clergy and other groups, including United New York (a coalition), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and New York Communities for Change, a successor to the defunct community organization ACORN and the main organizing force for Fast Food Forward and in the formation of unions to lift up standards for the burgeoning low-wage economy. "We can't wait for the economy to produce better jobs," said Jonathan Westin, the lead organizer on Communities for Change's fast food worker campaign. "The economy won't grow as long as people's paychecks are so low. It's that simple." . . . .

In New York, Raymond Lopez, 21, a shift manager after 2.5 years at a McDonald's in Midtown, also has to work a part-time job to supplement the $8.75 he makes at McDonald's. Still, "that's not enough to make ends meet," he said, especially when he's paying $600 a month in rent for his single room. "These companies could pay more, a reasonable wage, and still make money."

Although he was off work today, he still considered himself one of the 14 or so strikers from his McDonald's, which has about 40 total employees. More workers support the idea of a union, he said, but they're afraid of losing their jobs. "I still am a little nervous," Lopez acknowledged in a phone interview from a picket line, but the Walmart strike helped. "We were still going to do it anyway, but it shows it can be done....I'm going to work tomorrow, but there's so much attention to this strike, it would be smart for them not to fire us."

"I know things are not going to change overnight," he said. "One strike is not enough. But we'll go with the flow."
The fast-food industry is maintained by underpaid workers all through the supply chain (as well as exploited and abused animals). Michelle Chen of in these times reports on food supply chain workers adopting the tactics of the radical labour group IWW. (Yes, it's another Wobblies reference at wmtc! Just wait til I read this book!)
Once upon a time in the labor movement, a rebellious vanguard emerged at the margins of American industry, braiding together workers on society’s fringes — immigrants, African Americans, women, unskilled laborers — under a broad banner of class struggle.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or Wobblies, raised hell in the early 20th century with unapologetically militant protests and strikes.

Their vision of a locally rooted, globally oriented anti-capitalist movement was eclipsed by mainstream unions, which had more political muscle. But grassroots direct action is today undergoing a resurgence in the corners of the workforce that have remained isolated from union structures.

Such alternative campaigns have a special resonance in today’s food industries, which employ the roughly 20 million people (one-sixth of the total workforce) who harvest, process, distribute and sell the food we eat. This marginalized, low-wage group is hungry for organizing models that move as nimbly as the corporations that run the production chains. The IWW’s signature organizing model, syndicalism (which prioritizes direct action in the workplace), meshes with the growing trend in the labor movement toward less bureaucratic labor groups, such as worker centers and immigrant advocacy campaigns. Flexible mobilization that doesn’t require formal votes or union certification is well-suited to precarious laborers seeking to outmaneuver the multinationals.

Since 2007, the Wobbly-affiliated coalition Focus on the Food Chain (FOFC) has empowered workers in New York City’s food sectors to challenge abusive employers on the streets and in the courts. The group—an alliance between the local IWW and the advocacy group Brandworkers International—aims to “carry out member-led workplace justice campaigns to transform the industry” and focuses on the oft-neglected links between farm and fridge. According to Brandworkers Executive Director Daniel Gross, these processing and distribution industries are a “sweatshop corridor.”

“The business model,” he says, “is exploitation of recent immigrants.”

But in New York, the workers at these companies—some of which cater to high-end natural gourmet markets—are tied into the local food system as consumers as well. So groups such as Brandworkers envision empowering working-class communities holistically, with well-paying jobs that ensure families’ access to the literal fruits of their labor. In the long term, Gross says, FOFC aims to “transform this sector to provide the good manufacturing jobs that we want to see and to create a sustainable food system that provides fresh local food.”

That vision is far from fulfilled, but workplace-based campaigns have yielded victories. In Brandworkers’ lawsuit against the Queens-based distributor Beverage Plus, a federal court awarded $950,000 in damages to Latino warehouse workers and drivers who complained of wage theft and harsh working conditions, including up-to-12-hour days. FOFC also challenged local kosher foods producer Flaum Appetizing, a company notorious for underpaying and abusing immigrant employees. In a two-pronged strategy, FOFC launched a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board for discriminatory retaliation against immigrant workers, and also worked with an Orthodox community activist group to pressure some 120 grocery stores to stop doing business with Flaum until it met workers’ demands. The disputes ended earlier this year, with workers winning a $577,000 settlement.

On a national scale, advocacy and
 community groups (including Brandworkers) have organized the Food
Chain Workers Alliance, promoting economically and ecologically sustainable ways of eating. Member groups have campaigned for the rights of restaurant staff and of child farmworkers, and have established “fair food procurement” principles to pressure employers for solid wages, better working conditions and the use of local food.
Read more here.

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