Fast-food worker strikes, ‘alt-labor’ movement spreading

A wave of strikes by fast-food and other low-wage workers continues to spread in major cities around the country as employees take action to increase their pay and gain other workplace rights and benefits. Strikes have taken place in New York City, Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, and Milwaukee as the movement appears to be gaining strength.

The workers are not unionized and work in jobs traditionally not targeted by labor unions because the fast-food industry often relies on teen workers holding part-time and seasonal jobs. Since the recession, however, more adults with families have turned to jobs in the fast-food industry.

A statement from Armstrong Teasdale LLP, which has offices in St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri, and edits Missouri Employment Law Letter, points out that the recent wave of strikes differs from traditional labor unrest. “Although strikes are often associated with labor unions, the workers involved in these impromptu strikes are not unionized. Instead, the efforts are being supported by a coalition of organizations, including labor groups, nominally coined ‘alt-labor,’ that are not legally unions,” the statement says.

Just because the workers aren’t unionized doesn’t mean the strikers aren’t protected by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the law firm’s statement points out. The NLRA gives workers the right to engage in concerted activities to improve their pay and other terms and conditions of employment.

Armstrong Teasdale warns employers to take care in disciplining or discharging employees engaged in protected concerted activities such as a strike. “Even though failing to report for work or even walking out during the middle of a shift impacts an employer’s operations and may in fact violate an attendance policy, depending on the circumstances, an employer may actually be prohibited from disciplining [employees] or questioning them about such protected activities,” the firm’s statement says.

However, employees aren’t protected in some cases such as when they engage in “recognitional picketing,” the firm’s statement says. “This occurs when employees, and perhaps nonemployees, picket an employer with the goal of obtaining recognition. When employees (and nonemployees) picketed Wal-Mart on Black Friday, Wal-Mart filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board [NLRB].” The charge was resolved when the union involved agreed to stop organizing the employees.

‘Alt-labor’ efforts

One of the workers’ efforts, dubbed the “Fight for 15,” includes an online petition started by workers in Chicago. The workers’ website says they’re demanding $15 per hour and the right to form a union without retaliation. “Employers like McDonalds, Whole Foods, and Sears are raking in enormous profits while workers like us, mostly adults with families, don’t get paid enough to cover basic needs like food, rent, health care, and transportation,” the website says.

New York City workers have joined together to form Fast Food Forward. The group’s website says it is part of a national movement of low-wage workers. The group’s website proclaims, “We can’t survive on $7.25!”

Although the workers aren’t unionized, organized labor is weighing in on their efforts. Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), released a statement on May 9 in support of the St. Louis strikers. According to Henry, “These workers are taking a stand and sending a clear message that they will not sit idly by and continue to make do with so little while the rewards of their hard labor go to already wealthy CEOs. … The 2.1 million SEIU members stand in solidarity with these workers and support their fight for higher wages.”