Poor Workers' Unions tells the story of overlooked but essential organizing campaigns since the 1960s to rebuild unions among low-wage and excluded workers. Author Vanessa Tait reminds us that, only through a deep commitment to the hard work of rank-and-file organizing, can labor hope to win. Thanks to permission from Haymarket Books, The Forge is proud to present the excerpt, “A McJobs Economy,” a history of some of the earliest efforts to organize fast food workers, a precursor to today’s Fight for $15. Indeed, many of the organizers interviewed for this chapter went on to spend their careers helping to build labor and progressive organizations that contributed to the renewal of today’s left. 


This material was originally published in Poor Workers' Unions: Rebuilding Labor from Below, and has been reproduced by permission of Haymarket Books.


While employees in the auto, steel, and manufacturing industries had faced corporate layoffs and cutbacks in the late ’70s, the low-wage service sector was skyrocketing. In early 1982, when service-sector jobs surpassed those in manufacturing for the first time, the low-wage burger empire McDonald’s, it was estimated, employed more than twice as many people as US Steel. Fast-food chains accounted for $24 billion in annual sales, more than a third of the entire restaurant industry. Other rapidly expanding low-wage sectors included home care, janitorial, and hotel and restaurant (or “hospitality”). Within geographic regions, these occupations collectively constituted industries peopled by poor workers. Why not organize them using the lessons of the CIO in the 1930s — across job titles, encompassing the whole industry? 

If trade unions would not take up the challenge, community organizers would. “In the best of worlds, low-paid workers would organize into [AFL-CIO] labor unions,” wrote one ACORN organizer. “There are no indications, however, that this is about to happen.” In response, ACORN’s United Labor Unions adopted key structures of trade unionism. A formal union constitution laid out rules for membership, dues, and a democratic structure that included workplace chapters, local unions, councils, and districts, and a national executive board, and declared it an independent organization “run by our members.” Though formally separate from ACORN, the constitution noted, the union shared ACORN’s broad goal of “economic justice for low and moderate income people in the neighborhoods and in the workplace. [The two groups would] work together in any way that will benefit our members and all low and moderate income people.” 

Along with continuing the organizing of the unemployed and welfare recipients pioneered by earlier groups, this new union would embrace a “new style and new models of organizing low wage workers, focusing more on direct action and worker-community linkages and less on the legalistic framework of National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) procedures.” This lack of interest in, or concern with, the traditional instruments of labor relations would allow United Labor Unions to maintain a fluid movement style, as opposed to a legalistic or bureaucratic style. The ULU’s constituency was a multiracial and multilingual mix of African American, Latina and Latino, Caribbean, Asian American, and white workers. Its organizing staff of twenty three were racially diverse and nearly equally male and female. United Labor Unions started organizing in cities where Jobs and Justice activities had been particularly effective — Philadelphia, Detroit, New Orleans and Boston. It surveyed each city’s economy for likely organizing targets, choosing whole industries if possible. 

In Detroit, where plant doors were slamming shut and low-wage service work was expanding, organizers picked the fast-food industry. Workers at Detroit’s two big national franchises, McDonald’s and Burger King, were mostly African American teens paid minimum wage with no benefits. In December 1979 four ULU organizers, two Black and two white, began walking into local fast-food franchises, ordering burgers and sodas, and talking up the need for a union with the cashiers.

Contrary to the organizers’ expectations, organizing proceeded at a lightning pace. By February 1980 Detroit’s ULU was hosting city wide meetings with workers from nine separate outlets. In some locations, organizers signed up the majority of the workforce in a day. In others it was impossible to speak to workers on the job, so organizers made home visits. In all cases ULU staffers set up organizing committees of rank-and-file employees, helping them to run their own campaigns and set up pickets and demonstrations. On February 22, 1980, two months into the organizing drive, the fifty-three employees of the Burger King in the Greyhound terminal in downtown Detroit voted for representation in an NLRB-sponsored election, making it the first unionized fast-food franchise in the United States. Workers in three McDonald’s and two other Burger King franchises also filed for NLRB elections. 

The Detroit Free Press characterized the organizing campaign as a “classical, old-style union battle,” with wealthy corporate employers facing off against “a neophyte union led by four young men who have backgrounds in community organization, a large amount of enthusiasm and drive, staffed by a growing population of workers who can’t find much good to say about their employers.” Indeed, the young workers soon threw themselves into the fight to sign up their fellow workers and run the campaign. They published a newsletter in which columns like “Your Boss and the Law” informed coworkers about the right to organize. Employees at McDonald’s challenged a manager to a debate in one issue of the newsletter and ridiculed him later when he declined the invitation. Nearly every issue included hand-drawn satirical cartoons,such as bosses standing over employees with whips, or company mascot Ronald McDonald stuffing his pockets with money, singing the praises of a nonunion workplace. 

Thanks to Detroit’s prolabor culture, community support was strong. Sympathizers joined pickets outside stores, asking customers to boycott the franchise until management signed a pledge acknowledging the right to unionize. At one Burger King franchise, workers confronted a manager with a demand that she sign an agreement recognizing the union. When she refused, picketers — both off-duty workers and community supporters — turned away 90 percent of the store’s business. Prominent religious, community, and labor leaders signed an open letter supporting the organizing campaign. The United Auto Workers as well as locals of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees lent their support, though other unions were notably absent from endorsement lists, presumably because the ULU local was not affiliated with the AFL-CIO. The autoworkers’ support was “a bright spot” in a difficult campaign, wrote organizer Daniel Cantor, noting an important connection: “The sons and daughters of UAW members who led the McDonald’s drives were merely continuing the family tradition.” 

Detroit’s ULU was contacted by workers interested in organizing at other fast-food outlets, such as Church’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken. But the initial victories were followed by the realization that workers faced an uphill battle, with multinational corporations taking the offensive and sparing no expense to fight union drives.The ULUs were a “headache,” industry spokespeople told the Washington Post in 1981, due to their role in a successful lobbying campaign to defeat a subminimum-wage proposal in Congress that year. Republican senator Orrin Hatch’s bill would have allowed employers to pay teenagers 75 percent of minimum wage for the first six months of employment. Dubbed “the McDonald’s amendment,” it would have been a financial boon to the industry, whose own trade association calculated that 16 percent of the nation’s 1.5 million working teenagers were fast-food workers. 

Fast-food franchise owners opposed the union campaign, holding “captive audience” meetings with their employees to argue against the union on work time, offering workers perks and small pay raises to undercut support for the union, and firing union activists. “They fired all our key leaders, who were just sixteen or seventeen years old,” recalls Cantor. Challenging a termination in the legal system took time and was received coldly by the conservative, Reagan-appointed NLRB. It almost always meant the loss of a member/activist, who moved on to another low-wage job somewhere else while waiting months — or years — for a verdict. When one Burger King supervisor harassed an employee in May 1981 for wearing a union button, it took two and a half years to settle the case.

The fast-food industry’s exceptionally high turnover rates — conservatively estimated at 100 percent per year — meant that new activists came and went at an astonishingly fast pace. Even wide employee and community support was not enough to prevail against such turnover combined with management’s antiunion assault. Detroit’s fast-food workers ended up voting in several more union elections — three at McDonald’s franchises in April 1980 and one at a Burger King in June 1980 — but all failed. At the end of the campaign, only a single unionized outlet remained — the Burger King at the Detroit Greyhound station. Even there, employer challenges to the election process delayed bargaining for over three years.


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