Fast food strike: Changing the menu, altering the debate

Protester holds a sign at the fast-food worker walk off in Wilmington.

"If labor is going to grow again, it has to alter the terms of the debate."

Those words came from Janice Fine, a Rutgers University professor who specializes in worker centers, organizations that represent workers outside the collective bargaining relationship. The way Fine sees it, last week's round of fast-food worker walks offs had more than one mission. Yes, one goal was to help low-wage workers gain a pay raise. The protesters want to earn to $15 an hour. The ones I interviewed in Wilmington were earning $7.25, the minimum wage

The other, Fine said, was to "alter the terms of the debate."

She explained: "We’ve gotten to the point where it is totally normative [for employers facing a union organizing drive] to threaten to close shop, to fire people," even though all those tactics are against the law.

"At a moment, when the labor is at 7 percent of the private sector, it knows it has to do things radically different," she said. "The fact that SEIU is throwing its resources behind fast-food workers organizing, maybe something larger will take off from that. We don’t know if we can organize McDonald, or Burger King, but we know that low wage workers are being mistreated or underpaid. We know they are people really trying to make a living. We are going to show solidarity with them. We are going to act with them. We can bring a new kind of social movement moment to pass

"Once you do it, it makes it harder for employers to oppose unions with impunity," she said. "The idea is if you can shift the terms of debate, it’ll go back that it is a normal part of American life, to decide to be represented by a union."

If you've been following along this far, you may have already read my story about the walk-off in Wilmington and my Labor Day piece, in which I quoted Fine about labor's increasing reliance on community partners. Click here to read my coverage of the Labor Day parade and here to read my two previous blog posts on this topic, one quoting an SEIU official and the other quoting a Penn State professor, Doug Allen, on organizing today's scattered workforce.