In the United States, Labor Days is celebrated the first Monday of September. It does not have the same energy or internationalism as May 1, and its meaning is diluted by the massive discounts at supermarkets. But the festivity is part of the history of the American workers’ movement. It dates back to 1894 and is the product of some of the most radical 19th century struggles conducted by socialists and anarchist unions.
On Monday, workers’ voices were heard, especially those in the “Fight for 15” movement, which has led a vibrant battle for a minimum wage of $15 for years. From Chicago to Memphis, from Kansas City to Los Angeles, Buffalo and Cleveland, leading the parades and the speaker’s corners were the chefs, waiters and cashiers at McDonald’s and Burger King, along with trade unions (SEIU, AFL-CIO) which are battling for an increase of the hourly wage from $11 to $15, trade union rights, health care and other basic benefits that are almost unheard of for those who work in the poor services sector with ultra-precarious contracts.
The American national strike has had a global echo and reached Italy, France, Japan and Great Britain, where the first McDonald’s strike was held in 1974, when the American company opened its British branch of activities; today, it employs 85,000 people in 1,249 restaurants. Worldwide, McDonald’s employs over a million employees.
“For the past 25 years,” says Eva Cruz, who works at a Burger King in Miami, “I’ve worked for a company that has refused to pay me more than a minimum wage: After all these years, I am still paid $8.10. Nine years ago, I tried to retire, but it was financially unsustainable. Now I am 74 years old and I still work. If I had a trade union to join in, the world would be a better place for me.”
“With a minimum wage of $15,” says Zena Mberwa, a Wendy’s fast food chain worker in Kansas City, “I could pay my bills on time and I could give my kids what they needed without hesitation. I could also help my relatives in Africa when they need me.”
In London, 200 people protested in front of the Parliament on Monday, 40 of them work at the McDonald’s restaurants in Cambridge and Crayford, in southeastern London. Labour politician John McDonnell was there. He defined the protest as both British and global. “These workers are extremely vulnerable, but they have the courage to strike,” he said.
The mobilization also received the support of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn: “They demand the abolition of contracts with zero hours by the end of the year, the acknowledgement of the union and a minimum wage of £10.”
The company replied that the protesters accounted for 0.01 percent of their British employees and recalled that last April, a proposal was submitted to the workers: choosing between a flexible and a “fixed” contract with a minimum number of guaranteed hours. McDonald’s argues that 86 percent of the workforce chose to remain flexible.
“The best security for workers,” replied McDonnell, “is the recognition of a trade union so that disputes can be resolved and negotiated without coming to a strike.” Ian Hodson, Secretary of the Bakers’ National Trade Union and Allied Food Workers Union (Bfawu), said McDonald’s began offering two-week contracts with more guarantees to workers, probably due to the ongoing mobilization.
“McDonald’s has endless opportunities to resolve these disputes by offering a decent pay,” Hodson added. “For too long, workers are suffering from hunger, drastic cuts in working hours, and even mobbing at work as punishment for joining the union.”