In the largest strike to ever hit the US fast food industry, non-union workers in seven major cities walked off the job last week to demand living wages and the right to organize. In Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Flint, St. Louis, and New York, workers struck for $15 an hour and the ability to organize without retaliation from employers.
The strike has received widespread attention for its significance for the labor movement and the American working class. Journalist Josh Eidelson explains, “It’s a dramatic showdown between an embattled labor movement and an industry that increasingly not only is prevalent in the United States economy, but really represents where jobs are going in the United States economy.”
The strike has brought national attention to the new face of labor – and poverty – in the US. What has received less attention is that this new face of American labor is disproportionately people of color and immigrants. And the struggle over wages and the right to organize are also issues of racial justice.
Maria Myotte of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC) writes: “The restaurant industry is the largest employer of people of color in the US, not coincidentally, it is also the largest low-wage employer in the country.” As ROC’s new report demonstrates, it’s also “the second largest employer of immigrants” in the country.
Even within the restaurant industry, people of color are over-represented in the lowest paid positions. Myotte explains:
“Seven of the ten lowest-paying jobs and the two absolute lowest paying jobs in the country are restaurant jobs. People of color represent 32% of the total workforce, yet comprise 40% of the nation’s tipped workers. Workers of color are disproportionately concentrated in the restaurant industry’s lowest paying positions; dishwashers and fast food preps/cooks are 59% and 35% people of color, respectively. As a result of this systemic racial inequity, 58% of workers with incomes below the poverty line and more than half of all tipped workers with incomes below the poverty line are people of color. In fact, restaurant workers are three times as likely to live below the poverty line and use food stamps at twice the rate of the rest of the US workforce.”
As restaurant industry workers, and within the restaurant industry itself, people of color face consistently lower wages. And while ROC United is focusing on a separate campaign to raise the federally tipped minimum wage, its campaign – and analysis – are deeply connected to last week’s walkouts.
Organizations representing the restaurant industry have pushed back against the strike with an ad arguing higher wages will hurt workers and consumers by forcing the industry to automate more of its service positions.
The anti-immigrant Center for Immigration Studies also attacked ROC in a blog on Friday, outing one of its organizers as undocumented, and accusing ROC of being an amnesty front group without sincere concerns for American workers or healthy food. The article’s argument hinges on the assumption that the interests of immigrant workers and citizens are opposed, and ignores the ways in which the well being and wages of all workers are deeply intertwined. The lack of protection of workers’ rights – to organize, to sick days, and to a living wage – hurt immigrants as well as citizens. Workers of color and immigrants are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and systemic discrimination at the workplace. Such vulnerability – in part created and maintained by labor laws and immigration laws – results in lower wages for all workers. Fighting against racism and economic exploitation at work is an essential component of a broader labor struggle, just like economic justice is vital to the struggle against racism. And both are at the heart of the campaign to raise wages for restaurant industry workers.