An international one-day strike by fast-food workers is something new, and also something old. People without a union are organizing and acting in solidarity. Others are joining in support of their moral demand for a living wage. They’re holding rallies. They’re shutting down restaurants. They’re using Occupy’s people’s microphone. They’re targeting the one-percenter CEO of McDonald’s who apparently is paid $9,002 per hour for the public service of ruining our health with horrible tasting processed imitation food.
Jeremy Brecher has released a revised, expanded, and updated edition of his 40-year-old book, Strike, that includes the origins of these fast-food worker strikes and puts them in the context of a history of the strike in the United States dating back to 1877. This opening passage of Chapter 1 sets the context beautifully:
“In the centers of many American cities are positioned huge armories, grim nineteenth-century edifices of brick or stone. They are fortresses complete with massive walls and loopholes for guns. You may have wondered why they are there, but it has probably never occurred to you that they were built to protect America not against invasion from abroad but against popular revolt at home.”
And what revolts there have been! Brecher’s book should be read for inspiration. The most marginalized of workers have repeatedly taken matters into their own hands and won radical changes for the better. Success has followed selfless acts of solidarity. Failure has followed strategic calculation and compromise. The potential for greater victories has been frustrated time and again by the decision not to press working people’s advantage forward — a decision generally made by labor unions.
The vision of replacing capitalism has driven the efforts that have reformed it. A century ago, World War I provided the excuse to beat back workers. But their demands exploded upon the war’s conclusion. Workers took over Seattle and ran the city, effectively replacing the government. In the 1930s, coal miners opened their own coal mines. Unemployed workers during the great depression joined picket lines in support of striking workers rather than competing with them. Workers at a rubber factory in Akron developed the sit-down strike, which spread like wildfire and might work well in McDonald’s restaurants all over the world today. Customers could join workers by sitting in at tables and not eating. We could bring our own food; McDonald’s has internet.
Brecher’s book brings the story of strikes, including general strikes, up to the present. The lessons it teaches open up possibilities not usually considered. Brecher sums up what we’re up against:
“The ideology of the existing society exercises a powerful hold on workers’ minds. The longing to escape from subordination to the boss is often expressed in the dream of going into business for yourself, even though the odds against success are overwhelming. The civics book cliché that the American government represents the will of the people and is therefore legitimate survives even in those who find the government directly opposing their own needs in the interests of their employers. The desire to own a house, a car, or perhaps an independent business supports a belief in private property that makes expropriation of the great corporations seem to many a personal threat. The idea that everybody is really out for themselves, that it can be no other way, and that therefore the solution to one’s problems must come from beating other people rather than cooperating with them is inculcated over and over by the very structure of life in a competitive society.”
One day we will all strike, and we will strike for more than a day. We will strike until we replace the “very structure of life” with different ones. We’ll strike forever, occupy everything, and never give it back.