McJobs — not lovin’ it
Young workers mobilize against low pay and few prospects
Jed Holtz
volume 34
issue 6
December 2013

Michelle Osborn, 23, chants outside a McDonald’s in Flint, Mich., on July 31, 2013, during a strike by fast-food employees. The workers demanded that their low wages be “supersized,” with side orders of better conditions and the right to unionize. Credit: Jake May / The Flint Journal / AP Photo

Pundits define the Millennial Generation in the U.S. in contradictory ways: narcissistic but community-driven, entitled but civic-minded.

Educated and technologically savvy, the children of baby boomers were predicted to bring productivity and creativity to a changing economy — and the corporate fat cats were readying plans to cash in on a rising new consumer base. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Apple store: the economy melted down.

Born between 1980 and 2000, workers in their teens, twenties, and early thirties were just entering the job market when the economy took a nose dive in 2008. They were forced to compete for a dwindling supply of good jobs with older, more experienced workers, many of whom were unhappily delaying retirement. First-time workers got stuck in low-paying, dead-end jobs, their career plans derailed.

Joblessness is a plague, with unemployment averaging 18.4 percent for all 16- to 24-year-olds and 31 percent for Black high school graduates who aren’t continuing their education. These workers face the most shredded social safety net in decades. Gone or sharply reduced are unemployment insurance, food stamps, welfare, and other programs designed to help people through hard times. Add the crippling debt carried by many college grads, the fallout of spiked education costs, and the picture looks pretty dark!

But history is likely to define this generation less by the suffering they endure, and more by the powerful political shift they are bringing about.

A global ticking time bomb. On a world scale, young workers are 17 percent of the population, but 40 percent of the unemployed. In the region of the Middle East and North Africa, youth unemployment rages at over 25 percent; in Greece and Spain, at 57 percent. But these devastating statistics are creating global outrage and resistance, with youth on the front lines. From Chile to Egypt to Canada, young people have occupied universities, streets, and squares to stop the robbery of their future.

Moreover, each struggle helps build the next one, across borders and continents. The first participants in Occupy Wall Street were inspired by the indignados in Spain and young Egyptians of the Arab Spring to reclaim public space and the narrative around income inequality in the U.S.

Occupy was a powerful political expression — and a flexing of nascent political muscles for young people in the U.S. But it was unable to deliver real change. While it ignited a culture of resistance on the streets, it didn’t spread to the workplace — until now. Young workers are standing up, and a movement is taking root in the fertile soil of the fast food and retail industries.

Reviving the strike. Since November 2012, fast food workers have hit their bosses with a series of one-day strikes. Their key demands: A $15-an-hour minimum wage and the right to unionize. In August, 62 cities saw walkouts, including in the U.S. South.

The various campaigns for fast food workers, such as Fight For 15 in Chicago, D-15 in Detroit, and Fast Food Forward in New York, are funded and given a polished media spin by Service Employees International Union. OurWalmart, helping retail workers, is driven by United Food and Commercial Workers. Despite many problems, including a top-down organizing style by union officials, these efforts are helping young workers, a majority of them workers of color and female. The organizing offers a path to fight for their rights, become part of a workers’ movement, and gain the confidence to assert their own power. These campaigns are also helping to raise the aspirations of workers in other industries.

What has caused young workers to step out from behind the counter? That these jobs offer poverty wages and the most exploitative conditions is nothing new. What has changed is perspective.

Little to lose. Unlike the past, retail and fast-food jobs are no longer perceived as entry-level jobs that ladder up to a better future. They are the main option in a market that has been emptied of living wage jobs in public service or manufacturing. Mid-level and high-paying jobs have made up 76 percent of all losses in the recession. By contrast, the fast food industry is growing — and making record profits! As the jobless “recovery” drags on, young workers feel trapped, and the risks of organizing seem worth it. There isn’t much to lose.

And there is lots to win. Stagnant low wages are just one problem. Another huge issue is arbitrary scheduling. Constantly fluctuating shifts keep employees below 30 hours, a common threshold to qualify for benefits. Hours changing week to week, based on management’s whims, also make working a sorely needed second job near impossible. Wage theft by bosses is common. Immigrants, many of whom are undocumented and fear retribution for speaking out, are especially victimized.

Yet, despite their vulnerability, immigrants are among the most militant and dedicated leaders in this burgeoning movement. Carlos Hernandez, 21, organized co-workers at his Subway shop in Seattle to participate in the strike movement. “When workers come together, there’s hope for the conditions to change. If we don’t come together, there will be the same conditions for our kids,” he tells the Freedom Socialist. Management wants to stop this movement. In September, Hernandez was fired in retaliation for his organizing efforts. So now, with others, he is waging a campaign to win his job back and stop retaliation. The plan: boycott Subway until justice is won. See for how to help.

In standing up for each other, fast food workers are learning the meaning of solidarity, and breaking through the fear and isolation that bosses depend upon. They are also discovering anew the tools that have aided labor in the past — the union and the strike.

Taking back the future. With conditions unlikely to change anytime soon, this fight is likely to escalate. Already the movement, still in its infancy, is having great impact. Talk of raising the minimum wage is back on the political table, and legislators who want the votes of young people are jumping on board.

As the FS goes to press, a $15-an-hour minimum wage measure is narrowly passing in the city of SeaTac, Wash. If it succeeds, it will raise the wages of 6,300 transportation and hospitality workers.

Big business is challenging the measure in court. And, undoubtedly, it will take a mass movement to make this gain widespread. But victories like the one in SeaTac show that wages can be raised, and they will inspire other efforts.

Fast food and Walmart workers are in the lead now. But, as the recession drags on, more young workers will be radicalized by the realities of capitalism in an era of permanent decline. For Millennials, what could be the historic take-back of their future has only just begun.

Contact Jed Holtz, a set designer in Brooklyn, N.Y., at