America has a history of workers going on strike for better wages and improved working conditions. In the first half of the 20th century, getting workers to join unions led to great advances for them. Some of the great unions – the United Auto Workers, the United Steel Workers and the United Mine Workers – changed the world for workers.
Together they and other unions formed the AFL-CIO. That organization oversaw improved standards of living for millions of American families.
In the second half of the 20th century, unions formed to support workers in jobs supported by taxpayers. Teachers, hospital workers and public employees joined unions such as the United Federation of Teachers (U.F.T.) and the Service Employees International Union (S.E.I.U.).
As the 21st century approached, things changed. First, manufacturing jobs moved to countries where wages were low. Second, computers allowed fewer middle-class workers to do more things. The result of these changes was that the power of unions waned. And workers in the U.S. saw their incomes go down and unemployment go up.
The fast-food industry is a good example of changes in the U.S. labor market. It employs a lot of workers, but it pays very low wages. Many of the jobs are part-time. None of the nation’s more than 200,000 restaurants have a union.
The S.E.I.U. is trying to change that. Its president said, “We think it is important to back low-wage workers. The ones who are willing to standup and strike to make the case.”
Workers are demonstrating at McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, Burger King and many other fast-food places. One demand is to increase the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Workers are also asking for cities and states to pass “living wage” laws. The goal is $15 an hour.
Disrupting services and unionizing the workers are two different things. No one knows what will work, but more workers and unions intend to keep trying.