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Behind the Cash Register

fastfoodbannerMcDonald’s is one of the most famous and richest companies on the planet. It has built a fast food empire of drive-thrus and burgers, and its owners live in immeasurable wealth. But its success has not coincided with the betterment of the lives of McDonald’s workers, and ultimately, that will be the undoing of all of the exploitation.

Working conditions are agonizing at McDonald’s. Overheating, wage-theft, unpaid overtime, the crushing stress of the rush, an illegal lack of breaks—this is the hell McDonald’s employees suffer through daily. Workers are often given too few hours to subsist on or long work days that can start in the early morning and end late in the evening; they are either overworked or underemployed.

To the bosses, they are just another cog in a money-making machine to grind until it no longer turns. McDonald’s workers can smell this injustice even after two showers; the stench of grease clings to their hair, takes up residence in the back of their nostrils, permeates their very fingernails.

Wages, too, are deplorable. McDonald’s enjoys an eleven figure annual net income, but they hire at minimum wage. They are also famous for being viciously antiunion. In the 1994–97 McLibel case, it joked about “quashing” more than 400 potential unions globally in the 1970s alone. But for all of its savage unionbusting, low wages, and unbearable working conditions, its workers are springing back up with a power only the working class can harness.

We are seeing the first tremors of a fast food workers’ movement with the waves of strikes that have recently swept the nation. One of the organizations at the vanguard of this movement is Fast Food Forward (FFF).

FFF originated from last fall’s New York City strikes, led by employees of McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King, and other fast food chains. Inspired by the Black Friday actions against Walmart, they are determined to win “Higher Pay for a Stronger New York.”

Although they specialize in fast food workers, FFF has also joined with other low wage workers alongside organizations like Our Walmart. Many of the most oppressed layers of the working class, including women, blacks, and Latinos, have been the most active folks organizing in their workplaces.

Fast Food Forward led the fast food strikes in late July. More than a hundred workers marched down Union Square demanding that the bosses “supersize” their wages to a minimum of $15. The campaign quickly spread from New York to other major cities, including Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City and more.

What was the spark that led to this movement? The air conditioning of a Washington Heights’ McDonald’s broke, and a worker fainted from the heat. The workers had been telling the manager for weeks to fix the AC to no avail. After the workers rushed the person to the hospital, they went on strike.

Such crimes happen every day in workplaces around the world. The health of workers is regularly put in jeopardy by the capitalists, employees’ complaints are rarely heard, and fast food workers have been stripped of dignity for decades. But things have reached a breaking point. In the deepest crisis of capitalism, what used to be tolerable is now unacceptable. Accident expresses necessity.

Soon there was an insurgence of strikes in all five boroughs, particularly in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The demands are simple: higher wages and safer conditions. As Marxists, we welcome these developments. We stand shoulder to shoulder with our class. However, we also must explain the limitations of these initial demands if they are not expanded.

Capitalism is at an impasse. The only way through this crisis for the bosses is through the slashing of wages and living conditions for the workers. Even the bourgeois economists admit any recovery is at least a decade away. Such a recovery will be over the graves of the workers’ and youths’ hopes and dreams for a livable existence.

No matter how sincere their intentions, if the leadership of organizations like Fast Food Forward refuse to break with the representatives and ideas of capitalism, they are betraying American workers to the jaws of Wall Street.

What is desperately needed now is for organized labor to elevate the struggle to the political sphere. This cannot be accomplished by tail-ending the Democrats—who pay lip service to the working class while never straying in policy from the interests of capital.

If the working class is to secure a livable wage and safe working conditions, its organizations must be independent, relying on their own forces and not those against it. Without a mass party of labor, there will be little hope for the needs and wants of American workers.

However, even this would only be the beginning if the working class is to triumph. Ultimately, we must also struggle for socialism. Under socialism, the masses would democratically see to our economic, social, and political needs.

The struggle of the fast food workers is an exciting development in the class struggle in the US. In the years ahead, millions more will join their sisters and brothers in struggle, and the face of America­—and the planet­—will be changed forever.

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