IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Seattle on strike: Fast food labor fight reaches West Coast

Fast food workers in Seattle, Wash., initiated a work stoppage Wednesday night in the first strike of its kind to occur in the American West.

Fast food workers in Seattle, Wash., initiated a work stoppage Wednesday night in the first strike of its kind to occur in the American West. Like the strikers in New York, St. Louis, Detroit, Chicago and Milwaukee, fast food workers in Seattle are demanding a wage of $15 per hour and the right to form a union without retaliation.

Organizers have not yet provided a rough headcount for the number of participating workers, but similar labor actions in other cities have included anywhere between 100 and 400 strikers. The Seattle strike began at 10:30 p.m. Wednesday night, when employees at a Taco Bell walked off the job and forced the store to close due to understaffing. More work stoppages are expected to occur all through Thursday, at outlets such as McDonald's, Chipotle, Subway, and Burger King—at least two other stores have already been closed.

"It's amazing how we don't have a voice; how we didn't use to have a voice," said Alfonso Arellano, a Seattle-area Taco Del Mar employee who is participating in the strike. "But it's just amazing how all the fast food workers are right here asking for justice, better pay, being respected."

Arellano, who makes $10 per hour, began attending meetings with other fast food workers about a month ago, after being approached by an organizer related to the campaign. Called Good Jobs Seattle, the campaign is backed by local progressive coalition Working Washington. As is the case with all of the recent strikes, the campaign appears to be composed of a mix of local community groups and workers, with a little assistance from national organizations such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

One of those local groups was Washington Community Action Network (Washington CAN), a progressive lobbying group with an estimated 40,000 members. Washington CAN executive director Will Pittz said that the state's activist community got the idea for the strike after observing similar actions in cities like New York and Chicago, but that it began to grow organically once the first handful of workers were recruited.

"We started reaching out to workers and workers started reaching out to each other," he said.

At $9.19 per hour, Washington has the highest minimum wage in the country. That makes it the only state to have a minimum wage higher than the $9 federal minimum wage hike which President Obama proposed at his most recent State of the Union. But Arellano said it still wasn't enough to live on.

"There's fast food workers that have two kids, three kids, one car, and some of them don't even pay insurance," he said. "Because the fact is, they don't even have the money. It's just not fair."

While federal law requires that employers pay "time-and-a-half" for overtime work, Arellano said he does not receive that amount when he works beyond his regularly allotted hours. But when workers complain about insufficient pay or related issues, "they just cut your hours without any reason."

“Burger King restaurants offer compensation and benefits that are consistent with the QSR [Quick-Service Restaurant] industry," a Burger King spokesperson told The Nation's Josh Eidelson in response to a query about prior strikes. "Burger King Corp. does not make employment-related decisions for our franchisees.”

Fast food employees are not the only low-wage workers to go on strike recently. The Walmart Black Friday strike was the first landmark moment in the past six months' wave of low-wage worker activism, and Walmart workers again walked off the job this Tuesday. Employees of federal contractors also staged a strike earlier this month.

The low-wage workers' movement seems to be slowly gaining traction among prominent Democratic officials. New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman is currently investigating allegations of wage theft within the state's fast food industry, thanks in part to a report released by Fast Food Forward, the organizing campaign for New York City strikers. And in a recent interview with msnbc, Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Keith Ellison said that his caucus' Raise Up America campaign was "to a certain extent ... part of the same movement" as the fast food strikers.

In Seattle, said Pittz, the fast food campaign is "just getting started." But what comes next is up to the workers.

"I think what form Good Jobs Seattle takes remains to be seen," he said. "But we do know this is a powerful kickoff that is both raising public awareness and laying the groundwork for some future organizing."