Lessons from Fast Food Strikes
In April 2015, tens of thousands of workers, in well over 200 U.S. cities and in 40 nations, rallied for higher wages and benefits. This growing movement is getting attention and having an impact, providing lessons for communicators.
The most effective communicators on this issue are Making it About All of Us.
By default, we all normally think of jobs as personal. Pay, benefits and working conditions are matters for the employer and employee to settle. It can seem like “none of our business” – certainly not something outsiders have responsibility to resolve.
But to make it easier to build broad support for job quality policies, it is essential for communicators to turn the conversation into one that’s about all of us, one where we all have a stake, and a reason to take a stand – not just the workers in particular jobs or industries.
The most effective communicators on fast food strikes (which has now grown to include a range of workers in low wage jobs), whether they are experts, policymakers, advocates, or strikers themselves, connect the issue to “all of us” in four ways:
Connect personal wages to collective benefits: Topos research found that people want to support higher wages and benefits, but worry it will hurt businesses and the economy. Shining a light on how the economy really works avoids that obstacle and helps people see shared stakes:
For our communities and economy to thrive, jobs need to pay at least enough to let people spend on the basics. Economy-busting jobs pay so little that people can’t afford food, or to go the doctor, or to make basic repairs, which hurts all of us, as the economy slows down. Economy-boosting jobs that raise the wage and benefits floor create stronger communities and a better economy for all of us.
When strikers ask for higher wages or better benefits, they are directly living out the “boost or bust” story: They are pushing for compensation that will not only provide their own households with greater financial security, but will benefit their communities, as more people are able to engage in the buying-and-selling that keep local economies going.
“Now, it’s not just about fast food workers,” said Kendall Fells, organizing director for Fast Food Forward, in an interview with MSNBC. “Just about every low-wage service sector industry is getting involved, which is pretty much the heart of the American economy.”
“Fast food workers’ strike fueled by other low-wage employees, Eric Garner,” by Emma Margolin, MCNBC, December 4, 2014
“People thought we were crazy to call for $15 an hour, but all across the country, cities, states and employers are raising wages significantly because of the stand we are taking,” Alvin Major, a KFC worker, said in the statement. “And so many different workers are joining our fight that we will win better pay so our families can succeed and our communities can prosper.”
“Push for a $15 minimum wage goes to college,” By Aimee Picchi, CBS MONEYWATCH, March 31, 2015
Connect personal wages to collective costs: In their default ways of looking at things, it is relatively easy for people to justify the existence of bad jobs – from the idea of “starting at the bottom” to the idea that employees “knew what they were getting into” to the idea that if people want a better job, they can and should make that happen on their own by getting more schooling, taking more initiative, and so forth. Even workers in low wage jobs often share and voice some of these assumptions.
An important challenge for communicators who sympathize with strikers is to convey that certain jobs simply offer too little compensation, in a way that doesn’t sound like complaining or misplaced sympathy.
One approach communicators are using successfully is to point out that many full-time employees are paid so little they can and do receive publicly funded assistance like food stamps and health insurance. In our testing, this point puts audiences on the side of the employees, and is a concrete and compelling illustration of how some jobs are unacceptably “bad.” And when they learn this is a deliberate business strategy on the part of profitable companies that are basically asking taxpayers to subsidize their work force, people become enraged.
The low-wage business model practiced by many of the largest and most profitable employers in the country not only leaves many working families unable to afford the basics, but also imposes significant costs on the public as a whole,” Sarah Leberstein, a senior staff lawyer with the National Employment Law Project, testified recently before Connecticut lawmakers.
“Working, but Needing Public Assistance Anyway,” by Patricia Cohen, NY Times, April 12, 2015.
Importantly, our testing shows that this idea does NOT increase stigmas about public assistance, and if anything makes people more sympathetic to those who rely on it – and 3 angrier at companies that abuse the system. Furthermore, this point is one of the most effective ways of establishing a line in the sand, meaning that certain compensation arrangements are simply unacceptable.
Position the strikers as “workers who are sticking together”: Our research on unions finds there is a long way to go to repair Americans’ relationship with the labor movement. The idea of a “strike” is often met with disapproval by those who are uncomfortable with confrontation, or who believe people “should be thankful to have any job in this economy.”
This article won’t go into detail about our research regarding unions, but the bottom line for communicators is that the most effective approach is usually to focus on workers’ right to stick together in order to speak with a more powerful voice. The emotional power of the food strike news coverage is often this simple image at the heart of the story.
In Chicago, [Nancy] Salgado says the management has not only refrained from retaliating against strikers, but has actually started treating staff with more respect. Yet the real reward she says she’s gained from the movement is a fresh sense of solidarity with other mothers like her. “We bond together,” she says, “because we come united. … One of the strongest things I’ve learned in this organization is that being united as a family gives you a lot of strength to move forward.”
“Fed Up: Women Fast-Food Workers Fight Back,” by Michelle Chen, Msmagazine.com, March 28, 2015
Reinforce the idea of a social movement: The sheer breadth and scale of events, thousands of workers in well over 200 U.S. cities and in 40 nations, allows each of us to picture our communities and ourselves as part of the story – the strikes are happening across America, as opposed to more locally or narrowly. Just as importantly, a more widespread strike is more likely to trigger our sense that maybe what’s happening is good and right – people are persuaded by what others are thinking and doing. (For one relevant social science study, see Robert Cialdini, 2001, Harnessing the science of persuasion, Harvard Business Review.)
Terrence Wise, a Burger King worker from Kansas City, Missouri, and a national leader for the Fight for $15 push, said more than 2,000 groups including Jobs With Justice and the Center for Popular Democracy will show their support as well. “This will be the biggest mobilization America has seen in decades,” Wise said at the rally as pedestrians walked past on the busy street.
“Fast-Food Labor Organizers Plan Actions for April 15,” by Candice Choi, AP Food Industry Writer
“When we started it was very hard to get people to sign up — they were scared, ‘I might lose my job,’” said Ms. Brooks, who became a fast-food worker after funding for her job as a youth counselor was eliminated. “But this movement is really growing. People who didn’t know who we were, they now know who we are.”
“Movement to Increase McDonald’s Minimum Wage Broadens Its Tactics,” by Steven Greenhouse, NY Times, March, 30, 2015
In Detroit, the Rev. Charles Williams II, president of National Action Network, thanked protesters for their support and encouraged fast-food customers to aid the effort. “We need them to sacrifice with us,” he said. “We are sacrificing our time, the workers are sacrificing their wages. We need people who eat fast food to sacrifice their coffee, to sacrifice their McMuffin.”
“Fast-food workers strike, protest for higher pay,” by John Bacon, USA Today, December 5, 2013
Stories framed in these ways have the potential to turn the strikes from “spectator” events for most Americans, into ones where we see that we all have a stake.
Americans don’t automatically side with strikers, but if handled well, strike stories can be compelling openings for conversations about the kind of economy and the kind of nation we want. Communicators who are prepared with compelling messages about how better jobs are better for all of us, about how profitable and powerful employers could afford to do better, about how these employers may be “gaming the system,” and about Americans’ right to band together to agree on what they want – have a good chance of gaining new allies in the fight for better job quality and more broadly shared prosperity.