Minneapolis employees of the sandwich chain Jimmy John's are currently trying to unionize, which the New York Times calls "one of the few efforts to organize fast-food workers in American history." Is such a thing even possible?
The fundamental problem of unionizing a fast food shop, of course, is simply one of leverage. Fast food employees don't have it. They're doing jobs that are, by design, able to be done by almost anyone. (I'm speaking as a veteran McDonald's employee). Therefore, even a strike or walkout by the chain's entire staff would only be a momentary obstacle; the company could hire a whole new staff and have them trained and up and running—perhaps not smoothly, but well enough to sell sandwiches—within a week or so.
The other problem is lack of a strong organized labor culture in America. We had it once; no longer. A hundred years ago or so, unskilled laborers could unionize successfully, because unions were powerful, and it was expected that workers would support the union, and it was no easy matter to go outside the union and bring in a scab work force to break a strike. Now, that's no longer true. Particularly in a shitty economy with high unemployment. A mass walkout would probably be seen as a job opportunity for the unemployed, rather than a sacred covenant to be respected by all the proletariat.
The best tool that a union like this has in its arsenal now is PR. Organized workers certainly have the power to make their bosses look bad. But the recent history of organized labor in America isn't promising for efforts like this. You'll notice that there are no unions at Starbucks, or at Wal-Mart. That's not because unions haven't tried; it's because they haven't succeeded. A small, localized fast food chain is a good place to give it a shot. And we wish them luck. But we're not optimistic.