Yesterday was Labor Day, a holiday that most Americans celebrate by going to work at their low-paid jobs. But—as unlikely as it seems—the president actually said something meaningful in his mandatory Labor Day speech yesterday.
What Barack Obama said, in a speech to a labor group in Milwaukee Monday, was this: "All across the country right now there's a national movement going on made up of fast-food workers organizing to lift wages so they can provide for their families with pride and dignity... if I were looking for a job that lets me build some security for my family, I'd join a union. If I were busting my butt in the service industry and wanted an honest day's pay for an honest day's work, I'd join a union...I'd want a union looking out for me."
The movement to unionize fast food workers began two years ago as more of an audacious PR campaign than an actual labor movement. It sought improved pay for fast food workers, those most symbolic "low on the food chain" employees. It never really seemed likely that an actual union of fast food workers would come out of the movement—rather, it seemed that labor groups would use the unionization banner, along with massive press-garnering protests, as a bargaining chip to extract higher wages and better working conditions from employers. Since then, though, the movement has made unlikely gains. It is still happening, for one thing, rather than fading away after a brief turn in the spotlight. It has picked up a significant government ruling that will help force major corporations like McDonald's to actually reckon with the issue of worker's rights. And it has succeeded in winning public sympathy not just from the liberal media such as ourselves, but from the President of the United States.
It's not a union. But it is something. Unionizing fast food workers, who tend to be very transient and easily replaceable, is very, very hard. But it is not impossible. A real fast food union would be amazing. A significant pay raise for the horrifically poor food workers in our society would be a truly meaningful step, as well. There is no doubt that fast food companies are prepared to wage a long, hard fight in order to protect their profit margins. And after two years, there's no doubt that labor groups are ready, at long last, to wage that fight themselves. On Thursday, fast food workers across the country are vowing to engage in civil disobedience in order raise the profile of their fight. The god damn White House—not a radical organization!—is on their side. Are you?