Maggie Russell-Brown is the director of organizing and field services. If you’re playing a job where you feel disrespected or know that you aren’t being paid fairly, contact Maggie at (212) 245-4802, ext. 157 or Mrussell@Local802afm.org. You can also call the Local 802 hotline anonymously at (212) 245-4802, ext. 260 to report a job or working situation.
For decades, union density has been dramatically declining. But the attack on workers across the country was strategic and planned. One need only read the infamous memo written in 1971 by Lewis Powell Jr. (who would later become a Supreme Court Justice) to understand how the war on the middle class was conceived. Powell wrote that business must organize itself to beat back government regulations, fund think tanks to change public opinion, gain influence in the halls of academia and newsrooms, and attack organized labor. Weak labor law and the loss of traditional union industries have led us to where we are today. The statistics are sobering: unions represent only 11.3 percent of workers.
But there is hope. Two years ago, on Nov. 29, 2012, a group of 135 fast food workers in New York City went on strike. They hailed from dozens of different restaurants and employers. Some struck in groups; others were the only ones to strike from their restaurants. Many in the labor movement thought this was organized suicide. The day after this historic strike, these brave workers were walked back to work with the support of community allies and elected officials. One worker was promptly fired, but when 50 community supporters and elected officials flooded the restaurant, she was immediately rehired. This was the moment the movement was born, and organizers – including myself – realized this tactic might actually work.
Fast forward to today. There have been seven fast food strikes since, and the movement has grown from one city to more than 50 cities across the United States and 33 countries across the globe in support of a living wage for fast food workers. Minimum wage is part of the political conversation now. President Obama and Hillary Clinton have mentioned the fast food movement in speeches. A fast food worker was invited to the White House to receive a “Champion of Change” award for her organizing work.
How did such an unlikely group of workers capture the national imagination and shed a spotlight on income inequality? The Fast Food Forward campaign has four areas of pressure on fast food corporations:
1. Grassroots organizing.
2. Utilizing current labor law by filing wage and hour complaints and unfair labor practice charges. Organizers quickly learned that of the 55,000 fast food workers in New York City, 84 percent reported instances of wage theft. In addition, both the local fast food restaurant as well as its corporate owner can be held responsible under the principle of joint employer. (For more on this, see Harvey Mars’ article in this issue.)
3. Innovative public relations and communications strategy.
4. Political organizing and creation of legislation raising the minimum wage. While the recent midterm election ushered in a wave of Republican legislators, voters in Arkansas, Alaska, Nebraska and South Dakota passed ballot initiatives to raise their state minimum wages. This was not an accident. The tactics are working.
In order to make real gains, we as organizers and representatives must employ bold, creative tactics and not be held back by fear or insecurity. Big business certainly evolved. So must we.
I know that in recent decades the music industry has changed dramatically. Business models have changed. The heads of industry – like most employers or corporate managers – will do anything they can to save money and make as much profit as possible. That is why we must take big risks together and organize new musicians, continue the work of the Justice for Jazz Artists campaign and close tax loopholes that mega production companies like Lionsgate exploit to outsource post-production music work while receiving tax breaks. This cannot be done by union staff alone. Active involvement by you – the members of Local 802 – will make all the difference and will lead to a much stronger union. I urge you to get involved in our efforts, so together we can keep the music live and increase work opportunities for everyone.
I feel incredibly privileged to work with you and look forward to growing together. If you are interested or want to get involved in upcoming campaigns or attend a rally or action, please contact me at Mrussell@Local802afm.org or (212) 245-4802, ext. 157.
Maggie Russell-Brown is Local 802’s new director of organizing and field services. Before coming on board with Local 802, she worked on the Fast Food Forward campaign, where she mobilized workers to expose the realities of low-wage work. She spent years representing workers in Connecticut in various professions and has experience in both labor and political organizing.