As many as 200 fast food workers are expected to walk off the job today in Milwaukee, making it the fifth city in six weeks where strikes have hobbled chain restaurants. The strikers, organized by local groups with support from national unions, are demanding raises to $15 an hour and the right to unionize. Like Detroit, where fast food workers went on strike last week, Milwaukee in recent decades has seen dramatic decline in unionized manufacturing jobs and a corresponding growth in low-wage service jobs. The shift away from living-wage work has hit black workers particularly hard.
“Milwaukee has a really special history particularly for African Americans,” said Jennifer Epps of the group Wisconsin Citizen Action, which helped organize the strikes. “We had the highest per capita income for black workers in the country, now we have one of the lowest.”
A report from the University of Milwaukee found that in 1970, over 54 percent of black men in the city were employed in factories, more than twice the percentage of whites. But, as Milwaukee’s Sentinel Journal reports, 100,000 jobs in Delco Electronics, Pabst Brewing Company and other factories left the city since 1980. By 2009, under 15 percent of black men held manufacturing these jobs, about equivalent to the percentage as white workers.
As these jobs disappeared, Milwaukee’s rate of black unemployment spiked. Before the recession, the city rivaled Buffalo, NY with the highest rates of black unemployment, according to a report from the University. And those who have found work are now far more likely to be relegated to non-union, minimum wage jobs. The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development projects that food preparation and serving jobs, including those in fast food, will grow by 12 percent in the next decade, three times the rate of jobs overall.
Amere Graham is an 18-year-old high school senior who works at a Milwaukee McDonald’s to help his mother pay for rent and save money for college. He’d like to become an EMT, but he says he can’t save any money at all on his $7.25 earnings.
“I am trying to save, trying to get somewhere, pay for college,” Graham told Colorlines.com. “I didn’t grow up in a wealthy family and there aren’t a lot of other options. If I was around 30 years back, Milwaukee’s actually used to be a hub of factory jobs. That’s not true anymore.”
The fast food workers from McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and Taco Bell are joined today by retail workers from Foot Action and Simply Fashion. The strikes follow similar actions in New York, Chicago, St. Louis and Detroit. In each of those cities, local groups organized fast food workers with support from SEIU, a national union. The strategy is one of spectacle: one to two day strikes that call attention to the conditions of low wage work. As such, organizers acknowledge that they’re a long way from winning major wage hikes or union rights at the chain restaurants. But they say, the actions build momentum toward that point.
“Because our grandparents and parents fought for good jobs in the factories, they were well paid,” Epps told me. “But those jobs are not coming back so from retail to fast food, workers are demanding better wages.”