Oddly enough, Fast Food Forward is not a union in the traditional sense of being organized in a single store. It’s more of a regional hub of the same kind of workers, plus supporters. I’m betting there are specific stores where FFF is well-rooted and more popular, which effectively act as “locals” when FFF calls a “strike” (which may really be more of a demonstration than an effective stoppage).
Despite the obvious drawbacks of a form of unionism which is only loosely based on locals, I think area-based unionism is a big part of the future of the labor movement, not simply for its own sake, but as a method to re-popularize unions in general and bring the big locals back.
INTERCONNECTIVITY/THE VIRAL AGE
“Social media” – a total cliché, right? But the truth is, we are often just as connected with people on the Internet as we are with our own damn coworkers.
In the viral age, many small efforts never take off, but there is a higher chance than previously that they can reach a critical mass because the high degree of interconnection lowers society’s boiling point, creating critical mass at a lower temperature. It now requires less infuriating bullshit and less organization to set people off, because in reality, people are already semi-organized spontaneously by the Internet.
For example: connect all points on a triangle, and you get three simple lines. Connect every point on a ten-pointed shape, and you get a messy tangle of overlap.
Of course we can’t do this as Internet chatters alone. All organizing is concrete. We can write our theories about it, but at the bottom line, organizing is physical. Its success or failure often pivots over whether the organizers/target demographic are conveniently located near the area of organizing.
In the past this has made big companies a major target of unions. The high density of many workers in one tight location creates a spontaneous interconnectivity which makes organizing easier.
I’m not against organizing big companies, but the fact is, “lean production” – the ability of industrial companies to use more machines and less humans for equal output – has reduced the amount of people even in traditionally large companies. It’s not all futile, there are still plenty of large companies, but even they are often spread out with many locations. This requires innovations in organizing.
Some unions pursue “corporate campaigns,” where they go after a whole company instead of one plant or office. That is a possibly effective type of organizing, which the viral age makes easier. It makes another interesting type of unionism possible too, which I’m calling “area-based unionism.”
When your unionism model is based on organizing workers from many different shops, you sacrifice the high density of workers in one single shop. The great thing of area-based unionism, especially the choice location of Fast Food Forward in New York City, is that it exploits the high population density of cities to compensate for losing the single-shop advantage, organizing across multiple shops which may very well be within walking distance from each other but are different companies or whatever.
Combine it with the viral age and we’ve got a dual interconnectivity going on, between the high density of people in a city, and the interconnection of people by the Internet. When you’ve got double interconnectivity, it’s not so much like multiplying it by two, it’s more like squaring it. Add leftist organizations rallying to the cause into the mix, and you may have a triple interconnectivity.
Area-based unionism allows:
- It can challenge the status of service-sector workers as non-union, “non-productive” workers
- The campaign can gain social support, from people who don’t even work in that field
- Social support can often equate to other workers in that field hearing about it and getting plugged in
- It allows nearby leftist networks, typically organized by area, to rally support
- The lack of strong union bureaucracy, and the high degree of contact between workers and general supporters, gives the Left an easier time becoming influential in the union than the typical big shop where they would have to develop an organized faction, get in the front gate, get an invitation by the union bureaucrats, etc. (I think many workers would view this as a good thing because the leftists are often more energetic/radical)
- It can re-establish the popularity of unions through the high visibility of the service sector
- It can help resuscitate the grassroots labor movement by involving the many workers who don’t have unions, who are angry and want to fight but don’t know how to help
- It can actually bring formal union locals back, since the USA has a dismally low unionization rate
PS: Other examples of area-based unionism include the Restaurant Opportunities Centers, and some of the storefront organizing by Industrial Workers of the World.