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Fast-Food Workers Echo Occupy Spirit

By Clarence Page, Tribune Media Services on

Labor unions have been knocked back, knocked down and knocked out for so long that a new generation of organizers is beginning to try something new. Instead of unionizing and then protesting, they're protesting first.

That may sound a little oversimplified, but not by much. The new strategy involves helping workers to protest for more money and benefits and, after winning some victories, hope the workers will form a union.

So far, the campaign appears to be growing. Perhaps you have seen -- or been inconvenienced -- by one of the protests that have sprung up since early April in Chicago, New York, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Detroit, Seattle and Washington, D.C., at fast-food restaurants and, in some cities, retail stores.

In the wake of the Occupy Wall Street protests, and public-worker union protests in Wisconsin and elsewhere, the issue of income inequality has a new urgency -- especially when private-sector union membership is down to 6.6 percent amid growing obstacles to unionizing and collective bargaining.

Although the Change to Win Federation, made up of the Service Employees International Union and other partner unions, is assisting the national campaign, each city has its own local organizing coalitions and issues.

In the nation's capital, the local Fast Food Forward protests have a special federal flavor and it's aimed directly at the White House.

They're urging its principal resident, President Barack Obama, to sign an executive order that would require contractors in federal facilities to increase what they pay their employees.

Among the real people it would affect is Melissa Roseboro, who joined a strike in May from her job at the McDonalds in the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum. She works 35 hours a week, she told a congressional hearing in May, for $8.33 an hour with no benefits -- on which she helps to support her two children.

"I made this sacrifice to send the president a clear message," she told me after the hearings. "People are suffering."

She's hardly alone. Conservatives pitch the myth that the poor and working-class who are struggling to get ahead are just lazy and looking for "free stuff." The truth for most low-wage workers is that their hard work is being rewarded with low wages and shrinking opportunities to move up the income ladder.

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(c) 2013 CLARENCE PAGE DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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