Deutsch, Coleman and Marcus (2006), conflict is an inevitable consequence of the human condition. Conflicts betweens humans frequently involve competition over scarce resources, but history has shown time and again that conflicts can occur for virtually any reason and that some people thrive on conflict while others actively avoid it. One recent conflict that has gained national attention has been the series of strikes by fast-food workers seeking a higher minimum wage. These strikes have gained momentum and the most recent one in December 2013 affected fast food establishments in more than 100 American cities across the country. This paper provides a description of this conflict situation, a description of the social context and participants, and an identification of antecedent conditions to the strikes. An identification of the behavior reflecting the cognition and personalization by individuals of the conflict and identification of a relevant conflict management model, the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, is followed by a description of research supporting this conflict management model. Finally, a brief description of conflict resolution techniques that is reflective of the model is followed by a discussion concerning anticipated outcomes following an application of this conflict management model. A summary of the research and important findings concerning the management of the fast-food workers conflict are presented in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
Description of the conflict situation
During the past year, a series of protests have taken place in the fast-food industry that has "rocked this bastion of low wages, insecure and precarious work" (Rosenfeld, 2013, p. 8). In fact, many Americans may be unaware of just how bad the situation is for fast-food workers. In this regard, Rosenfeld emphasizes that, "The current situation isn't pretty. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that as of last July, hourly wages for all production and non-supervisory workers averaged $20.14, but in fast foods, it was $9.00. Fast food workers are also underemployed" (2013, p. 8).
In response to these untenable conditions, on July 29, 2013, fast food workers in 39 cities across the country held a one-day walk-out strike demanding a higher minimum wage (Roewe, 2013). At the time, More recently, in December 2013, fast food workers across the country staged a national walk-out strike to protest the minimum wages they were being paid and to call for wage increases that will allow them to, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of the nation" (cited in Bussel, 2014, p. 43). According to a report from Bacon (2013), more recently, on December 4, 2013, "Fast-food workers walked off the job in 100 [American] cities. The protests are part of a labor union movement to increase the federal $7.25 minimum hourly wage. The restaurant industry has said higher wages would lead to steeper prices for customers" (para. 1).
Description of the social context and participants
Fast food workers represent the main participants in the most recent episode of a national strike, but workers in other low-paid professions are also pursuing reform through strikes as well. For instance, Bussel (2014) reports that, "A wide spectrum of workers - health care givers, taxi drivers, car wash attendants, fast food workers, day laborers, domestics - have taken to the ballot box and the streets demanding that their labor, which 'serves humanity,' be recognized and rewarded" (p. 43).
Identification of antecedent conditions
Although the series of fast-food worker strikes is relatively recent in origin, calls for a higher minimum wage have been advanced for a long time. For instance, according to Roewe (2013), "The push for a living wage is nothing new. Traditionally, the term has referred to a flexible salary based on various costs -- such as food, child care, health care, housing or transportation -- within a specific city or region" (p. 6). When fast-food workers call for a living wage, they are actually seeking far more than the incremental increases to the minimum wage that have been offered in the past. In this regard, Roewe notes that, "Those factors feed into a formula that determines a market-based salary that allows a living standard above the national poverty line -- currently $23,550 for a family of four -- but usually still below what constitutes middle class" (2013, p. 6). This enormous gap between what is being earned and what is needed to live has generated some poignant responses from fast-food workers as discussed below.
Identification of the behavior reflecting the cognition and personalization by individuals of the conflict
The main theme of the protests for higher minimum wages was virtually identical in every city during the most recent walk-out strike in December 2013. For example, hundreds of protestors in New York City "blew whistles and beat drums as they marched into a McDonald's chanting 'We can't survive on $7.25'"; likewise, in Detroit, "more than 100 workers picketed outside two McDonald's restaurants, singing 'Hey, ho, $7.40 has got to go!'" (cited in Bacon, 2013, para. 3). The demonstrators called for a minimum wage of at least $15 an hour so that in the words of President Barack Obama, "In the richest nation on earth, nobody who works full-time should have to live in poverty" (cited in Lewis, 2014, para. 1). The fast-food workers have a strong selling point in their negotiations with the fast-food industry. For instance, Conniff (2014) reports that, "The economic benefit of a strong minimum wage is similar to that of food stamps and unemployment insurance, since low-wage workers and the unemployed spend their money immediately, for a stimulus effect worth $1.50 to $1.70 on the dollar" (p. 7).
Identification of the conflict management model
There are five preferred styles for dealing with conflict, as measured with the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument: (a) competing, (b) collaborating, (c) avoiding, (d) accommodating, and (e) compromising (Bratkovic, 2010). Depending on the situation, avoiding can help postpone the inevitable consequences of a conflict, competing will help produce a single winner and a single loser at a given point in time, and accommodating can likewise generate short-term resolutions (Bratkovic, 2010). In sum, pursuant to the Thomas-Kilman Conflict Mode Instrument, compromising represents a "lose-lose" scenario in which both sides must forfeit some interest and collaborating represents a "win-win" scenario wherein each side receives some gain (Bratkovic, 2010). According to Kindler, the collaboration process is not especially suitable for the fast-food worker conflict because it "requires all participants to state their important desires and concerns so that a responsive resolution can be developed [and] the process] requires time, interpersonal competence, and trust" (1999, p. 12). It is important to note, though, that each of the five conflict resolution styles is appropriate for certain situations (Bratkovic, 2010).
Description of research supporting the model
As noted above, a collaborative conflict resolution approach would have afforded the fast-food industry and fast-food workers alike with some gains, while a compromise approach would involve some types of losses being experienced on both sides (Bratkovic, 2010). In the past, an accommodation approach has been used to good effect in resolving conflicts of this type but the incremental gains that have been achieved in raising the minimum wage to date have not kept pace with the inflation rate and other cost of living increases, especially with skyrocketing energy costs (Roewe, 2013). On February 12, 2014, President Obama used executive authority to increase the minimum wage for federal contract workers from $7.25 to $10.10 effective January 2014 (Lewis, 2014).
Although President Obama also wants to raise the national minimum wage rate from $7.25 to $9.00, House Democrats, through the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013 introduced in March 2013, seek to increase the wage to $10.10 by 2015; however, even that higher rate is less than the minimum wage rate in 1968 which was $10.56 when adjusted for inflation (Roewe, 2013), suggesting a collaborative model would be more appropriate to resolve this conflict for fast-food workers as well as the fast-food industry. For example, even White House officials acknowledged that the president's executive actions "are limited, particularly when compared to what might have be achieved through ambitious legislative action" and that "the chances of the Harkin-Miller bill passing are extremely low" (Lewis, 2014, para. 3).
Brief description of conflict resolution techniques reflective of the model
The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) can be used to determine whether an individual primarily prefers to use one of the five conflict resolution modes: (a) competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding, or accommodating (Hanshaw, Williams-Black & Boyd, 2010). According to Bratkovic (2010), these five modes are characterized by behavioral preferences for conflict resolution as follows:
Competitors will have a high focus on the issue and a low focus on the relationship,
Avoiders will have a low focus on the issue and a low focus on the relationship;
Accommodators will have a high focus on the relationship and a low focus on the issue;
Compromisers will have a midlevel focus on the relationship and a mid-level focus on the issue; and,