Editor's note: Ron Oswald is general secretary of The International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF). The IUF is an international trade union federation composed of 396 trade unions in 120 countries, representing around 10 million workers. It is based in Geneva, Switzerland. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
(CNN) -- More than 80 people from 26 countries met in New York on May 5 and 6, under the banner of the global trade union IUF, in the world's first international gathering of fast food workers.
Meetings like this are normally not news, but the next day participants gathered for a lively demonstration outside a Manhattan McDonald's restaurant, and announced a U.S. nationwide fast food strike for May 15. They were throwing their support behind the demand to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
That was news and generated considerable media interest, not least from the business press. But worker protest at fast food chains and union support for the protests have been building in recent years -- the May 15 strike call didn't come from nowhere.
Fast food continues to add jobs at a time of sluggish global growth, but the demographics of the industry have changed considerably.
Fast food is no longer where students and young people get a first job and move on. Today's fast food employee is older and better educated than earlier generations, often has family responsibilities, and is essentially stuck in the system with little hope of relief from poverty wages and limited or no benefits.
Inside the outlets there are few chances for advancement. According to the U.S. National Employment Law Project, managerial, professional and technical occupations make up nearly a third of all U.S. jobs, but only 2.2% of fast food employment.
Employers benefit from the generous reserves of easily trainable labor on offer, while by contrast higher value employment is being pared back in large parts of the world.
Employing workers at less than full-time hours often allows employers to provide no benefits. And the franchise system gives corporate headquarters plausible deniability for conditions in the restaurants which wear their brands.
The handful of global chains which dominate the industry are hugely profitable -- executive compensation and share buybacks have followed the same swollen rising curve as in other sectors of the economy. At a time of austerity, public subsidies to fast food workers have grown with the expansion of the chains.
According to researchers at the University of California, the cost of public assistance programs to fast food workers who cannot support their families totals $7 billion annually.
No one should be surprised, then, that "McJobs" now have a central role in the growing debate on inequality and that the "Fight for 15" has resonated.
Or that industry workers, stuck in their jobs, have become more vocal and more active. Or that unions now view organizing fast food as essential to reversing the rampant inequality which blights our societies.
So while protests by fast food workers are not new, they have gained enormously in symbolic and political importance.
Unions have never had an easy time in the fast food sector, but there are pockets of successful union organization around the world. In general, unions have succeeded best where systems of national collective bargaining facilitate an organized union presence -- in the Nordic countries, or in Argentina and Italy, for example.
But they've also taken on the task elsewhere.
The "SuperSize My Pay" campaign initiated by the New Zealand union Unite in 2005 has recruited thousands of workers, won collective agreements with significant improvements in wages and conditions and shaped a national debate on inequality and low pay.
Equally important, they've made unions relevant to a younger generation of service workers. Last year in Brazil our affiliate Contratuh forced McDonald's to abandon its practice of consigning workers to unpaid hours until the boss determined that a sufficient number of customers were present for hours to be counted.
Fast food workers around the world face similar issues -- be it poverty pay, inconvenient or insufficient hours, zero hour contracts, stress or employer hostility to union organization. Participants in our meeting had no problem finding a common language.
In 2013 McDonald's workers from over 30 countries joined the International Day of Action to protest against the poor working conditions of numerous migrant workers at the franchised giant's restaurant in Pennsylvania. This year, international support for the May 15 action will involve even more IUF members in more countries.
Is May 15 labor's big bang at Big Mac? We see it as one step in a protracted, difficult but necessary struggle. Unions are engaged for the long haul.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the Ron Oswald