Striking the fast-food giants

December 3, 2012

Peter Rugh reports from New York City on a day of walkouts at fast-food restaurants--another step in what organizers call the largest union drive in fast-food history.

WHILE THE emblems of Wendy's, McDonald's, KFC, Domino's and other greasy dynasties are hard to escape in the American landscape, those who cook, clean, ring up orders and otherwise serve as the fulcrum of these franchises often go unnoticed.

These workers, however, were hard to miss on November 29 as they stepped off burger assembly lines across New York City and into the street, picketing in front of their workplaces. The strike, which took place at numerous restaurants across the city, is the start of the largest effort to unionize fast-food workers in American history. Organizers are calling the campaign Fast Food Forward.

Revenues in the fast-food industry are expected to near $200 billion this year. Yet the demands of their workers are modest: $15 an hour and the right to unionize with the Fast Food Workers Committee.

"We're out here for better wages, better working conditions and union protection," said Michael, an 18-year-old employee of a Burger King located not far from Wall Street. Michael says that growing up he was encouraged to "go the right way and get a job," but now that he has a job, he's having trouble getting by. "There's people my age who try to let this stabilize them. We got bills, we got rent. We're living from check to check, hoping the next one will be better, and it's not. We can't live on this."

McDonalds workers rally with supporters outside a restaurant near Times Square
McDonalds workers rally with supporters outside a restaurant near Times Square

Gregory, an East Harlem KFC worker several years older than Michael, said he and his coworkers earn minimum wage ($7.25 an hour), receive food stamps and still don't have enough to get by and provide for their kids. Gregory lives in Rockaway, Queens--an area that was inundated with floodwaters from Superstorm Sandy. When he sought back pay from his employer for time lost during the storm, his request was denied. He was given a meal on the house instead.

Working conditions at fast-food franchises tend to be about the same across the board: highly exploitive. The fast-food industry provides cheap, warm meals to those pressed for time, who often cannot afford more nutritious forms of nourishment. Simultaneously, these corporations take advantage of economic desperation in the Black and Brown, immigrant and working-class communities where they can get away with paying starvation wages and reaping gargantuan profits.

Wendy's, for instance, took in $615 million in 2011, an increase of 6 percent. But workers say checks from their employer often bounce, and some check-cashing outlets won't accept them.

Organizers with New York Communities for Change (NYCC), which has been working behind the scenes for months to build the strike, say that McDonald's recruits in homeless shelters. Nearly every "benefit" listed on the company's website, including free uniforms, appears with an asterisk beside it, indicating that the supposed perks are "subject to availability and certain eligibility requirements and restrictions." Profits at McDonald's have ballooned 130 percent in the past four years.

The largest of the fast-food behemoths, McDonald's was also the swiftest to shift into damage control mode on the day of the walkouts, issuing a statement informing the public that the company is committed to a dialogue with their employees "so we can continue to be an even better employer."

Asantewwa Ricks with NYCC said that before she began working on the strike drive, she thought fast-food employees were "18- or 19-year-old kids who wanted cash for Beats headphones and True Religion jeans." She has since learned that is not the case.

Often, workers remain in the industry for years and see little to no bump in their salary. The minimum wage they receive often forces tough choices on them, such as whether to work late or to make it back before the shelter where they reside locks its doors. At an organizing meeting early on in the campaign, Ricks asked a room full of fast-food workers if they had ever suffered on-the-job injuries. Just about everyone present lifted up scars from grease on their arms.

A COALITION of unions and community-based workers' rights groups gathered ahead of the November 29 strike in a meeting room at the Service Employees International Union headquarters in Manhattan to discuss ongoing campaigns seeking dignity and improved pay for the working poor citywide. More than 100 people attended, representing roughly 40 organizations, along with a cluster of clergy from a variety of faiths.

The coalition had helped spearhead a day of action on July 24, which saw hundreds of low-wage workers from the city's five boroughs congregate in Union Square, and it has also been working with car-wash employees demanding raises above the $5.25 hourly standard--and, in some cases, back pay. Workers at four car washes have already won union representation in recent months.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who spoke at the July 24 rally, sent an aide to Tuesday's meeting. Quinn is currently ahead in the upcoming mayoral race, but she has drawn ire from workers' rights advocates over her opposition to sick pay legislation. While NYCC is circulating a petition for her to back the bill, the New York Daily News reports that wealthy business owners--who have already thrown over a quarter of a million dollars her way--sent a letter of their own to Quinn, demanding just the opposite.

Jonathan Westin, a lead organizer with NYCC, said while the group disagrees with Quinn on the issue of sick pay, he views it as a positive sign that she appears interested in the demands of fast-food workers.

Perhaps seeking an edge on Quinn, two other Democratic contenders for mayor were on hand, Bill Thompson and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio. The candidates stood in pressed suits at opposite ends of the room, grinning at one another.

It is with good reason that politicians are showing an interest in the fast-food workers' fight for a union; bystanders receiving leaflets from picketers Thursday were widely sympathetic to the cause. "These guys shouldn't be making 7.25 an hour," said Steve Carlson, a union carpenter. "That's crazy. Especially in Manhattan--the cost of living is so high."

STILL, WHILE politicians might lose campaign contributions that sway an election by standing up for a cause like this, workers could lose their jobs. By organizing in the workplace, walking off and gambling on solidarity, they have risked the only means of subsistence available to their families and themselves. Westin said that since workers began the union drive six months ago, there have been instances of retaliation from management, but he declined to elaborate because these cases are currently being dealt with in court.

For those on strike and their supporters, however, the potential benefits outweigh the risks. "The goal of this strike is for workers to be able to put food on their table and buy their children presents for Christmas," Westin said, though he admits this is a long-term battle and won't be resolved by the holidays.

The fast-food strike that broke out on November 29 may have larger implications than are immediately apparent. There are 50,000 fast-food workers in New York City, and while those who walked off were few in number by comparison, the strike could galvanize workers elsewhere to take a stand as well. If the push for a union is successful, it will be an illustrative example to those both in the industry and in other low-wage professions that standing up to the boss can pay off.

For Michael and his fellow Burger King employees, walking off the job was about more than a wage hike or forming a union. These demands are a means to a higher end. "We work hard, as if we were slaves," he said. "It's not only the wages. It's also about how we get treated. We deserve respect."

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