How solidarity won their jobs back

November 10, 2015

Alex Moyle reports from Oakland on how Bay Area fast-food workers are building on two recent victories against firings, as Fight for 15 activists prepare for a day of action.

WHEN KFC management fired Shonda Roberts, her fellow Fight for 15 activists in Oakland knew why immediately. "For standing with us and bringing in the union," said Miriam, a co-worker who was also targeted by management. "They fired Shonda because the union came. Now we need to stand with her."

Shonda, who has been active in the East Bay Organizing Committee (EBOC) and Fight for 15 since she began working at KFC/Pizza Hut nearly three years ago, was fired from her job at a KFC restaurant on Telegraph Avenue on October 17.

Shonda is widely respected by her co-workers, customers and activists throughout the East Bay, and as soon as people heard about her firing, they called a community picket. Shonda's co-workers, along with the EBOC, Service Employees International Union and activists from various groups formed a walking picket from noon until the store closed, turning away the vast majority of paying customers throughout the day.

On multiple occasions, regular customers approached the store, but left in solidarity when Shonda personally told them why they shouldn't eat there that day. A large police presence called in by the bosses arrived and stood guard around the store, but didn't attack the protest.

Oakland Fight for 15 activists demonstrate inside a local Burger King
Oakland Fight for 15 activists demonstrate inside a local Burger King

Shonda's co-worker Miriam was also at the picket with her young son in her arms to stand in solidarity. The same manager who fired Shonda had cut Miriam's work hours to a dismal six per week. When Miriam went to the EBOC, the manager pressured her to sign a "warning" document barring further communication--but Miriam refused to sign.

Miriam described harrowing work conditions, harassment by managers, and disregard for labor law and employees rights as routine at their work site. Shonda agreed that there was no question why she was fired. She described what she heard from a manager:

She said that she was firing me because I'm organizing my store. They bring these managers into the establishment and don't properly train them on labor laws, but I know my rights, so this is what they have to deal with--the backlash of this. She said, "Go ahead and bring whoever you want to bring." Okay, and now they haven't been in business today. They really haven't made any money today.

I told her I was going to shut it down, and that's exactly what we did. I have people power, and they've got my back. I have everybody from damn near every community organization you can think of out here today, and this is what solidarity looks like.

Shonda was confident that it was only a matter of time before she was reinstated. And she was adamant that once she was, she would continue to organize her store, inform co-workers of their rights and push forward the Fight for 15 movement. "The only thing to do is keep growing," she said. "This movement is already national--international even--but we'll just keep growing until we take over and start this revolution for justice."

After two further days of picketing that cut sharply into profits at the store site, Shonda's regional KFC manager sat down with her and an EBOC representatives to discuss the terms of her reinstatement.

Shonda agreed to return to work after winning back pay and issued further demands, including restoring Miriam's hours to a minimum of 15 per week, compliance with break laws, improvements to conditions within the store and non-discrimination for future union activity. For those who participated in the pickets, it was a dramatic and satisfying victory.

LESS THAN two weeks after Shonda's reinstatement, and just 18 blocks north on Telegraph Avenue, McDonald's shift leader and union organizer Sandra Roman was fired in retaliation for demanding her legal right to paid sick leave to tend to her diabetic son.

Sandra, like Shonda, represents the best in the Fight for 15 movement--a hard worker respected by her co-workers and customers and a dedicated fighter respected within the movement.

Measure FF, which Oakland residents passed overwhelmingly in 2014, established paid sick leave for all employees and made retaliation for taking it illegal. In spite of this, the Smith family (owners of five McDonald's stores in the area) refused to pay Sandra for sick time, and when she filed a complaint, they retaliated against her.

The EBOC put pressure on the city to enforce the law, and as a result, Oakland issued a letter of violation to the McDonald's franchise. But when the EBOC assembled a delegation of union, community and clergy to deliver the letter to the Smiths, Michael Smith fired Sandra and refused to accept the letter.

Again, a community protest was called immediately, and community activists responded in solidarity. High school students joined the picket line, chanting, dancing and singing to shut down the McDonald's. Again, a large police presence called in by the bosses stood by, but did not attack the picket.

In response to the demand that the city enforce the letter of violation, Oakland's director of code enforcement, Deborah Barnes, appeared at the store that evening, but McDonald's representatives refused to meet with her and shut down the store instead. The workers, students and organizers who participated in the picket vowed to return and escalate the protest the next day.

As this article was being written, McDonald's agreed to temporarily reinstate Sandra pending the outcome of a meeting between Sandra, EBOC and owner Michael Smith. The workers, students and organizers have agreed to temporarily suspend their protest pending the outcome of the same.

IT IS, strictly speaking, illegal to fire a worker for organizing a workplace, just as it is illegal to fire a worker for taking their legally protected sick leave. But when the police are called to the picket line, they stand firmly on the side of the lawbreakers.

Oakland police officers never rolled up in their SUVs threatening to arrest the franchise owner for illegally firing a single mother, supporting her children paycheck to paycheck. And while property laws are enforced by lethally armed militarized cops, labor law violations are reviewed by generally ineffectual committees.

For example, Walmart fired dozens of workers who were part of the OUR Walmart worker organizing campaign--years later, they still haven't gotten their jobs back. The firings at Walmart decimated the organizing campaign by sowing fear. That fear will be worth almost any fine to Walmart management. As we can see from the pickets in Oakland, even the enforcement of the weak laws that we have requires solidarity and action on the part of workers.

The pickets set up for Shonda and Sandra show the power of solidarity in action, and future pickets will surely be a necessary tool to combat a reactionary wave of retaliation on the part of the bosses in response to the gains of the movement. Franchise owners are eager to make examples of the best organizers and show that they will not be restricted in their drive for profits by pesky things like labor laws.

The firings of Sandra and Shonda don't seem to have been coordinated, but this isn't the case in all franchises. Given that we won this round, the bosses may be sneakier next time. Franchises such as Jack in the Box have much stronger anti-union training for their managers, and not every case of retaliation is as easy to fight.

What is significant, especially about Shonda's victory, is that it helped get her co-worker's hours back. Cutting hours as retaliation is just as devastating, but harder to prove in court. This tactic has driven some organizers out of the Fight for 15 campaign.

Many restaurants, fast food and others, have cut hours or laid off workers to make the rest of the staff do more after the $12.25 minimum wage increase in Oakland. But the fact that disruption and solidarity won back Miriam's hours shows that we can win.

These successful actions show how we can cut into the profits of franchise owners who break the law, embarrass them publicly, reinstate our fired comrades and demand work site reforms that go beyond what the law states. EBOC is not a union yet, but it acted as unions ought to act if unions are going to stem the decline of organized labor.

EBOC used disruption to win real jobs and real money for its members--not in the future, but right now. That is a powerful argument to other fast-food workers in Oakland to join the campaign. In Oakland, activists are carrying the momentum of these victories into the November 10 Fight for 15 national day of action.

Frank Jones contributed to this article.

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