A Fast Food Nation Fights for Living Wages—Against Long Odds

Seth Freed Wessler Dec 10, 2012

Saavedra Jantuah, dressed in the light grey shirt and matching cap identical to the uniforms of the dozen or so other workers behind her, took orders for chicken strips and combo meals. “Who’s next,” she yelled down the line waiting last night at the West 34th Street, Manhattan Burger King. She’d just taken her break and couldn’t really talk. But she did want to know how the rally eight blocks north was shaping up. “I wish I were there,” she told me, as she handed a man his change.

In Times Square just a few minutes later, a crowd of construction workers, retail store employees, airport workers, security guards and fast food workers like Jantuah chanted to the now proverbial 1 percent, “Pay your taxes, pay your workers,” as mayoral candidates and labor leaders led from the microphones. On their Carhardt jackets and sweatshirts, hundreds of the workers wore stickers reading, “Can’t survive on $7.25.”
They were riding the wave that 23-year-old Jantuah helped set in motion a week earlier when she joined as many as 200 New York City burger flippers and dollar menu cashiers in a day-long strike that organizers are calling the largest mass labor action ever of fast food chain workers.
Jantuah has thought about leaving Burger King and getting a different job, but there aren’t a lot of those. Until recently, she never considered fighting to improve the job she has. It certainly wasn’t that she didn’t know getting paid a minimum wage was a problem. She can’t afford an apartment for her and her 3-year-old son, so she lives in Manhattan with her grandmother, while her little boy lives in the Bronx with Jantuah’s own mother. But she never saw a way to do anything about her wages. So when she went on strike last week, demanding a contract and $15 an hour, she surprised herself.
“For me, [this organizing] means I could have my own place with my son,” she told me. “I could be in one household, survive, pay rent, put things on the table. I don’t want to live a $7.25 life.”
McDonalds and Yum! Brands, (KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut) are the second and third largest low wage employers after Walmart. Burger King is the seventh.
Jantuah is part of a new wave of labor organizing that, if successful, could fundamentally transform these workplaces. As service sector jobs like fast food and retail continue to dominate the post-recession labor market, more and more workers find poverty wages their only option. Mixed with cuts to well-paying public sector jobs and declining rates of unionization in a diminished manufacturing sector, today’s economy offers less and less opportunity to earn a living wage.
Workers appear more determined than ever to change this. The workers who went on strike last week want a union, which they’ve called the Fast Food Workers Committee. But in fast food, organizing is in its fledgling stage, and the path to move “fast food forward,” as the group’s tagline goes, is long.
The organizers find themselves up against mammoth employers with no reason to budge, facing significant fears among their co-workers, and operating in workplaces that look nothing like those where unions have succeeded in the past. Labor scholars say fast food workers will have to chart their own way forward, because few of the old union models will work.
Jantuah says that’s exactly what they’re doing. “The biggest challenge we have is the people still working for $7.25—to get them to believe,” she said.
Racial Justice in the New Economy
Earlier this year, an organizer from the group New York Communities for Change approached Saavedra Jantuah outside her West 34th Street Burger King to talk about the issues she’s facing in her community. Jantuah told the organizer that her problems came down to the conditions of her job, where she’s been paid a nickel more than the New York State minimum wage since she started working there two years ago. Pretty soon she found herself among a small group of people who decided to strike. On Thursday, she didn’t show up for work.
The New York City strike was the latest in a string of headline-generating labor fights between workers and the largest low-wage employers in the country. Throughout Thanksgiving week, news media buzzed with discussion of the black Friday strikes at Walmart. And earlier this year, New York Communities for Change and other groups waged a successful campaign to organize several of the city’s car washes. Under the radar, they were also organizing McDonalds, Burger King, KFC and other fast food chains.
The news comes amid generally dreary times for labor—decades of decline in unionization, constant attacks on public sector workers, and the sudden news yesterday that Michigan’s legislature and governor raced through new legislation to make it much harder to organizer workers in the historic center of American manufacturing. When Gov. Rick Snyder signs the bill on Tuesday, it will be the 24th state to pass what promoters have dubbed “right to work” laws.
The political losses for manufacturing unions corresponds with their diminishing standing in the labor market relative to service and retail jobs. An oft-cited report by the National Employment Law Project reveals that in the fledgling economic recovery, the only parts of the labor market that are expanding significantly provide low-wages. The report finds 43 percent of all jobs gained in the last two years were in food service, retail and other services sector work. These are some of the least unionized jobs in the country. Only about 7 percent of private sector workers have a union and that rate is even lower for service workers.
This new economy is populated by an increasingly non-white labor force. The average fast food worker is about 30 years old, female and, as with low-wage work in general, likely to be a person of color. In 2011, 28 percent of working black women and over 31 percent of working Latinas had jobs in the service sector, compared to about 20 percent of white women.
Further, black and Latino workers are concentrated in the lowest-paying jobs in the service sector, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
The concentration of people of color in fast food and other service work is heightened in large urban centers like New York. Like all of the dozen or so workers I could see behind the Burger King counter and in the cook room last night, Jantuah is black. All but two or three of the workers there were women. Most were in the 20s and 30s.
“It is important to understand that the current fight for better jobs among retail, warehouse, and fast-food workers is a fight a racial justice,” said Steven Pitts, a labor economist at University of California-Berkeley who studies new models of organizing. “These jobs are not disappearing; therefore, it will be impossible to improve the quality of life in communities of color if retail workers are paid poorly.”
An Uncharted Path
If the nature of the new economy is that it can’t keep a mother and her son housed, the need to come up with answers is profound. But organizers and labor scholars say that when it comes to fast food work, they don’t really know how it’ll be done.
“These organizations might not be unions in the sense of post-World War II autoworkers and steelworker unions, but, as vehicles for collective action, they are just as important,” said Pitts. “I don’t know the exact form they will take at the end.”
Annette Bernhardt, author of the National Ecomimic Law Project report on service jobs, said the same. The “core challenge for the fast food and retail workers going forward is figuring out the best organizing models for their industry, and then building up a level of power that can actually change industry-wide practice.”
Unlike union work of yesteryear, McDonald’s employees are not centralized at a 15,000-worker auto plant where a concerted organizing push can galvanize a union fast. With a couple dozen workers in any given fast food outpost, which is sometimes owned by the larger corporation and sometimes operated as a franchise, and a total lack of traditional organizing spaces like break rooms, chain restaurants don’t look like many other workplaces that have successfully unionized. And even if they can win a union for a couple of the restaurants, the challenge of scaling that up is significant.
Meanwhile, labor law is not on the worker’s side.
“The biggest barrier the sector faces has been ferocious employer opposition,” said John Schmitt, a labor economist with the progressive think tank Center for Economic Policy Research. “And the ferocious behavior is not punished, it’s reinforced.”
Consequently, fear of the bosses is keeping many of Jantuah’s co-workers from jumping on board. At the Burger King, I asked another young black woman at the front counter what she thought of the strike. “Well, for me I think it’s good, you know, but I didn’t do it,” she told me in a hushed voice.
I ask her why. “Well, I think for me, well some people may be scared, you know, some people may be scared of losing it. People rely on this.”
A woman in a white shirt with no hat or hairnet, the middle-shift manager, looked down the counter, and said, “You’re not supposed to be talking about that at work.” The women I was chatting with quickly turned around to bag more burgers.
“The service sector is the least likely to be unionized,” said Schmitt. “It is a heavy lift and it’s a huge uphill battle”
“But I’d also say there was a time when there was a very low manufacturing union density and then there have been enormous bursts,” Schmitt adds. “This is the time to see what’s possible.”
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