Something is wrong in America. In towns and cities across the country, fast-food workers have been walking off the job. That’s not how it’s supposed to work. They are supposed to say, “May I take your order, please?” But, in a series of strikes that escalated to national scale in late August, workers at Burger Kings, Dairy Queens and other leading quick meal palaces weren’t taking orders, neither from customers nor from managers. Workers in Colonel Sanders’s army broke rank at Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets. Picket lines went up under the golden arches of McDonald’s. America’s low-wage underbelly rumbled.
“Everybody is standing up today,” said Naquasia LeGrand, a 21-year old New Yorker who divides her time between working for two Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets — one in Brooklyn, the other in Queens — and organizing for a union. She was among a crowd of 100 or so that shut down a Midtown Manhattan McDonald’s before dawn on August 29.
The atmosphere inside the restaurant was like that of a revival. The two-story McDonald’s was packed to capacity with strikers and their supporters, clapping and chanting “Can’t Survive on $7.25” — a reference to the New York State and federal minimum wage. A local pastor emceed the occasion while city council members jockeyed for stage time.
The job action on August 29 was the latest show of force from a campaign demanding union recognition and $15 an hour that began with a one-day strike involving 200 people in New York City last November. Since then, the union drive has taken root in several East Coast and Midwestern cities, including Boston, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Detroit, Flint, Mich. and Milwaukee. The fresh wave of strikes marked new territory for the campaign as workers stepped out of kitchens in West Coast and Southern cities — Los Angeles, Seattle, Tampa, Fla. and Raleigh, N.C., among them.
Even in Texas
Jose Avila, a 22-year-old Houston resident who works for Subway, watched on TV as the fast-food strikes spread earlier this year. “Why aren’t we stepping up?” he asked himself.
That summer, campaigners with the Texas Organizing Project approached Avila while he was working behind the counter at his job. It was one of the hottest days of the year and the store’s air conditioner was broken. On top of that the restaurant was understaffed and Avila was doing a job meant for two.
“They came in and they saw the struggle I was going through,” he said. “They spoke about the strike they were planning, and I decided to jump in and fight the fight.” Avila
and approximately 100 other fast-food workers joined the national strike, holding rallies, pickets and speak-outs at numerous Houston restaurants.
The new escalation from fast-food workers comes at a time of soaring inequality in America. A recent review of data from the Internal Revenue Service by researchers at the University of California, Oxford and the Paris School of Economics finds earnings for those in the top 1 percent of the U.S. economy increased by nearly 20 percent last year. The study further finds that 95 percent of wealth gains made since the 2008 recession went to America’s richest individuals. Meanwhile, ordinary Americans are working longer hours for less pay. Mid-wage jobs constituted 60 percent of jobs lost in the recession while low-wage jobs accounted for 58 percent of those recovered, according to the National Employment Law Project.
The $170-billion-a-year fast-food industry exemplifies what workers seeking to lift themselves and their families out of poverty are up against. Despite its high rate of profitability, workers in the industry earn wages that hover at or just above the legal minimum.
The National Restaurant Association, acting as a mouthpiece for America’s leading fast-food giants, has pushed back, saying that $15 an hour is an unreasonable expectation and that price hikes and layoffs would ensue should the demands of striking workers be met. Other detractors have claimed that employees could be replaced by iPads.
But iPads can’t wipe down tables or fry french fries. In Australia, the minimum wage is $15.96 and the cost of a Big Mac remains relatively the same as in the United States. If the industry is looking to cut costs, campaigners contend, they can start with salaries at the top: The average fast-food executive makes $25,000 a day, more than what a fast-food restaurant employee takes home in a year.
For his part, President Obama proposed raising the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour last spring, but the measure has stalled in Congress, where lawmakers are instead debating cuts to food stamps that millions of low-wage workers depend on. Even if Obama’s proposed wage increase were to pass, the slight bump would do little to raise those employed in minimum-wage industries out of poverty.
Impatient, fast-food workers are banding together and seeking to force change from below. The union drive has been underwritten largely by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which has provided funding for localized community groups like the Texas Organizing Project and New York Communities for Change to mobilize on the ground. Some critics have speculated that the strikes have more to do with the SEIU flexing its political muscles and creating a media spectacle than achieving the campaign’s stated objectives. However, workers again and again say they decided to join the campaign because they felt that they had little to lose.
Kareem Sparks, a 30-year-old Brooklyn McDonald’s worker, joined the union drive in the run-up to a previous round of walkouts, which took place on July 31. Once his employer got wind of it, he was offered a promotion. “They wanted to make me a manager,” he said. “I turned them down, since that would mean I couldn’t organize, I couldn’t speak out.”
Since the union drive got underway in New York City and began spreading nationwide, there have been numerous instances of higher-ups firing workers and using other forms of retaliation, such as slashing their hours to prevent them from unionizing. In response, workers have mobilized in each other’s defense, in some instances shutting down restaurants and negotiating with management to rehire laid-off employees. Other cases are being handled through courts by lawyers retained by the local campaigns.
When Sparks talks to fellow workers, he reminds them that they have rights on the job. “Supervisors and general managers automatically assume that they can intimidate workers and make us feel like we don’t have the right to organize, when we do,” he said.
Often, these conversations happen at fast-food restaurants, where, when he can afford it, Sparks takes his children for dinner.
“People in this country like to eat fast food,” he explained. “I indulge in it myself. When I get a chance to go out and spend a little money on fast food, I try to acknowledge the workers. I try to educate them on the situation. I show them clips on my cell phone of me talking to the press, being on TV. I basically encourage them to join in because we need as many people with us as possible.”
Analysts agree that the odds are stacked against the fast-food campaign winning collective bargaining rights or what would amount to a near doubling of wages. The union drive, however, could have broader effects on the living standards of millions of people across the country.
Nelson Lichtenstein, the director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California–Santa Barbara, doubts the campaign will achieve its immediate demands. Instead, he argues that the struggle could lead to broader victories if it keeps the discussion of wages front and center in the national dialogue.
“If your goal is a collective bargaining agreement at the 42nd Street McDonald’s, you might get it actually. But it won’t do you any good,” said Lichtenstein, explaining that the majority of the nation’s fast-food outlets are run by individual franchise owners and organized by regions. This structure enables mega-chains like McDonald’s to divert responsibility for abusive labor practices while generating super-size profits. Such a victory, however, could set off a larger wave of concessions from the industry in major metropolitan areas — compromises that likely wouldn’t include contracts but would most certainly feature a bump in pay.
More significantly, Lichtenstein explained that the strikes could energize the political campaign challenging lawmakers to raise the minimum wage. They also bring the subject of inequality and the stagnation of wages to the forefront of the policy agenda.
Naquasia LeGrand, who took part in the first one-day strike last November in New York, was more optimistic. The August 29 job actions multiplied her sense of what is possible. She expects that, as more and more workers see their counterparts joining in the union drive, it will have a snowball effect and their numbers will continue to increase. “Who knows?” she said. “The whole world could stand up.”
Peter Rugh is a freelance reporter and activist based in Brooklyn, New York. Sections of this article are drawn from earlier journalism that appeared at WagingNonviolence.org.