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Fast-Food Campaign for Living Wages Escalates with Civil Disobedience

Geoff Gilbert Sep 5, 2014

For the first time since the national fast food workers’ movement for living wages and union recognition began in November 2012, workers escalated their protests on Thursday to acts of civil disobedience. Police arrested 36 workers for stopping traffic outside two Midtown McDonald’s locations. 

Fast Food Forward, a national organization funded by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), organized the protests in conjunction with local organizations, including New York Communities for Change, United New York, New York Central Worker Council, Make the Road New York, NYC Turn Up and the Black Institute.  

Workers walked off the job across 150 U.S. cities, in the seventh one-day strike since the movement began. Over 400 workers were arrested nationally, according to organizers. 

Starting around 6am, 400 to 500 protesters filled a sidewalk on West 41st St. between 7th and 8th Avenues. Local faith groups, musicians and members of the community joined the workers from McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, Papa John’s, Domino’s, Wendy’s and Checkers in protest. 

The protesters held signs reading “On Strike to Lift My Family Up,” “Whatever It Takes for $15 and Union Rights” and “Mejores Sueldos Por un New York Mas Fuerte,” as they marched down to 39th St. and back up 8th Ave. to the McDonald’s on 42nd St. where 21 of the arrests occurred. 

Outside the Times Square McDonald’s, protesters chanted, “Workers united will not be defeated.” When police removed and arrested workers sitting in the middle of the street, the crowd cheered.  

Business continued as usual in McDonald’s, as employees, dressed in unmarked black clothing, denied entrance to the restaurant to people they determined were part of the protest. 

Around noon, protesters marched from the Martin Luther King Jr. Labor Center, where they rested after the morning demonstration, to a rally in front of the McDonald’s at the corner of West 56th St. and 8th Ave. 

The workers continued their protests against low wages, scheduling practices that reduce their hours below full time and deny them benefits, and employer opposition to attempts to unionize. They want the City of New York to raise its minimum wage, which would require a change in state law that denies cities the ability to set their own minimum wage.

Brooklyn Papa John’s employee Shantel Walker emphasized low pay as the main reason she became involved in the movement.

“We’re sick of the poverty wages,” Walker said. “We are not making enough money, we just do not have enough means to go around. You know, some people are going to school, some people are struggling.”

Walker makes $8.50 an hour after having worked at Papa John’s since 1999, and she is typically scheduled for 25 or 26 hours each week. She does everything from making pizzas and working the cash register to cleaning, organizing inventory and answering the phone.

The ten most profitable fast food companies’ 2013 profits were a combined $16.89 billion. And the National Restaurant Association, an industry advocacy group, estimates 2012 industry sales reached an all-time high of $660 billion.

“I’m asking for a fair living wage,” Walker explained. “I’m out here protesting, I’m really adamant about what it is because I see what’s going on everyday and it’s not looking prosperous. And if tomorrow looks like today, then we’re not doing too good as a people. We need to keep fighting, and we’re going to keep fighting until we win.”

There were 70,000 workers in New York City in 2011 whose job involved a combination of preparing food and serving customers, primarily at fast food restaurants, according to a study by United NY, a grassroots coalition supporting working people, and the Center for Popular Democracy, a social organizing and policy advocacy organization. Their median hourly wage was $8.83. 

Nationally, the fast food industry employs roughly four million people. The 2011 median hourly wage for non-managerial employees was $8.69, according a report released last year by the University of California, Berkeley Labor Center and the University of Illinois. The study also found that more than half of families of fast food workers receive some form of federal assistance, at an annual cost of $7 billion to taxpayers.

Following the nationwide protests, the National Council of Chain Restaurants, a restaurant industry advocacy group, issued a statement: “There are millions of workers in the food retail industry who find personal satisfaction in their work and appreciate the opportunities provided by the restaurants that hire them.”

“The activities being coordinated, financed and facilitated by labor unions — desperate for new membership dues — accomplish absolutely nothing.”

Workers, however, expressed the desire to form a union so that they can have a stronger voice in determining their pay and conditions in the work place. 

Midtown McDonald’s employee Jumal Tarber cited fear of employer retaliation as the reason more of his co-workers have not been involved in the movement.

“Basically, co-workers don’t really want you to participate in it because of the fear of losing their jobs by participating in things like this,” Tarber explained. “It’s not a direct threat, per se, but if they found out and if they have any problems with it, they could do whatever they feel that they need to do.”

The movement has had some success creating a larger coalition of low-wage workers. For example, home care workers marched in solidarity in some of the 150 cities, according to organizers, though they did not march in New York City.

“The more people fighting, we, basically, will have even more power behind us,” Tarber added.

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