Fast food strikes intensify in seven cities The biggest walkout yet begins this morning — and the strikes could have far-reaching implications for labor
Fast food strikes intensify in seven cities
Demonstrators protesting low wages and the lack of union representation in the fast food industry stand outside of a McDonald’s restaurant near Times Square in New York, April 4, 2013 (Credit: Lucas Jackson / Reuters)
This morning marks the start of what will likely be the largest fast food worker mobilization in U.S. history, with a New York City walkout today kicking off strikes in seven cities over four days. These work stoppages by non-union workers are the latest escalation in an embattled labor movement’s unprecedented challenge to the overwhelmingly non-union industry, whose ranks are growing and whose conditions are spreading elsewhere in the U.S. economy.
“I know you’re tired of suffering,” KFC employee Naquasia LeGrand told fellow workers gathered with clergy and politicians at a rally last Wednesday announcing that New York City worker-activists had voted to strike this week. “I don’t want to see the next generation suffering and suffering. I don’t want my kids suffering. I want to make sure they have a better future than I do.” Looking out on a crowd of about 150 at the entrance to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, LeGrand added, “So if I want that to happen, I need you guys to stand with me just as long as I’m standing with you.”
As Salon first reported, the fast food effort went public last November, with a strike by about 200 employees of various chains in New York City. Over the past four months, that walkout has been followed by similar work stoppages in five other cities, and a second New York City strike roughly twice as large. Each of those strikes has been backed by the Service Employees International Union and local allies, and each has shared the same demands: a raise to $15 per hour, and the chance to form a union without intimidation by management. This week’s strikes will include five of those six cities – New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, and Milwaukee- and two new ones: Kansas City and Flint, Mich. (A spokesperson for the campaign in Seattle, where workers struck in May, told Salon to expect “a series of escalating direct actions” there this week.)
“I might be doing the work of three people” due to under-staffing, McDonald’s employee Kareem Starks told me after Wednesday’s rally, “but still getting paid one wage.” Starks, a 30-year-old former Parks Department employee, said it’s “been hard trying to live off the minimum wage, $7.25, and support my two kids plus pay rent.” As we spoke, a fellow fast food worker walked over to introduce himself, congratulate Starks on the speech he’d just delivered, and show him a scar on his arm. “I got burned too myself,” he told Starks. “But my manager doesn’t care.”
Interviewed last month while joining members of Congress to kick off a national “Raise Up America” campaign, St. Louis Jimmy John’s employee Rasheen Aldridge told Salon that there “was a whole lot of nervousness” when he and three co-workers at his store first went on strike in May. “There was a big chance that I could of got fired,” said Aldridge, “because that’s just how, you know, fast food operates.” But when they returned to work in one piece, he said his co-workers’ reaction was “You know, you guys sort of took the step we all need to do.”
McDonald’s and Wendy’s did not respond to Friday requests for comment. Asked about the strikes, Domino’s vice president Tim McIntyre e-mailed, “Opportunity exists for everyone in our system who’s willing to work hard and focus on rising to the next level. For that reason, we don’t focus on an individual, specific wage issue.” For reasons including the “tremendous upward mobility” at Domino’s and the fact that “we are often people’s second job,” McIntyre said, “we don’t believe unions are necessary for our brand…”
In a paper released last week, the progressive National Employment Law Project disputed such mobility claims. Based on a review of census data, NELP wrote, “Opportunities for advancement in the fast food industry are significantly limited compared to other industries: only 2.2 percent of jobs in the fast food industry are managerial, professional, or technical occupations, compared with 31 percent of jobs in the overall U.S. economy…” NELP noted that front-line fast food jobs pay an average of $8.94 an hour.
Whether workers can transform that industry – rather than just hoping to rise within it – has big implications for labor’s future. First, because fast food jobs are increasingly representative of US work: poor compensation, little job security, a constant expectation to put on a happy face for customers, and virtually no unions.
And second, because – following a decades-long economic, judicial, and political attack – the campaign’s strategy represents some of the ways organizers are attempting to break free from a strategic box labor’s been left in to die. Among them: Given the law’s failure to meaningfully compel companies to bargain collectively even when workers want to, and the limits of slick anti-corporate P.R. campaigns that don’t deeply involve workers, some low-wage non-union workers are taking up the strike. Facing changes that have made strikes more risky and less effective, they’re mounting short-term strikes by a minority of the workforce designed to ignite further activism, embarrass management, and engage the public, while reducing (but not eliminating) the risk the workers will lose their jobs.
Those strikes anchor and amplify a range of other comprehensive campaign efforts, from criminal charges filed by Seattle workers over alleged “wage theft,” to a full-court media press to embarrass McDonald’s over the budget calculator it offered its low-wage workers. Jonathan Westin, who directs New York’s Fast Food Forward campaign, told Salon he doubts that national TV outlets would have lingered on the budget story if workers hadn’t forced a debate about the industry by repeatedly going on strike. “The more and more workers continue to take action and continue to publicize their fight,” said Westin, “the more and more it starts to get at the fast food industry’s biggest asset, which is their name brand. And I think that’s what we’re beginning to see in a very real way.”
This week’s wave of strikes got an early start Friday night, when workers walked out at a Brooklyn Domino’s to protest the firing of an activist co-worker, Gregory Reynoso, following their April strike. Striker Jose Cruz told Salon that about 90% of the workers on the busy evening shift joined the work stoppage, forcing cancellations of deliveries. (Workers at two other Domino’s locations, a Papa John’s, and a McDonald’s also took part in Friday’s prequel strike.)
While the fast food efforts have mostly avoided publicly emphasizing retaliation, workers’ well-founded fear of illegal punishment for organizing remains the greatest challenge for this campaign and others like it. Friday’s strike echoes fast food work stoppages over lack of air-conditioning the week before, which also mobilized workers around a store-specific demand, and the occupation of a Wendy’s the day after the November strike, which also used direct action to challenge management’s alleged attempt to fire a striker (unlike Reynoso, who’s now working as an organizer on the campaign, that Wendy’s worker was quickly reinstated).
In an e-mail to Salon, Domino’s’ McIntyre denied retaliation and said that Reynoso was fired because he “grabbed his crotch several times, ignored a directive to stop and used profanities.” Reynoso told Salon that a Domino’s human resources official had told him after the April strike that he wasn’t allowed to discuss the union with his co-workers, and that when he disagreed, the official suspended him on the spot. “They fired him because he was a main leader in the union,” said co-worker Cruz. Reynoso expressed confidence that the National Labor Relations Board would ultimately agree.
Reynoso said the doubling of participation between New York’s November and April strikes showed him the effort “was literally growing up.” “Of course we need support,” he added. “We need a lot of support. But it depends on the workers. If we keep standing up, we can make it you know. It depends on us.”
“As a consciousness-raising strategy for the United States, it’s really great,” said City University of New York labor expert Ruth Milkman. “This campaign by itself can’t change the enormous obstacles to winning union recognition today in any private sector union workplace…” Milkman told Salon yesterday. “I don’t see any path forward on that front.” But given the high profile of the fast food industry and increasing consumer focus on food, Milkman argued the effort – if it grew big enough – could shame the industry into raising its standards in order to protect its brand. “If it were ever successful,” she said, “it would affect so many more people than any living wage law we’ve got.”
Another scenario would be for a single company, facing a critical mass of disruption, embarrassment, and legal liability, to defect from the industry’s so-far united front and sign a deal paving the way for collective bargaining by some number of its employees – perhaps with a trigger requiring some competitors to sign on first, perhaps requiring SEIU not to organize its stores outside a certain geographic area, perhaps agreeing in advance on how much an initial contract could cost. Where unions have reached such deals in other industries – sometimes involving controversial concessions – they’ve increased pressure on hold-outs to follow suit. But given the size and clout of the fast food industry, and the centrality of low costs and management control to the way it does business, expect any cave-in or compromise to require explosive escalation first.
Interviewed following Friday night’s strike, Jose Soto framed this week’s seven strikes as an incremental step. “Little by little, we’re getting closer…” he said. “We won’t settle until we get what we want. We’re gonna keep on.”
Why America Should Not Tolerate Low Pay For Fast Food Worker
September 14, 2013 • By Darron Smith
Capitalism’s emphasis on property rights has been historically fraught with peril since its inception as an economic force in the Western world. Capitalism is an economic system in which assets are privately owned and commodities and services are produced for profit in an otherwise global and competitive market place. But, as seen when the many bloody European revolutions transpired during the fall of feudalism, capitalism has routinely placed property rights over human rights.
American roots in capitalism run deep, beginning early during the Transatlantic slave trade when Africans were brought to the eastern shores of what is now North America. Stolen from their native lands and placed in chains for the voyage to America, Africans were exploited for their labor power, leaving their status among the ranks of humans to be determined by elite white men. Slavery built up the economic engine that propelled American capitalism, creating enormous wealth for white elites on the backs of Blacks. The history of African Americans and other race-based conflicts provided a blueprint for further economic-based exploits that stratified people on the basis of social class position, further advancing economic class divisions by deepening the gulf between the haves and have nots. Class matters because it provides individuals with access to society’s most valued resources like good paying jobs, stability and other financial rewards. The higher the class position the more resources afforded for individuals and families.
But not all people benefit equally and few actually move up in social class position in life, as we uncritically tend to believe. People of color and women disproportionately make up the bulk of the working class and working poor who are generally invisible and out of sight from the daily happenings of the shrinking middle class. Given our past development in maintaining cheap labor such as the utilization of “sweat shops” by our nation’s major corporations, the mounting pressure of increasing inflation and economic instability have cause the working class to take matters into their own hands. Fast food workers in 60 cities walked off their jobs en masse recently, protesting the economic injustice they have long endured before a greedy restaurant empire.
The fast food industry has long exploited the working class for cheap labor, maintaining a protracted policy of low wages that only benefits corporate elites. Currently, the minimum wage of $7.75 per hour is on the edge of the poverty line for an individual and certainly cannot support a family of four. The reluctance on the part of the government (Department of Labor) to mandate steady increases has contributed, in part, to the wage disparities currently under scrutiny. There is much evidence to show that paying living wages to sustain life above poverty is good for society and makes good business sense.
Research consistently shows that more unequal societies generally have higher levels of social problems, negative self-perceptions, poorer health status, and increased mental and emotional disorders than more equal societies. Conversely, there are also positive benefits to equal societies that translate into a better-educated citizenry and overall better general health, more innovation from within society, higher social mobility and greater levels of societal trust, which results in a lowered crime rate. Thus, when working class individuals are able to secure and maintain steady decent employment and compensation that allows them to rise above the poverty line, society benefits as a whole. As Dr. King so eloquently said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
The meager wages that fast food workers are paid in the United States compared to other parts of the Western world reveals much about where our national interests lie and the degree of pro-government involvement with the corporate world. This relationship has allowed many US corporations to flourish, at times creating extraordinary profits even during economic downturn. But capitalism comes at a high price for the oppressed, usually at the at the expense of the poor and disadvantaged. In this case, the proletariat is primarily women with children, who make up the bulk of low-wage fast food workers. This sort of labor requires no formal education and generally attracts people from the fringes of society who are trying to maintain a good living in our downwardly mobile economy.
Many Western European democracies consider the United States an unequal and stratified society, historically divided around skin tone, religious persuasion, sexuality, wealth and income inequality. Capitalism deepens this suffering as the very idea of a system designed to allow great economic success for one must come at the expense of another. This history is now being met with contemporary appeals by a growing economically disenfranchised populace who are left to fend for themselves in a class-based society where there is more rhetoric over the ability to move up the ladder than research actually shows.
The degree of American discontent over the uncertainty of the economy and the class-based society that defines us as a nation, divided not only by race but by social class position, is our legacy to bear and hopefully undue as it is a matter of public policy for the common good. Like other forms of white-imposed oppression, class-based injustice presents a growing threat to our national security, image and standing in the world as well as our well being as a nation. But it does not have to be this way. American understandings of work, which has notoriously placed property at the center of analysis, can reverse course by beginning to legislate and implement sound policies. To improve our society, these policies must include greater attention to wages and benefits that have the potential to economically empower its most valuable commodity, its citizens.
Dr. Darron Smith is an assistant professor in the Department of Physician Assistant Studies at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. Follow him on twitter @drdarronsmith.