The McJobs Strike Back: Will Fast-Food Workers Ever Get a Living Wage?

The Atlantic

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Edwin Guzman already lost his job once for union-organizing. But today, he and several hundred fast food workers across New York City are on strike anyway.

A few weeks ago, an organizer with the Fast Food Forward campaign, begun by New York Communities for Change (NYCC) and supported by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and other labor and community groups walked into the Burger King in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where Guzman works. He had a petition with him, calling for a raise to $15-an-hour and union recognition for the workers. Guzman and some of his colleagues signed.

Not long afterward, he had to take a couple of days off for a court date--he was being evicted from his apartment, in part because of his steadily decreasing hours and low pay at his job. Like most of the city's fast food workers, he makes just $7.25 an hour and struggles with irregular scheduling. When he returned to work, his supervisor called him in to talk.

"He told me he had to let me go," Guzman explained. "He felt like I disrespected him. He felt violated that I signed the petition."

When Guzman told the organizers what had happened, they explained to him that firing workers for union activity is illegal, and that they'd support him if he wanted to fight back. With the help of City Councilman Brad Lander, after a meeting with the boss, Guzman and one of his other coworkers were reinstated. That cemented his commitment to the union campaign.


Today is the second citywide day of strikes in New York's fast food industry. On November 29, 2012, some 200 workers at McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, KFC, Taco Bell, and Domino's Pizza locations across multiple boroughs struck in what Jonathan Westin, executive director of NYCC, called "their coming out party." Before that, Westin explained, the workers had been organizing behind the scenes, keeping their plans quiet. Now, he said, even in the face of intimidation from their bosses, the workers have been able to grow their movement.

"We'll have double the number of strikers, four or five hundred workers on strike, and double the locations too," Westin said. "We will have several stores where it will not just be minority strikes like it was last time, we will have the majority of workers at several stores out on strikes, making it hard for them to do business on this day."

The date, April 4, holds special meaning for the workers and many of their supporters in the community. It is the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. King was in Memphis to support the strike of the city's sanitation workers, whose "I Am a Man" signs made clear that their labor struggle was part of the larger civil rights fight. Last week, two of those strikers, Alvin Turner and Baxter Leach, met with some of the fast food workers to share advice and inspiration.

In addition to the historic significance of the date, this strike comes on the heels of two political victories for New York's low-wage workers: the passage, more than three years in the making, of a bill requiring that workers in New York City receive paid sick leave, and an increase in the state's minimum wage. Within that context, the workers are part of a growing movement for economic justice that is proving its political impact.

Beyond Minimum Wage
As part of the budget deal passed in Albany, New York state's minimum wage will go up to $8 an hour on December 31. The following year it will go to $8.75, and the year after that it will hit $9 per hour. This will mean, in the words of Michael Kink, executive director of the Strong Economy for All Coalition, billions of dollars in the pockets of one and a half million New Yorkers. And Kink credits the growing movement of low-wage workers for the victory.

"Two years ago we had a thousand people occupying the capital demonstrating against massive budget cuts, massive tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires," Kink said. After the original budget battle came rallies on May 12, 2011, and then the explosion that was Occupy Wall Street. "We built something of a movement for economic justice and won some victories," he said. "Last time around getting the millionaire's tax was a hand-to-hand combat full pitched battle, occupations in every major city in New York and lots of small ones. This time around it was like OK, let's pass the millionaire's tax. We're starting to make progress on significant elements of economic policy and economic justice."

Westin agreed. "Coming off the strikes last year, in conjunction with the Walmart strikes, I think it really did help change the narrative in New York and nationally on low-wage work. When the president talked in his State of the Union about minimum wage, Governor Cuomo talked about minimum wage in his State of the State--a lot of what happened last year helped drive the narrative in terms of getting things done."

But even $9 an hour, the target that President Obama named and that New York will hit in three years, isn't enough to live on in New York City. According to a 2010 report prepared by the Women's Center for Education and Career Advancement, the "self-sufficiency standard" -- how much it costs to live without relying on government subsidies -- for a single adult living in the Bronx (the cheapest borough) was $12.56 an hour; for an adult with one child, that number jumps to $23.39 an hour. And it's worth noting that in the three years since that report, the cost of a MetroCard alone has jumped $23 a month. Further, Amy Traub, a senior policy analyst at nonpartisan think tank Demos, noted that the median rental apartment price in Brooklyn has gone up some seven percent in the past year alone.

Naquasia LeGrand works at KFC on 4th Avenue in Brooklyn and has been part of the fast-food campaign since before the last strike. She noted that even $10 an hour would not be enough to really live on in the city, but said that the victory nonetheless shows how much the hard work she and the others have put into organizing is paying off.

Republicans in the State Senate blocked a plan to index the minimum wage to inflation, which Traub noted means another fight over the same issue in a few years. But they weren't able to block a wage increase for tipped workers, though just what that raise will be will be determined by a wage board convened by the governor. Kink pointed out that the wage board will provide another opportunity for organizing, as tipped workers within the fast food movement, the growing car wash movement, and airport workers can press for better wages.

Perhaps the worst thing buried in the minimum wage compromise is a massive tax subsidy to employers who hire teenagers. "It's actually a subsidy to displace adult workers who have families who are raising kids so that they can pay teenagers less," Westin said, and Kink pointed out that his coalition fought to block it entirely, then to restrict it to small businesses, but now it will go to companies with billions of dollars in profit like Walmart and McDonald's.

To Westin and LeGrand, the problems with the minimum wage increase show the need for more organizing, for workers not to wait for the legislature to act. Union wins for workers in car washes and grocery stores, Westin noted, are proof that small businesses can handle paying better wages.

"I think that we're beginning to demonstrate the difference between what kinds of wins you can achieve from conventional politics versus the kind of bigger, bolder wins that are possible when there is a real movement," Kink said.

And Ruth Milkman, a sociologist of labor and academic director at the Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies at the City University of New York, pointed out that wins on the legislative front provide momentum to the struggle in the workplace. "To be part of a campaign like this on the rank and file level you have to really believe that you can win."

The Whole Community's Fight
After the first strike, LeGrand explained, her manager started hiring more people, and everyone's hours got cut. "Our main problem right now is that schedule, I did pick up another job but she doesn't want to work with me on my schedule, to help me to help her so that we won't bump heads," she said. Instead, her hours got cut again--so she, and a majority of her KFC colleagues, are out on strike today.

Since the first strike, LeGrand has been attending community meetings, talking to people about the fast food movement, and building support. She expects to see people she's met over the last few months on the picket lines with her today.

Reverend Eric Jackson, of First Calvary Baptist Church and Judson Memorial Church, has been a supporter of the fast food workers since last fall. "In both communities, not having a sufficient wage does have an impact on the congregation. Your level of participation in the community changes if you're always worried about how you're going to survive from day to day," he explained. Along with other ministers, he's been pushing his congregation to stand behind the workers, to stop supporting businesses that don't treat their employees well.

Support from the clergy, particularly in African-American communities, has been key this time around. They helped determine the day of the strike, Westin said, to send a message that these actions were tied to the civil rights movement and its goals of racial and economic justice. "Dr. King, one of the last things he worked on, one of the last things he talked about was the struggle for economic justice," Rev. Jackson said. "He organized Operation Breadbasket and took a stand for the sanitation workers. I think we have a responsibility to carry on that legacy."

The clergy and community supporters should be out in force today, with local churches having "adopted" fast food locations in their neighborhood and invited workers in to speak to their congregations.

Alliances with clergy and a civil-rights based strategy have worked for union drives in the past, Milkman noted. She also stressed that reaching out to fast food customers as well can prove powerful. Many people who regularly patronize fast food chains are themselves lower-wage workers who need something cheap and quick on their way to work.

"If they're serious about winning unionization, those campaigns take years and lots of resources and endless hammering at all the possible pressure points, where this seems like it's at a pretty early stage," she said.

Moving Toward Victory
Edwin Guzman had a union job once before, in a Sunset Park meat market. "We were getting raises every six months, sick days pay, overtime," he said. "It was a good thing so when I heard about them doing it for the fast food industry I was like 'Wow, I'm up for signing it.'"

Though the workers don't officially have a union yet, the campaign already came through for him when they helped him get his job back, and it helped him feel stronger at work and convince others to take action as well.

Other workers, like LeGrand, have reported small raises since their first strike. Ten cents here, twenty cents there--it's not a living wage, but it's a start. They may be a long way from $15, but small victories along the way keep up morale and bring more workers into the fold each time. "It's going to grow even bigger, more people everywhere are going to stand up, to realize they have the right to do this, if you come together and unite you can make a change," LeGrand said, pointing to a burgeoning campaign among Chicago's fast-food workers as an example.

To Traub, the audacious demand is a good sign. "We see a lack of audacity in so many areas that benefit working people, the fact that people have the courage to stand up and ask for frankly what they really deserve, it's very inspiring."

In particular, the demand for a union matters. Like the nixed plan to index the minimum wage to inflation, winning a union makes subsequent fights easier and provides a base on which to build. Cities with strong unions in the service sector, like Las Vegas's Culinary Workers Local 226, have stronger wages and benefits across the board.

Meanwhile, for the rest of the country, wages have been trending downward. "It's almost like we are coming to the rock bottom of how low wages can actually get in this country, how terrible the working conditions can be for folks," Westin said. "The only place to go is to claw our way back up."

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