(NEW YORK) MintPress – Just one week after non-union employees at 1,000 Walmart stores across the country escalated their unprecedented wave of strikes, bringing the biggest disruptions yet to the retail giant, fast food workers at several restaurant chains throughout New York City made history of their own when they walked off the job on Thursday to protest low wages.
Employees from McDonald’s, Burger King, Domino’s, Taco Bell, Wendy’s and Papa John’s all participated in what organizers said was the biggest effort ever to unionize fast food workers in the U.S. It was also the first multi-restaurant strike by fast food workers in an industry that is typified by low wages, limited hours and lack of job security.
The action, which has been in the works for months, was coordinated by community and civil rights groups as well as religious leaders, including New York Communities for Change, UnitedNY.org, the Black Institute and Service Employees International Union
Jonathan Westin, organizing director at New York Communities for Change, said hundreds of workers had voiced support for the campaign to form a new union, the Fast Food Workers Committee, and receive a pay raise from near-minimum hourly wages to $15 an hour. They have also signed a petition stating their demands.
“The fast food industry employs tens of thousands of workers in New York, but these companies are not paying them a living wage,” he tells MintPress. “A lot of them can’t afford to get by. A lot have to rely on public assistance, and taxpayers are often footing the bill.”
The first walkout took place at 6:30 a.m. at a McDonalds on Madison Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. Dozens of striking workers and supporters chanted, “Hey, hey, what do you say? We demand fair pay.”
“They’re not paying us enough to survive,” McDonald’s worker Raymond Lopez told Salon in a pre-strike interview. The 21-year-old Lopez said he decided to take part in the strike because “This company has enough money to pay us a reasonable amount for all that we do … they’re just not going to give it to us as long as they can get away with it. I think we need to be heard.”
Lopez has been at McDonald’s for two years and makes $8.75 an hour as a shift manager. He also works at two other jobs – catering and doing leaf work – while paying off student loans, pursuing an acting career and helping to support his family.
Lopez received extra inspiration from the Black Friday example at Walmart. “I thought it was really ballsy for someone to do that,” he said, “which I admired.”
Bottom of the barrel
Among those backing the workers’ efforts is the Rev. Michael Walrond of the First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem. “It is a matter of justice,” he said. “We seek to protect those who are the most vulnerable in our culture, and some of the most vulnerable people in the city are fast-food workers who work for poverty wages.”
Indeed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics,“Combined Food Service and Preparation Workers, Including Fast Food” is the lowest-paid job category in New York City.
State Labor Department data shows the the median pay for fast food workers in the city is about $9 an hour, which amounts to roughly $18,500 a year for a full-time employee.
At the same time, most people in the industry are part time. University of Pennsylvania sociologist Robin Leidner, author of “Fast Food, Fast Talk,” said, “No one gets enough hours to trigger the legal protections, and to make them eligible for any health benefits . … You can’t earn enough with one job, but given the unpredictability, it’s extremely hard to hold down more than one.”
She also pointed out that the jobs are “very heavily surveilled”: Customers keep workers on their toes, cash registers store instantaneous sales data, managers regulate employees’ expressions and corporate officials pore over individual stores’ metrics in search of ways to boost profits.
McDonald’s issued a statement about the push for unionization, in which it said, “McDonald’s values our employees and has consistently remained committed to them, so in turn they can provide quality service to our customers.”
The company added that it had “an open dialogue with our employees” and always encouraged them to express any concerns “so we can continue to be an even better employer.” It noted that most of its restaurants were owned and operated by franchisees “who offer pay and benefits competitive within the” industry.
Said one male worker outside the McDonald’s on Madison Avenue, “We can’t pay rent, pay bills.” He has worked for the company for eight years and makes $8 an hour. “We need change,” he added.
Change has been difficult to achieve, however. In recent decades, explained Columbia University political scientist Dorian Warren, even the most effective U.S. unions have “had such a hard time organizing in their core industries,” where they already have members, “that fast food just got left out … no one was really willing to take the risk and invest in fast food organizing.”
“These jobs have extremely high turnover, so by the time you get around to organizing folks, they’re not on the job anymore,” said Ruth Milkman, a sociology professor at the City University of New York.
Westin’s New York Communities for Change has played a major part in the recent unionizing of other low-wage workers in the city; in the past year, the group has worked closely with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and other organizations to win unionization votes at four car washes and six supermarkets.
“But it’s going to be a lot harder for them to win union recognition,” said Cornell labor relations professor Richard W. Hurd, referring to fast food workers
“It will be harder to unionize them than car wash workers because the parent companies will fight hard against it, because they worry if you unionize fast food outlets in New York, that’s going to have a lot of ramifications elsewhere.”
That is one reason Westin says their campaign is still developing its overall strategy. They are achieving the immediate goal, however, with the work stoppage by allowing workers to express anger about how they’ve been treated and helping to mobilize the community.
“I don’t know what to expect” from the strike, said McDonald’s employee Lopez. “It’s such a unique thing. A lot of stuff could happen. It’s not going to be overnight.”