NY Fast Food Workers Serve Up a Fight for Economic Justice

The picket line behind us broke out into song. “Ain’t no stoppin’ us now,” they sang, joined by a woman who’d been selling music on the sidewalk before the workers showed up to rally. “Justice is contagious,” Foy remarked.

As we stood there, another Wendy’s worker walked out to join the strike, holding his hands above his head while the crowd cheered.


The fast food campaign began with organizers from New York Communities for Change, a community group that has also worked with grocery store workers, car wash workers, and other people around the city struggling to pay New York’s outsize rents and ever-increasing MTA fares on minimum wage or close to it. Partnering, sometimes, with labor unions like the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) or Service Employees International Union (SEIU), NYCC has helped workers often considered un-organizable win battles against their bosses.

To Harley Shaiken, professor at the University of California at Berkeley and expert on unions and labor, the characteristic that binds all these workers together is the precariousness of their work lives. “We call these workers ‘service workers,’ that’s the sector, but they’re really vulnerable workers,” he explained. “It is low wages, lack of benefits, not enough hours, but it’s also an issue of dignity on the job. For them to act together is a step forward.”

NYCC uses a community-based approach to their labor organizing, applying pressure on bosses by calling attention to workers’ struggles on and off the job, bringing clergy, neighbors, and elected officials to support them, and organizing across the entire sector rather than trying to win union elections shop by shop. Frances Fox Piven, professor of sociology at the CUNY graduate center, called it “heartening” that established unions are reaching out with both hands to this more social-movement style organizing.

Short-term rolling strikes have been drawing attention around the country at Walmart stores and warehouses, and organizers agree that it’s a different kind of tactic from historic strikes, where workers went out and stayed out until they won. Here, the one-day strike by workers across the city was a shot across the bow to low-wage employers, a show of solidarity and of power.

Stephen Lerner, longtime labor organizer and architect of the groundbreaking Justice for Janitors campaign, noted that these strikes work well when workers are angry and mistreated and want to express that—and the success of one strike builds momentum for another.

The fast food sector has bounced back from the recession and is doing fine—in fact, it’s growing. According to statistics from the New York Department of Labor, there are some 50,000 fast-food workers in the city, and fast food has added jobs 19 times faster than the private sector as a whole in New York City. Fast food work is projected to grow by almost 15 percent by 2018.

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And the industry is profitable—McDonald’s has seen profits nationwide go up some 130 percent over the last four fiscal years, and Yum! Brands, which operates KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, has seen profits rise 45 percent, according to a recent report from the National Employment Law Project. Annette Bernhardt, the author of that report, commented, “It’s clear that the industry has done well during the recovery and in fact has been dominating job growth. That has not translated into wages.”

Those companies, if they wanted to change the standard of living for their workers, could do a lot. Lerner explained, “Whether it’s franchise industries or private equity, you have ownership structures at the top that make a whole set of rules, how much a hamburger will sell for, how much profit you make.” Yet, he pointed out, they claim not to be able to set rules for how workers will be treated—even though that too is clearly under their control. “If any franchisees didn’t pay their franchise fee, that would be unacceptable, but if you treat your workers like garbage, they don’t care.” (continue reading…)