NY Fast Food Workers Serve Up a Fight for Economic Justice
The conditions are the same from franchise to franchise, making it easy for workers across the industry to make common cause. “In a place like New York fast food is very concentrated block by block and you’ve got a city that’s broadly been labor friendly. If you see the beginnings of something here, it could prove important,” Shaiken noted.
Service-sector jobs are, more and more, the jobs we have, the ones that, as labor economist Mark Price pointed out, can’t be outsourced. Fast-food workers aren’t just teenagers working for extra spending money. They are mothers, like Pamela Flood and Saavedra Jantuah, who told me that she was striking so she could afford to bring her son to live with her again. They are senior citizens, like 79-and-a-half-year-old Jose Cerillo, who have been working at McDonald’s for years and still rely on food stamps and Section 8 housing to survive.
What made manufacturing jobs into good, family-sustaining jobs was that workers struck, formed unions, and pressed for better wages, reasonable hours, and dignity on the job. “Factory jobs were dirty difficult jobs that often killed you and didn’t pay anything,” Price noted. Just like the factories, there’s no reason service sector jobs have to pay poverty wages when the folks at the top are making millions (Yum! Brands’ highest-paid executive made $20.4 million last year, according to the NELP) and the shareholders are cashing dividend checks.
“There should definitely be a change and I’m not talking pennies,” said Naquasia LeGrand, who got a raise of 20 cents an hour after the strike—her first since taking her job at KFC a year and five months ago.
Truvon Shim has a winning smile and knows how to work a crowd—onstage he can raise cheers and shouts from his audience and then quiet them to land his punch line perfectly. He works at the Wendy’s at 291 Livingston Street, but lives all the way out on Far Rockaway. His family lost everything in Superstorm Sandy. “When I finally got to work, I explained it to them,” he told me. “They said just take your time, call us when you want to come back. I called about a week later and they said you’ve been replaced, we have no hours for you.”
He too went on strike on November 29, spending the day telling his story to reporters and speaking at the day’s rallies. And after a meeting with his district manager, he got his hours back—five days a week, 40 hours. At $7.25 an hour (after 14 months at his job), he noted, it’s still not enough to keep him off food stamps, but it’s a start.
On November 30th, the strikers were accompanied back to work by organizers, clergy, community members, and elected officials to make sure they didn’t face retaliation. “We stared down the managers, told them we’re going to be here, we’re going to be watching,” Jonathan Westin, the executive director at NYCC, said.
Only one worker, at the Fulton Mall Wendy’s that was home to the picket-line dance party on strike day, faced reprisal. She was told when she returned to work that she was fired. But she wasn’t alone, and within an hour, according to Westin, over 100 workers and community members, including City Council member Jumaane Williams, Dan Cantor of the Working Families Party, Camille Rivera, executive director of United NY, and himself, rallied in her defense—first inside the store, and then on the street outside. Williams, Westin, Cantor and Rivera walked her back inside and asked the manager to meet with her one more time. “You can allow her to go back to work or expect more of this,” Westin said. “It was in the manager’s best interest to put her back to work.”
“That opened a lot of people up in the store,” Marty Davis, who works at that Wendy’s, told me. “You cannot fire us for believing in our rights and taking action on things.”
After that, Westin said, “The feeling from the workers who didn’t go on strike was that they missed an opportunity to really advocate for higher wages, to really push the envelope with management and with corporate. Knowing what they know now, they would’ve been ready to go on the strike line.” Workers who did strike have met with their colleagues, told them about their experiences, and helped embolden them for the next step.
On December 14, Pamela Flood stood outside the gates of the Auburn Family Reception Center, a homeless shelter a short walk from the Fulton Mall, where she lives with her three children. She spoke to a small crowd, accompanied by current and former fast food workers, City Council members Letitia James, Brad Lander, Steve Levin and Jumaane Williams, and others, explaining that despite her two jobs, she can’t afford tuition for school and rent for her own place.
“If they can afford to pay the salaries they can pay at the top, they least they can do is pay salaries so people don’t have to live in a homeless shelter,” Williams told the crowd. “We’re not asking for them not to make millions of dollars. We’re asking them not to make so much that Miss Flood has to live here.”
It was a sobering reminder that there’s still a long way to go in the fight, a long way from these small wins to the big end goal of living wages for all the city’s fast food workers and union protection on the job. Yet the workers remain committed, and organizers are working hard.
“I would say it should be an exciting spring,” Westin said.
--By Sarah L. Jaffe