Fast-Food Strikes Fight the Slide into Junk Wages — For All Of Us

While President Obama continues his economic speaking tour, walkouts at fast-food restaurants rippled across cities nationwide last week, calling attention to the nation’s growing wealth gap. At the franchise stores of McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Burger King and KFC and other grease-slinging corporations, thousands of people protested the low wages dished out by the biggest names in the industry and raised a common demand: $15 an hour and the right to unionize.

“We are all going through the same thing,” said Naquasia LeGrand, who works at a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in Brooklyn and has emerged as one of the most outspoken voices in what is emerging as a national campaign. “We get burns from deep fryers. We don’t have health benefits. We get treated unfairly in the workplaces. We need more wages.”

The campaign — underwritten by the Service Employees International Union — kicked off with a one-day strike New York City last November, when approximately 200 people walked off the job at stores across the five boroughs. Since then, the campaign has had no trouble finding a home in other American cities where the cost of living continues to rise but the minimum wage has flatlined.

On the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death on April 4, approximately 400 people picketed their shifts at fast-food restaurants across the Big Apple. They carried signs reading “I Am a Man” and “I Am a Woman.” The former was the slogan of the striking garbage collectors whom King was supporting in Memphis at the time of his assassination in 1968. Late April also saw low-wage worker actions sweep Chicago and Washington, D.C., while the campaign reached Seattle a few weeks later. Last week, thousands walked off the job at restaurants in Detroit, Flint, Kansas City and in the half-dozen cities where the campaign had already taken root.

“We can’t thrive in an economy where the fast-food industry generates billions in profits and their workers can’t put food on the table,” said Camille Rivera, Deputy Political Director for SEIU Local 32BJ, which has helped organize the strikes in New York City.

Based on economic trends since the 2008 Wall Street meltdown, Rivera predicts that a full 50 percent of the jobs in the United States will be low-wage positions by 2020. She argues that fast-food chains could use their profits as an engine for economic growth, rather than forcing the hordes of people with no other employment options to subsist on the bare minimum. Instead, “we’re continuing to live in an economy where we’re not making it,” she said.

For it’s part, McDonald’s has launched a personal finance education program for its employees rather than offering them a raise. The corporation teamed up with Visa to establish, a website promoting financial literacy that evenForbes magazine ridiculed as wildly unrealistic A sample budget on the site allots $600 a month toward mortgage or rent even though the national average cost of rent is $1,062. There is no column in the sample budget for education or child rearing expenses. The original version of the budget did not include money for heat.

With more and more Americans facing fast-food insecurity, President Obama launcheda national economic speaking tour in late July. He has so far, however, offered little in the way of new, specific policy proposals. Meanwhile, the president’s proposal to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour has stalled in Congress. Even if it were to pass, the slight bump would do little to lift millions employed in minimum-wage industries out of poverty.

Carlos Jefferson walked off his Job at Mcdonalds in Milwaukee. (Left in Focus/Bryan MacCormack)
Carlos Jefferson walked off his Job at Mcdonalds in Milwaukee. (Left in Focus/Bryan MacCormack)

Carlos Jefferson walked off his Job at Mcdonalds in Milwaukee. (Left in Focus/Bryan MacCormack)

Analysts agree that the odds are stacked against the fast-food campaign winning collective bargaining rights or what would amount to a near doubling of wages. The union drive, however, could have broader implications on the living standards for millions of people across the country.

Nelson Lichtenstein, the director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California–Santa Barbara, doubts the campaign will achieve its immediate demands. Instead, he argues that the struggle could lead to broader victories if it keeps the discussion of wages front and center in the national dialogue.

“If your goal is a collective bargaining agreement at the 42nd Street McDonald’s, you might get it actually. But it won’t do you any good,” said Lichtenstein, explaining that the majority of the nation’s fast-food outlets are run by individual franchise owners and organized by regions. This structure enables mega-chains like McDonald’s to divert responsibility for abusive labor practices while generating super-size profits. Such a victory, however, could set off a larger wave of concessions from the industry in major metropolitan areas — compromises that likely wouldn’t include contracts but would most certainly feature a bump in pay.

More significantly, Lichtenstein explained that the strikes could energize the political campaign to force Congress to raise the minimum wage. They also bring the subject of inequality and the stagnation of wages to the forefront of the policy agenda, as Occupy did.

Yet Lichtenstein a draws sharp contrast between the low-wage worker campaign and the Occupy movement. While the latter offered a wide-ranging revolutionary vision for equality, the movement famous for its homemade cardboard signs featured little in the way of direct demands. The fast-food union drive, on the other hand, advances concrete objectives.

“The campaign clearly shares the same energy and spirit and even some of the same demographics of the Occupy movement,” said Lichtenstein. “But Occupy was a little too vague about what they wanted. This campaign isn’t vague at all. They want 15 bucks an hour and the right to form a union.”

The fast-food campaign, however, lacks the bottom-up structure that allowed Occupy to spread so quickly. Instead of encouraging spontaneity, SEIU and partner organizations have heavily scripted and controlled the actions, leaving few of the decisions to the actual people risking their jobs by walking off shifts and picketing their restaurants. But the campaign’s top-down structure has not diminished broader public sympathy for the campaign, nor the genuine commitment people employed in the fast-food industry who are becoming outspoken leaders in the struggle.

“I’m really proud of this movement,” says LeGrand. “It’s something historical; it’s never been done.”


By Peter Rugh
This article was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

Time for a Raise?: Inside the Fight for 15

“It’s impossible to run a democracy where you have vast privilege and vast poverty with nothing in between. It’s already not working; too many people are disenfranchised both politically and economically.”-- Rabbi Michael Feinberg (Photo via Fight for 15)
“It’s impossible to run a democracy where you have vast privilege and vast poverty with nothing in between. It’s already not working; too many people are disenfranchised both politically and economically.”
-- Rabbi Michael Feinberg (Photo via Fight for 15)

The kind of day Kasseen Silver has at work often depends on the weather. He’s worked at the Burger King on 116th Street (at Lexington Avenue) in Manhattan for two years now, and, he says, “My particular store, when it rains outside it rains inside. If it’s really hot outside you know you’re going to be hot inside.”

Silver, who is part of the Fast Food Forward campaign calling for a raise to $15 an hour and union recognition, lives in the Bronx with his wife and three children. It takes him about an hour and a half to get to work, closer to two hours when he gets out of an evening shift. “At 1:30, 2:00 in the morning I’ll be on public transportation. I take three different trains to get to my destination, sometimes I’m delayed. I’m very tired.”

Like so many of New York’s fast food workers, he makes $7.45 an hour, and rarely if ever is he scheduled for a full 40-hour week. Transportation takes a chunk of that money right off the top. “If I don’t have lunch money, breakfast money, if I don’t have any money throughout the week I have to make sure I have transportation to get to work and get back home,” he says. “That’s like $30 taken out of a $180 check.”

A typical day at work for Silver starts with taking out the garbage, cleaning his station, and preparing the food. There’s a whole language, he notes, to the fast food world, and there’s always more work to be done. “Once you get embedded into that setting you work that way,” he says. “Being there for the time I have, I developed a routine.”

Since he’s been on the job so long, Silver serves as a trainer for new employees, so often he’s got to supervise a new colleague while making sure to get his food out in a timely manner. In addition, he often finds that on truck delivery day, he’s scheduled to work; when an unruly customer causes trouble in the store, he’s the one called on to remove them. He feels like he’s doing assistant manager work, yet he’s never had a raise in his two years on the job.

“Sometimes you just want to feel like it’s worth it, the pay that I receive for the amount of work and responsibility I take on,” he says. “I tell people it may not be a lot of money but your work ethic should speak for itself. I know what I’m worth, I know what kind of service I give the store that I work for, and what I give to customers.”

In an industry where the average wage is less than $9 an hour, says Catherine Ruetschlin of nonpartisan think tank Demos, trying to support a family on an income like that—which comes out to less than $18,500 a year even if a worker does regularly work 40 hours a week—will leave you with a whole range of unmet needs. Ruetschlin is the author of a recent report, Retail’s Hidden Potential: How Raising Wages Would Benefit Workers, the Industry and the Overall Economy, looking at the changes a base salary of $25,000 a year would bring to the lives of low-wage workers and the communities they live in.

Silver manages to make ends meet—barely--because his wife too holds down a job. Without her income, he says, “My predicament would probably be a little different as far as making ends meet. I’m grateful I don’t have to make those kinds of decisions, but it’s sad when you’re trying to be a productive citizen, and you know that all your hard work is still not enough financially to take care of yourself and your family.”

“Big fast food employers have grown 19 times faster than overall employment,” Ruetschlin says. In part, the fast food industry did pretty well during the recession and the so-called recovery because it provides cheap meals for people who can’t afford better. McDonald’s, she points out, made $5.5 billion in profit last year and saw a huge jump in earnings per share.

Like Walmart, fast-food restaurants have made billions by catering to the growing low-income population, but as they continue to push wages lower, their employees can’t even afford to patronize them.

That’s why New York’s fast food workers are part of a growing movement among low-wage workers to demand better. The fast food workers held their second one-day strike on April 4th, supported by clergy, community members, and other workers from around the city whose struggles mirror their own: car wash workers, grocery store workers, security employees from JFK airport, and retail and restaurant workers, all of whom make near minimum wage.

Rabbi Michael Feinberg, executive director of the Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition, says that the growing movement, galvanized by Occupy Wall Street, has helped reframe the conversation to the point where even President Obama mentioned the minimum wage in his State of the Union and notoriously economically conservative New York governor Andrew Cuomo pushed a minimum wage hike through in Albany.

“Everybody’s on board that one at least rhetorically,” Feinberg says. “People are realizing that there’s this vast subterranean economy of low-wage, below minimum wage, at minimum wage work. People are working poverty wages and it’s unsustainable. People know that, but we don’t yet have a political solution. It’s absolutely essential that the workers fight these battles sector by sector, but as a society we need to figure this out in a political way.”


“These low-wage jobs are one of the largest growing sectors projected for the next decade,” Ruetschlin says. “More and more households are going to be depending on low incomes to get by.” And, she notes, those same low-income earners are the consumers we depend on to spend and keep businesses going.   “In a time of weak consumer demand like we’re facing now, one of the best things we can do is to give more money to households at the bottom.”

The folks at the bottom of the income distribution tend to spend all the money they make, while higher-income earners put some of that money into savings and investment. And as those low-wage workers spend, that money goes back into local businesses, who then need to hire more workers—or give the ones they have more hours.

Mixed Bag for NY’s Working, Middle Class Families in 2013 Mayoral Election

Your rent is too damn high. You’re trying to make a living in the worst economy since the Depression. If you have a job, you probably haven’t gotten more than a token raise in years, and there’s a good chance you’re working freelance or part-time, with no benefits or security.

Front-runner Christine Quinn speaking to business leaders in Brooklyn. (Photo: Myrtle Avenue Business Partnership/CC)
Front-runner Christine Quinn speaking to business leaders in Brooklyn. (Photo: Myrtle Avenue Business Partnership/CC)

So what does this year’s crop of mayoral candidates have to offer you, after 12 years of rule by Michael Bloomberg, the seventh-richest person in the United States—who increased his fortune by more than $22 billion while in office?


Six of the 11 now running are Democrats—City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Comptroller John Liu, and former Comptroller Bill Thompson, plus former Councilmember Sal Albanese and activist/comedian Randy Credico. Four are seeking the Republican nomination: former Metropolitan Transportation Authority chair Joseph Lhota, supermarket billionaire John Catsimatidis, community-newspaper publisher Tom Allon, and George McDonald, head of the Doe Fund, a nonprofit that helps the homeless. Former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión Jr. is the Independence Party nominee.

Quinn is generally considered the front-runner, as she has raised the most money and is well ahead of the other Democratic hopefuls in current polls. She’s straddling the need to appeal to working people while pleasing her funders in the city’s power elite—joining tenants protesting outside a Washington Heights building with no heat or electricity, but also blocking the Council from voting on a bill to require businesses to give employees paid sick leave.

Her record on housing issues reflects this. Under her leadership, the Council has passed legislation to have the city single out the buildings with the worst housing-code violations for aggressive inspection, to require city inspectors to cite the underlying causes of problems such as leaks, and to authorize the city to make repairs itself and sue the landlord for their cost. She’s annually urged the city Rent Guidelines Board, which sets permissible increases for the more than 900,000 remaining rent-stabilized apartments, to freeze rents, and gone to Albany several times to lobby for repeal of the state law that prevents the city from strengthening its rent regulations, while de Blasio, Liu, and Thompson haven’t.


On the other hand, Quinn has taken far more money from the real-estate lobby than any of the other candidates, and has supported megadevelopment deals that are packing her Greenwich Village-Chelsea district with high-priced high-rises, from the just-approved rezoning of the Hudson Square area west of Soho to the Manhattan West and Hudson Yards luxury housing and retail complexes being built west of Penn Station. (Similar rezonings in Greenpoint-Williamsburg and Long Island City have jammed the waterfront there with luxury housing too, and produced only a fraction of the affordable units promised.) You have to look pretty hard to find a black, Latino, or working-class person in the ads for Manhattan West. The Related Companies, Hudson Yards’ developer, has contributed more than $40,000 to Quinn’s campaign.

Bloomberg Gloats Like an Orwell Villain as NYC Bus Workers End Strike

New York City’s school-bus drivers and matrons have gone back to work after a month-long strike failed to win any concessions on job security from the Bloomberg administration. The administration refused to negotiate after soliciting bids for new contracts that don’t include the employee-protection provisions the workers went on strike to defend, and the union leaders decided to take their chances that the next mayor will be a Democrat and more sympathetic.

“We appreciate the hard work our bus drivers and matrons do, and we welcome them back to the job,” Bloomberg said in a statement issued Feb. 15. “In the city’s entire history, the special interests have never had less power than they do today, and the end of this strike reflects the fact that when we say we put children first, we mean it.”

That statement oozes with slimy dishonesty. If Bloomberg appreciates the drivers’ and matrons’ work so much, why did he push so hard to slash their pay and eliminate their job security? He prattles piously about “the children,” but who hit who first? And why are working people who want to make $18 an hour instead of $7.25 a “special interest” when the politically connected developers his administration has fed aren’t? How are school-bus matrons a “special interest” when the city is using eminent domain and taxpayer money to get rid of scores of auto-repair shops in Willets Point so the Related Companies and the Mets’ owners’ private-equity fund can build a shopping mall (and maybe a casino)? When the city rezoned the Williamsburg waterfront so it could be packed with luxury high-rises? When millions of dollars in 9/11 recovery funds went to banks and building luxury housing in Lower Manhattan?

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible,” George Orwell wrote in “Politics and the English Language.” Instead, they are justifications for things that can only be defended “by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties.”

Orwell wrote that in 1946, and since then, it’s been amplified by the techniques of advertising. When Senator Rand Paul sponsors a bill to outlaw the union shop, he doesn’t say he wants to help employers cut wages, security, and benefits by undermining the strongest source of power workers have. He says it will “preserve and protect the free choice of individual employees to form, join, or assist labor organizations, or to refrain from such activities.” This is also why Michael Bloomberg calls organized working people a “special interest.”

Rand Paul and Michael Bloomberg do not say openly how much they hate the idea of working people making a decent living, of having time off and dignity and security on the job. Their mentality is “fire them all and replace them with people who’ll take minimum wage.” Paul, a Tea Party ideologue, probably opposes the very idea of a minimum wage. Bloomberg, a so-called “moderate,” has supported a token increase in it, at least when it didn’t have much chance of getting passed.

He’s right, however, when he says that organized labor has not had less power since the 1930s. In the Great Depression, American workers unionized at unprecedented rates. They built the foundation for the period of greatest working- and middle-class prosperity in American history. The Great Recession of the last five years has seen the opposite, massive outsourcing of once-good jobs and attempts to obliterate the remaining union workers by governors like Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Rick Snyder in Michigan. Even so-called “liberals” like Gov. Andrew Cuomo make cutting teachers’ pensions their top priority, and Barack Obama is more likely to cut Social Security than he is to expend more than a few inspirational clichés on defending workers’ rights.

In the bus strike, the workers picketing in the cold and going without regular paychecks suffered. The kids in wheelchairs and their parents who had to find some way to get them to school suffered. The kids who couldn’t go on field trips suffered. The mayor and his financial bureaucrats didn’t. They could have sat on their asses until June to break the union.

The workers might have had more leverage if a bigger union, such as the teachers or transit workers, had gone out on strike in solidarity with them. Without a creative pretext, that would have been illegal. On the other hand, the only way people can win anything in a rigged system is when solidarity trumps obedience.

--Steven Wishnia


(Photo: Bill McChesney/CC/Flickr)

Low Wage Workers Resuscitate NY’s Organized Labor

With New York’s barbell economy destroying traditional middle class employment, fast food workers aren’t the only ones fed up with low wages and unfair labor practices. Others rising up to fight for fair pay include workers from:

• Farm Country in East New York - 63 current and former workers at Farm Country in East New York will receive a total of $500,000 in back pay as a result of being underpaid hourly as well as being shorted on overtime. Workers voted to unionize and will be getting 50-cent raises over minimum wage, overtime, and paid days off.

• Golden Farm in Kensington, Brooklyn - Since 2008, workers from Golden Farm have been fighting for fair pay, overtime, and paid sick leave...and they’re winning. After contacting the Dept. of Labor, suing the owner for back pay, organizing a community-wide boycott that has resulted in a 20% drop in revenue, and voting to unionize, employees are just 2 negotiations away from signing a fair labor contract.

Astoria Car Wash and Hi-Tek 10 Minute Lube Inc - In September of 2012, workers at Astoria Car Wash and Hi-Tek 10 Minute Lube became the first car wash employees in NYC history to vote for unionization. This came after a 2008 investigation by the state labor commission found that nearly 8 out of every 10 car washes in NYC violated minimum wage and overtime laws. Since September, 4 other car washes have voted for unionization.

• Hot and Crusty - After nearly a year of organizing against a fiercely anti-union boss, workers at this NYC chain went on strike, formed their own independent union, and are helping to educate and inform other chain restaurant workers of their rights.

• Retail Action Project (RAP) - RAP is an organization of retail workers that is fighting to improve workplace standards. In October of 2012, they launched the Sustainable Scheduling campaign. This is an effort to curtail corporate retailers’ unpredictable, part-time scheduling practices. Their goal is give workers stable hours that produce a sustainable income.

• Air Serv and Global Elite Group - Security workers at JFK airport threatened to walk off the job before the holiday rush in December of 2012 unless their demands for higher wages and safer working conditions were met. The Port Authority asked them to call off the strike and strongly urged their contractors, Air Serv and Global Elite, to work out an agreement with employees. The employees are also considering unionization.

--Ava M. Capote

Low wage workers all over the city, like these Domino's employees, are getting organized fir fair wages and treatment. (Photo:  New York Communities for Change)
Low wage workers all over the city, like these Domino's employees, are getting organized fir fair wages and better treatment. (Photo: New York Communities for Change)