Tag Archives: strike

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

RaiseUpMKE_CarlosJeffersonOnStrike

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 PracticalMoneySkills.com, 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.”

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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)

“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.”

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“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

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

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?

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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.

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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

(Photo: Bill McChesney/CC/Flickr)

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

 

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(Photo: Bill McChesney/CC/Flickr)

Low Wage Workers Resuscitate NY’s Organized Labor

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)

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)

NY Fast Food Workers Serve Up a Fight for Economic Justice

FOR WEB not loving it

The sidewalk in front of the Wendy’s on Brooklyn’s Fulton Mall was choked with people at noon on November 29th. The signs they held were mostly handmade, in English and Spanish, calling for higher wages, more respect on the job. A small group of them held a bright red banner, that read “STRIKE for higher pay for a stronger New York.”

(Illustration: Molly Crabapple)

Pamela Flood: “I work hard for my money, I work hard for my kids, and I think we all deserve better. I’ll take two and three jobs to take care of my kids, but while I’m doing that I’m also going to stand up for what I believe in, and what I believe in is that we should be making way more than $7.25, because if a doorman, a security guard, and a janitor can make $12 to $15 an hour, why can’t we?” (Illustration: Molly Crabapple)

A young woman led the rally, her bright red hair pulled back, her voice already ragged from chanting, from shouting her story. I was later told by an organizer she’d been out since 5 AM, showing up to support the first of the fast-food workers to walk out on that day’s strikes, and she’d be onstage at the end of the day, too, whipping up the crowd underneath the glittering lights of McDonald’s in Times Square.

Her name is Pamela Flood, and she works at the Burger King at 971 Flatbush Avenue. She was one of 200 or so workers at New York City’s fast-food restaurants that struck for a raise to $15 an hour and union recognition on that November day, kicking the simmering movement among the city’s lowest-wage workers up another level. She also works at a CVS and attends classes at night, holding down a 4.0 GPA as she studies to be a medical assistant, to better support her three children. Burger King pays her just $7.25 an hour.

Flood drew cheers that day on the picket line when she demanded $15 an hour so that she could take her kids on vacation like the high-paid executives can. “I work hard for my money, I work hard for my kids, and I think we all deserve better,” she told me. “I’ll take two and three jobs to take care of my kids, but while I’m doing that I’m also going to stand up for what I believe in, and what I believe in is that we should be making way more than $7.25, because if a doorman, a security guard, and a janitor can make $12 to $15 an hour, why can’t we?”

With her that day were workers from other fast food restaurants in Brooklyn, community members, other low-wage workers from around the city, supportive clergy, and organizers who’d helped pull together the seemingly-impossible feat of getting hundreds of workers at McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, KFC, Taco Bell, and Domino’s Pizza stores across multiple boroughs.

“This is a moral issue,” Kirsten John Foy, a minister and former aide to Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio, told me as the picket line danced behind us. “We can’t live in the wealthiest economy in the world, and treat our workers like they’re from the third world.” (continue reading...)

NYC Bus Workers Strike for Child Safety and Their Livelihoods

STRIKE bus drive feat pic

Nearly 9,000 school bus workers, represented by the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181, are on strike as of 6 a.m. Wednesday. They were driven to picket and protest by a double-cross on job security and child safety by Mayor Bloomberg's office and the Department of Education.

The union wants an Employee Protection Provision (EPP) included in any new contract bid the city accepts from private bus companies. This would protect some of the members with most seniority (the highest paid and most likely to be laid off). It basically says that employees are not guaranteed a position if a new company takes over and can be laid off, but if a position becomes available the new company has to pick from laid off workers, those with seniority to be picked first. The provision has been in bus contacts since the 1960s. It was taken out in the 70s which resulted in a strike. It was put back in in 1979.

Mayor Bloomberg, who has used budgetary excuses to wage war on unions numerous times in his era, has claimed that these dangerous lowest-bidder practices, including the elimination of EPP, are a great way for the city to save money. Sara Catalinotto of Parents to Improve School Transportation (PIST) couldn't disagree more, saying in a statement released yesterday,

.“We strongly doubt the city’s claim that it is dropping the Employee Protection Provision (EPP) to raise money for classrooms. The EPP is a seniority list, ensuring that the most experienced drivers and matrons will be employed first to transport our children – many of whom are students with disabilities. Including the EPP in contracts does not cost the city any extra!”

It is important to note that these workers are not demanding increases in pay, benefits, or pension plans. They are only asking to be kept off the unemployment line. They're right to be concerned, especially the more experienced, senior workers. According to the Goverment Accountability Office, the number of long-term unemployed people age 55 and older has more than doubled since the recession began. More than a third of unemployed older workers have been out of work for more than a year, and 55 percent have been unemployed for more than six months, up from 23 percent in 2007.

The city and DOE’s position is that EPPs are illegal so their hands are tied. The city failed to properly fight a lawsuit levelled against them and the union by private companies regarding the Employee Protection Provision. However, that ruling was only for companies who provide service to pre-K students. The city also asked Gov. Cuomo to veto a bill they had previously supported that would allow those bussing pre-K students to be provided with the same provision. For the Mayor and the DOE to place blame solely on the union and to claim that all EPPs are illegal is inaccurate and irresponsible.

The strike has caused some potential Democratic mayoral candidates to put their ideologies where their mouths are. Bill Thompson, former NYC Comptroller, released a statement Tuesday, saying:

“A school bus strike would be an unfortunate occurrence for all involved and I hope that it can be avoided. The disruption to thousands of families would be painful and we must try at all costs to bring solutions to the bargaining table rather than intransigence. As I have stated before, the bus contracts should be rebid to include job protections that will minimize disruption for our school children, maintain the jobs of experienced drivers and, importantly, save taxpayers’ money. Our children and their families are now caught in a political tug-of-war initiated by the Mayor that must be prevented."

NYC's Public Advocate, Bill de Blasio, and current Comptroller, John Liu, have both come out strongly in favor of the union workers. Mr. de Blasio tweeted "NYC bus drivers make our children's safety their top concern each day. Let's give them the fair contract they deserve! #busStrike". Mr. Liu released a statement Monday:

"Employee-protection provisions are necessary not just for the bus drivers, but also for the safe and reliable transport of city schoolchildren. City Hall’s behavior has been outrageous, and it needs to negotiate with workers immediately to avoid a disruption in school-bus service. The bottom line is: This is about the quality and safety of the busing we provide our special-needs students. Once again, the administration is displaying a pattern of disregard for human needs.”

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, viewed by many as the Democratic front-runner in the mayoral race, remained silent on the issue, perhaps in an effort to ensure an endorsement from Bloomberg in the future. Instead, Ms. Quinn unveiled her plans to improve NYC public schools. Though her plan includes buzz words like "less emphasis on testing" and "only close schools as a last resort," she failed to mention her specific positions on the bus driver strike, as well as other pressing education issues like charter schools, teacher evaluations, and reducing class size.

Most shocking to parents of New York City school children is how quickly and with how little compassion the City and DOE are willing to throw some 152,000 children under the proverbial bus. "Many of us are shocked that our children and grandchildren as young as 8 years old have come home with MetroCards in hand,"said grandparent Margaret DePaula,

"Corner-cutting by the DOE under mayoral control has already lowered busing standards" said Sharlene Figueroa, a mother of three children who depend on the system. "Good busing," she added, "is an aspect of our children's educational civil rights."

This is just one of a number of instances where Bloomberg and his corporate-endeared appointees have proven they care more about union-busting than they do about the welfare of our kids. Though the Mayor and Chancellor Walcott claim the bus workers are "striking against the children of the city", it's actually they and their push to sell off the New York City public education system that have the track record of "striking" against kids. From cutting funding for child care and after school programs, to demonizing teachers, to crowding kids out of their local schools, to even pulling funding specifically ear-marked for students with disabilities from their schools-- mid-year.

The questions parents now face are these: are they willing to allow the Mayor and Chancellor to sell children's safety to the lowest bidder in a petty effort to bust unions? Will the union, parents and their kids be able to overcome the corporate-friendly, anti-labor coverage of a mainstream media racing to defend cost-cutting at the expense of child safety? As New York public school parents fight for school buses maintained by experienced mechanics, with drivers and attendants they know and trust, could this struggle finally ignite a larger resistance against more than a decade of attacks on public education?

 

--Ava M Capote 

 

School bus workers on strike in Brooklyn. (Photo: Ava M Capote)

School bus workers on strike in Brooklyn. (Photo: Ava M Capote)

 

Bus workers picketing and marching outside Reliant Transportation at 297 Norman Avenue in Brooklyn. (Photo: Ava M Capote)

Bus workers picketing and marching outside Reliant Transportation at 297 Norman Avenue in Brooklyn. (Photo: Ava M Capote)

Strike launches Largest Union Drive in U.S. Fast Food History

fast food workers protest every job is a union job

Fast food workers rallying outside the Times Square McDonald's. (Photo: Fast Food Forward/FB)

While the emblems of Wendy’s, McDonald’s, KFC, Domino’s and other greasy dynasties are hard to escape in the American landscape, those who cook, clean, ring up orders and otherwise serve as the fulcrum of these franchises often go unnoticed. These workers, however, were hard to miss today as they stepped off burger assembly lines across New York City and into the street, picketing in front of their workplaces. The strike, which took place at numerous restaurants across the city, is the start of the largest effort to unionize fast food workers in American history. Organizers are calling the campaign Fast Food Forward.

Revenues in the fast food industry are expected to near $200 billion this year. Yet the demands of their workers are modest: $15 an hour and the right to unionize with the Fast Food Workers Committee.

“We’re out here for better wages, better working conditions, and union protection,” said Michael, an 18-year-old employee of a Burger King located not far from Wall Street. Michael says that growing up he was encouraged to “go the right way and get a job,” but now that he has a job he’s having trouble getting by. “There’s people my age that try to let this stabilize them. We got bills, we got rent. We’re living from check to check, hoping the next one will be better and it’s not. We can’t live on this.”

Gregory, an East Harlem KFC worker several years older than Michael, said he and his coworkers earn minimum wage ($7.25 an hour), receive food stamps and still don’t have enough to get by and provide for their kids. Gregory lives in Rockaway, Queens — an area that was inundated with floodwaters from Superstorm Sandy. When he sought back pay from his employer for time lost during the storm, his request was denied. He was given a meal on the house instead.

Working conditions at fast food franchises tend to be about the same across the board: highly exploitive. The fast food industry provides cheap, warm meals to those pressed for time, who often cannot afford more nutritious forms of nourishment. Simultaneously, these corporations take advantage of economic desperation in the black and brown, immigrant and working-class communities where they can get away with paying starvation wages and reaping gargantuan profits. Wendy’s, for instance, took in $615 million in 2011, an increase of 6 percent. But workers say checks from their employer often bounce, and some check cashing outlets won’t accept them. Organizers with New York Communities for Change (NYCC), which has been working behind the scenes for months to build the strike, say that McDonald’s recruits in homeless shelters. Nearly every “benefit” listed on the company’s website, including free uniforms, appears with an asterisk beside it, indicating that the supposed perks are “subject to availability and certain eligibility requirements and restrictions.” Profits at McDonald’s have ballooned 130 percent in the past four years.

The largest of the fast food behemoths, McDonald’s was also the swiftest to shift into damage control mode today, issuing a statement informing the public that the company is committed to a dialogue with their employees “so we can continue to be an even better employer.”

Asantewwa Ricks with NYCC said that before she began working on the strike drive, she thought fast food employees were “18-, 19-year-old kids who wanted cash for Beats headphones and True Religion jeans.” She has since learned that is not the case. Often, workers remain in the industry for years and see little to no bump in their salary. The minimum wage they receive often forces tough choices on them, such as whether to work late, or to make it back before the shelter where they reside locks its doors. At an organizing meeting early on in the campaign, Ricks asked a room full of fast food workers if they had ever suffered on-the-job injuries. Just about everyone present lifted up scars from grease on their arms.

A coalition of unions and community-based workers’ rights groups gathered ahead of the strike on Tuesday in a meeting room at the Service Employees International Union headquarters in Manhattan to discuss ongoing campaigns seeking dignity and improved pay for the working poor citywide. More than 100 people attended, representing roughly 40 organizations, along with a cluster of clergy from a variety of faiths. The coalition had helped spearhead a day of action on July 24, which saw hundreds of low-wage workers from the city’s five boroughs congregate in Union Square, and it has also been working with car wash employees demanding raises above the $5.25 hourly standard and, in some cases, back pay. Workers at four car washes have already won union representation in recent months.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who spoke at the July 24 rally, sent an aide to Tuesday’s meeting. Quinn is currently ahead in the upcoming mayoral race, but she has drawn ire from workers’ rights advocates over her opposition to sick pay legislation. While NYCC is circulating a petition for her to back the bill, the Daily News reports that wealthy business owners — who have already thrown over a quarter of a million dollars her way — sent a letter of their own to Quinn demanding just the opposite. Jonathan Westin, a lead organizer with NYCC, said while the group disagrees with Quinn on the issue of sick pay, he views it as a positive sign that she appears interested in the demands of fast food workers.

Perhaps seeking an edge on Quinn, two other Democratic contenders for mayor were on hand, Bill Thompson and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio. The candidates stood in pressed suits, at opposite ends of the room, grinning at one another. It is with good reason that politicians are showing an interest in the fast food workers’ fight for a union; bystanders receiving leaflets from picketers Thursday were widely sympathetic to the cause.

“These guys shouldn’t be making 7.25 an hour,” said Steve Carlson, a union carpenter. “That’s crazy. Especially in Manhattan, the cost of living is so high.”

Still, while politicians might lose campaign contributions that sway an election by standing up for a cause like this, workers could lose their jobs. By organizing in the workplace, walking off and gambling on solidarity, they have risked the only means of subsistence available to their families and themselves. Westin said that since workers began the union drive six months ago there have been instances of retaliation from management, but he declined to elaborate because these cases are currently being dealt with in court. For those on strike and their supporters however, the potential benefits outweigh the risks.

“The goal of this strike is for workers to be able to put food on their table and buy their children presents for Christmas,” Westin said, though he admits this is a long term battle and likely won’t be resolved by the holidays.

The fast food strike that broke out today may have larger implications than are immediately apparent. There are 50,000 fast food workers in New York City, and while those who walked off were few in number by comparison, the strike could galvanize workers elsewhere to take a stand as well. If the push for a union is successful, it will be an illustrative example to those both in the industry and in other low wage professions that standing up to the boss can pay off.

For Michael and his fellow Burger King employees, walking off the job was about more than a wage hike or forming a union. These demands are a means to a higher end. “We work hard, as if we were slaves,” he said. “It’s not only the wages. It’s also about how we get treated. We deserve respect.”

--Peter Rugh

This article was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.