Fast-Food Workers Turn Up the Heat

Amien Essif September 4, 2014

Fast-food workers rally at 87th street in Chicago as part of a nationwide action on September 4. (Amien Essif)

Pad­dy wagon’s on its way,” announced a Chica­go Police tac­ti­cal offi­cer over his radio ear­ly this morn­ing. Short­ly there­after, a crowd of about 300 demon­stra­tors — includ­ing over 100 strik­ing fast food work­ers — began chant­i­ng Take the street!” and pro­ceed­ed to do just that. March­ing between a McDonald’s on one side of the road and a Burg­er King on the oth­er, the crowd blocked 87th street traf­fic on Chicago’s south side for about 20 minutes.

The action was the lat­est esca­la­tion in the fast-food work­ers’ cam­paign for a $15 min­i­mum hourly wage and the right to form a union with­out retal­i­a­tion. Two dozen work­ers pro­ceed­ed to link arms and sit down in the road in an act of civ­il dis­obe­di­ence, prompt­ing the police to take them away in handcuffs.

As Tyree John­son await­ed arrest by advanc­ing police offi­cers, he explained to Work­ing In These Times why he was will­ing to go to jail.“I’m still liv­ing at the pover­ty lev­el,” said John­son, who has been employed by McDonald’s since 1992. After 22 years, they refuse to pay me a decent liv­ing wage.” John­son and his com­pa­tri­ates were tak­en to patrol cars, and 19 were cit­ed and released this morning.

Lat­er in the day, anoth­er two dozen pro­test­ers were arrest­ed in a sep­a­rate action on Chicago’s West Side. By mid­day, arrests had tak­en place in cities includ­ing New York, Boston, Detroit and Las Vegas, with more actions planned lat­er in the day in what orga­niz­ers are call­ing the biggest fast-food work­ers’ strike yet in the nation­al push for 15 and a union,” which began in Novem­ber 2012.

What­ev­er it takes” was today’s ral­ly­ing cry, as work­ers at McDonald’s, Burg­er King, Wendy’s and oth­er large quick-ser­vice restau­rant chains planned to walk off the job in over 100 cities. In sev­er­al cities, health­care work­ers who are mem­bers of the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (which also funds and sup­ports the fast-food work­er strikes) also came out to the actions in sol­i­dar­i­ty, though they were not on strike.

We’ll do what­ev­er it takes to get to $15,” said Nashville McDonald’s work­er Jamar Black. If we have to go to jail, we’re doing that.” Black, who is on strike today, spoke to Work­ing In These Times over the phone as he attend­ed a protest out­side of a Son­ic restau­rant in Tennessee’s cap­i­tal city. Because he is in crew train­ing,” he earns $9.25 an hour, about $2 more than the $7.35 fed­er­al min­i­mum wage (Ten­nessee does not have its own min­i­mum), but much less than the wage he’s ask­ing for. Work­ers are plan­ning to ral­ly and com­mit civ­il dis­obe­di­ence in Nashville this afternoon.

Today’s nation­wide strikes are the cul­mi­na­tion of a sum­mer of inten­si­fy­ing actions in the fast-food work­ers move­ment, known var­i­ous­ly as the Fight for 15, Show me 15, and Fast Food For­ward. On May 15, work­ers in an esti­mat­ed 30 coun­tries staged one-day strikes. The next week, 138 demon­stra­tors were arrest­ed in a protest out­side of McDonald’s head­quar­ters in Oak Brook, IL. These actions set the tone for a nation­al con­ven­tion in Chica­go at the end of July, where the 1,300 work­ers attend­ing vot­ed unan­i­mous­ly to begin using civ­il dis­obe­di­ence as a nation­al tactic.

Work­ers believe that their efforts to draw atten­tion to the low wages and poor work­ing con­di­tions in the fast-food indus­try are hav­ing an effect on the nation­al con­ver­sa­tion. On Mon­day, Oba­ma cit­ed the fast-food strikes in a Labor Day speech call­ing for a raise in the fed­er­al min­i­mum wage. Seat­tle passed a $15 munic­i­pal min­i­mum wage in May, and on Wednes­day Chica­go May­or Rahm Emanuel signed an exec­u­tive order rais­ing the min­i­mum wage for employ­ees of city con­trac­tors to $13 an hour. Emanuel has also endorsed a pro­pos­al to extend this raise to all res­i­dents of Chica­go by 2018. So far this year, 10 states have opt­ed to increase their min­i­mum wage, includ­ing five states — Con­necti­cut, Hawaii, Mary­land, Mass­a­chu­setts, and Ver­mont — where the low­est-paid work­ers will be earn­ing more than $10 an hour.

The fast-food indus­try, how­ev­er, has yet to budge. Rob Green, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Nation­al Coun­cil of Chain Restau­rants called today’s irre­spon­si­ble” and dis­turb­ing” in a state­ment released by the indus­try trade group. Unions are call­ing it civ­il dis­obe­di­ence’ when in real­i­ty, this chore­o­graphed activ­i­ty is tres­pass­ing and it’s ille­gal,” said Green.

McDonald’s, mean­while, has insist­ed that pro­test­ers’ demands are mis­guid­ed. In a press release issued the day of the May 15 strike, com­pa­ny spokesper­son Hei­di Bark­er Sa Shekhem coun­tered that the restau­rant offer[s] part-time and full-time employ­ment, ben­e­fits and com­pet­i­tive pay based on the local mar­ket­place and job level.”

She added that while the fast-food work­ers’ move­ment has tar­get­ed the McDonald’s brand, It’s impor­tant to know approx­i­mate­ly 80% of our glob­al restau­rants are inde­pen­dent­ly owned and oper­at­ed by small busi­ness own­ers, who are inde­pen­dent employ­ers that com­ply with local and fed­er­al laws.”

But a recent rul­ing by the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board’s Gen­er­al Coun­sel Richard Grif­fin could put an end to McDonald’s attempts to pin low wages and poor work­ing con­di­tions on its fran­chisees, and help bring labor law more in step with a chang­ing indus­try. On July 29, Grif­fin deter­mined that McDonald’s should be con­sid­ered a joint employ­er” in more than 40 pend­ing com­plaints brought by work­ers against the cor­po­ra­tion. If the rul­ing is upheld, McDonald’s could be held liable for con­di­tions in its fran­chis­es. In response, McDonald’s issued a state­ment warn­ing that the rul­ing changes the rules for thou­sands of small busi­ness­es, and goes against decades of estab­lished law regard­ing the fran­chise mod­el in the Unit­ed States.” Many labor advo­cates cheer such a change, which they hope could ulti­mate­ly enable work­ers to bar­gain direct­ly with the cor­po­ra­tions that deter­mine their wages and work­ing conditions. 

Fight for 15 is not just tar­get­ing McDonald’s, how­ev­er. Though it has yet to suc­cess­ful­ly union­ize a fast-food restau­rant, it aims to win bet­ter pay and work­ing con­di­tions for all of the nation’s 4 mil­lion fast-food work­ers, includ­ing employ­ees of com­pa­nies like Wendy’s, Burg­er King, KFC and Popeye’s Chick­en. A sim­i­lar effort by low-wage ser­vice work­ers at Wal­mart to win bet­ter pay and the free­dom to union­ize with­out retal­i­a­tion began in 2010, and employs a sim­i­lar orga­niz­ing tac­tic: the one-day, or wild­cat,” strike.

Tony Gar­cia, who has been a mem­ber of the Unit­ed Auto Work­ers union for near­ly three decades and was attend­ing this morning’s action in sol­i­dar­i­ty with fast-food work­ers, sees a con­nec­tion between their fight and his own. He believes that the ulti­mate goal is not just a min­i­mum wage” but a liv­ing wage, and then a sav­ing wage.” Giv­en the yawn­ing gap between the pay of cor­po­rate exec­u­tives and their work­ers, he hopes that actions like today’s will help reframe the debate over what a fair” wage means. “[With] the naysay­ers and the peo­ple who say you can’t do that, and it will ruin the econ­o­my, we should be hav­ing a debate about a max­i­mum wage,” he says. You’ve got peo­ple at the top…those are the peo­ple who are tak­ing mon­ey out of com­mu­ni­ties like these.”

Amien Essif is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to Work­ing In These Times and main­tains a blog called The Gazine, which focus­es on con­sumerism, gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, and tech­nol­o­gy with a Lud­dite bent. His work has also appeared on the Guardian and Coun­ter­Punch. You can find him using Twit­ter reluc­tant­ly: @AmienChicago
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