Striking McDonald’s Workers Say Their Lives Are More Essential Than Fast Food

Hamilton Nolan April 7, 2020

McDonald's employees and supporters protest outside a McDonald's in Los Angeles, California, April 6, 2020 demanding pay for quarantine time and healthcare for workers who get sick from the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

The fast food indus­try has long insu­lat­ed itself from orga­nized labor by build­ing a legal wall between the par­ent com­pa­ny and the indi­vid­ual fran­chised stores. That imag­i­nary sep­a­ra­tion is being test­ed by the real­i­ty of the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic, as McDonald’s work­ers across the coun­try have held strikes and walked out, unwill­ing to risk their lives for fries with no safe­ty net.

The Fight For $15 has found fer­tile new ground in help­ing to orga­nize fast food strikes in recent days. McDonald’s work­ers in Los Ange­les, San Jose, St. Louis, Tam­pa, Raleigh-Durham and else­where have staged job actions this week, in a coor­di­nat­ed push for safer work­ing con­di­tions, paid sick leave and haz­ard pay.

Maria Ruiz, who has spent 16 years at McDonald’s, was one of the work­ers who went on strike yes­ter­day out­side of her store in San Jose, Cal­i­for­nia. Ruiz said that employ­ees have been wor­ried for their own health for the entire past month, watch­ing the store’s dwin­dling sup­ply of hand san­i­tiz­er, gloves and clean­ing sup­plies. On some days, there was no hand san­i­tiz­er at all. Ruiz says employ­ees were only recent­ly grant­ed per­mis­sion to wear masks at work, despite the fact that there are often more than a dozen peo­ple crowd­ed into the store’s lobby.

We are tired of tak­ing the risk,” said Ruiz, who earns $16.35 per hour in a city that has one of the high­est costs of liv­ing in the Unit­ed States. McDonald’s work­ers are ask­ing for an extra $3 per hour haz­ard pay, along with ade­quate pro­tec­tive equip­ment, a guar­an­tee of two weeks of paid sick leave for any­one who needs to quar­an­tine, and a guar­an­tee that the com­pa­ny will cov­er their health care costs if they get sick with COVID-19. Ruiz acknowl­edges that she needs to work in order to pay her bills, but said that she could no longer ignore the dan­ger to her health. I’m kind of afraid” to go on strike, she said, but I’m more afraid to lose my life.”

The Fight For 15 said that the McDonald’s work­ers are expect­ed to stay away from work until their demands for pro­tec­tive equip­ment on the job are met. It seems like­ly that the coun­try will see a steady, rolling pro­ces­sion of fast food walk­outs in com­ing weeks, part of a nation­wide strike wave that has been gath­er­ing momen­tum over the past month. Gro­cery work­ers, ware­house work­ers, fac­to­ry work­ers, con­struc­tion work­ers, and oth­ers who are direct­ly exposed to the dan­ger of infec­tion on the job have all walked out in protest, doubt­ful that their low wages make up for the risks they’re taking.

After a decade of orga­niz­ing fast food work­ers, the Fight For 15 is well posi­tioned to facil­i­tate these types of job actions on short notice. One of the movement’s key wins — a step that promised to make it sig­nif­i­cant­ly eas­i­er for orga­nized labor to exert influ­ence on a nation­al scale in the fast food indus­try — came in 2015, when the Oba­ma administration’s Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board revised the joint employ­er” stan­dard to make it eas­i­er to hold fast food com­pa­nies like McDonald’s respon­si­ble for the labor stan­dards at their fran­chised stores. The Trump administration’s NLRB rolled back that rule change, mean­ing McDonald’s is once again able to keep a legal wall between the par­ent com­pa­ny and the behav­ior of its franchisees.

In response to ques­tions about employ­ee walk­outs in Cal­i­for­nia, McDonald’s referred to a let­ter from McDonald’s USA pres­i­dent Joe Erlinger, promis­ing to pro­vide gloves, increased store clean­ing, well­ness checks” for employ­ees, and to send non-med­ical grade masks to the areas of great­est need.” The com­pa­ny also sent a state­ment from the own­er-oper­a­tor of the store in Los Ange­les where employ­ees walked out this week­end, say­ing the store under­went thor­ough san­i­ti­za­tion” after a work­er test­ed pos­i­tive for COVID-19, and that work­ers who were in con­tact with that per­son were offered two weeks of paid quar­an­tine leave. (The fact that the state­ment from the store own­er is being sent out by McDonald’s cor­po­rate PR team high­lights how close­ly the par­ent com­pa­ny and store own­ers are inter­twined, joint employ­er stan­dard notwithstanding.)

Though more vis­i­ble essen­tial” work­ers, like gro­cery store employ­ees, have suc­cess­ful­ly won haz­ard pay from a num­ber of com­pa­nies, fast food work­ers face a steep­er chal­lenge: They are forced to con­tin­ue work­ing by employ­er man­date and by eco­nom­ic need, but still viewed as a nonessen­tial by much of the pub­lic. With­out intense pub­lic pres­sure or wide­spread work stop­pages, it is easy for major fast food chains to con­tin­ue with busi­ness as usu­al, offload­ing all of the risk onto those below them.

We are essen­tial work­ers,” said Maria Ruiz, but my life is essen­tial too.” 

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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