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 writer 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.