NYC Fast Food Workers Super-Size Their Struggle

Peter Rugh April 5, 2013

First pub­lished at Wag​ingNon​vi​o​lence​.org

Tian­na Smalls had planned on work­ing Thurs­day, but her col­leagues con­vinced her oth­er­wise. “‘You’re either with us, or you’re for Wendy’s,’” Smalls remem­bers her co-work­ers telling her. Her moth­er also weighed in Thurs­day morn­ing as Smalls was head­ing to work at the fran­chise in down­town Brook­lyn. She said, If one per­son stands up, noth­ing hap­pens. You have to stand together.’”

So Tina Smalls joined approx­i­mate­ly 400 oth­er fast food work­ers across New York City in Thursday’s day-long strike — the lat­est action in the ongo­ing cam­paign that is demand­ing a raise of $15 an hour and attempt­ing to form a cross-fran­chise union. Twice as many work­ers par­tic­i­pat­ed in Thursday’s walk­out than in the pre­vi­ous strike, which launched the union cam­paign in November.

The ongo­ing effort has high­light­ed the high­ly exploita­tive con­di­tions faced by those at the deep fry­ers and cash reg­is­ters of America’s most prof­itable fast food out­lets, which include Burg­er King, McDonald’s, Domi­nos, Piz­za Hut and KFC. The actions and con­sid­er­able media atten­tion has also begun to chip away at the con­ven­tion­al image of a fast-food work­er as some­one who bears her servi­tude with a youth­ful grin.

While it’s true that some work­ers arrive fresh from high school, the aver­age age of these employ­ees is 28. Many are mid­dle-aged or even elder­ly. The major­i­ty are immi­grants. And all face the real­i­ty of work­ing, often for years, at a salary that is at or just above the legal­ly allowed min­i­mum of $7.25.

State law­mak­ers in Albany recent­ly agreed to raise New York’s min­i­mum to $9 an hour. But the change will take three years to come into effect, and work­ers Thurs­day said $9 an hour isn’t much bet­ter than what they earn now. It’s not easy to join some­thing like this,” said Smalls. But it’s for a change. We want $15 and a union. We want to be paid so that we can live better.”

Plans for the cross-fran­chise union cam­paign were first ini­ti­at­ed about a year ago by the advo­ca­cy group New York Com­mu­ni­ties for Change. The Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU) has pro­vid­ed finan­cial spon­sor­ship and legal aid, while faith groups have lent moral encour­age­ment. The first walk­out occurred on Novem­ber 29, which was then the largest protest action of fast-food work­ers in the industry’s his­to­ry. Through­out the win­ter, orga­niz­ers redou­bled their efforts. New York Com­mu­ni­ties for Change hired a slew of new orga­niz­ers, includ­ing vet­er­ans of the Occu­py Move­ment, to reach out to addi­tion­al fast-food employ­ees. The group began a peti­tion, which gar­nered 110,000 sig­na­tures even before the sec­ond action.

Yet, the deci­sion over whether or not to take part in Thursday’s action, which was timed to com­mem­o­rate the assas­si­na­tion of Mar­tin Luther King Jr., has rest­ed on the shoul­ders of the work­ers them­selves. As a result, the cor­ner­stone of the orga­niz­ing strat­e­gy has been debates and secret meet­ings, which have been tak­ing place inside the city’s fast food joints for months. City­wide meet­ings between work­ers from var­i­ous fran­chis­es have bol­stered the shop-by-shop gatherings.

As man­agers began to sense that some­thing was occur­ring, they inter­ro­gat­ed work­ers indi­vid­u­al­ly, which is ille­gal, and fired those whom they iden­ti­fied as strike lead­ers, which is also ille­gal. Man­agers have also held manda­to­ry meet­ings aimed at con­vinc­ing their employ­ees not to join the cam­paign. One orga­niz­er with New York Com­mu­ni­ties for Change, who asked to remain anony­mous since he was not autho­rized to speak to the press, explained how the intim­i­da­tion works. The boss calls in every­body that works for him and takes about an hour to talk about how bad the union is and how they’re going to take your mon­ey,” she said.

She explained that one deter­rent strat­e­gy is to claim that the only rea­son orga­niz­ers are attempt­ing to union­ize the fast-food indus­try is because unions are des­per­ate for mem­bers. Union den­si­ty has declined, she con­cedes, but she has a counter-argu­ment that she uses when speak­ing to work­ers: You know what else has gone down through­out the last few decades? Wages. Wages have gone down. Your pur­chas­ing pow­er has gone down. Your stan­dard of liv­ing has gone down. It’s all cor­re­lat­ed with the decline of unions.”

Two eco­nom­ic rev­o­lu­tions of the 1970s — automa­tion and glob­al­iza­tion — have also con­tributed to the down­ward spi­ral of wages over the last few decades. Automa­tion has meant that few­er hands are need­ed for indus­tri­al­ized labor, while advances in trans­porta­tion tech­nol­o­gy export­ed jobs over­seas. Both pushed more and more peo­ple into the ser­vice indus­try. Mean­while, rad­i­cal orga­niz­ers were sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly root­ed out of unions dur­ing the Cold War under the guise of fight­ing the inter­nal threat of com­mu­nism. Left in charge were those who pre­ferred to oper­ate unions with a top-down busi­ness-friend­ly mod­el, a shift in the labor move­ment that also ham­pered the expan­sion of work­er power.

Today, as the eco­nom­ic reces­sion con­tin­ues, employ­ers have a sur­plus of low-wage labor and only flash­es of orga­niz­ing to oppose the result­ing exploita­tion — a dynam­ic that is lead­ing to a surge in cor­po­rate prof­its even as wages decline. This dis­par­i­ty is par­tic­u­lar­ly pro­nounced in the fast-food indus­try. In the most extreme exam­ple, net prof­its for McDonald’s totaled $5.5 bil­lion last year, while the company’s rank-and-file report being forced to pick­et for a raise above min­i­mum wage. As Amer­i­ca grad­u­al­ly becomes a low-wage nation, fast-food work­ers on the pick­et lines in New York are in the van­guard of a strug­gle to pre­serve the inter­ests of work­ing peo­ple against cor­po­rate profits.

Yet, despite this obvi­ous inequal­i­ty, the cam­paign to orga­nize these work­ers has a long jour­ney ahead. Although hun­dreds joined Thursday’s strike, there are tens of thou­sands of fast-food work­ers in the city. One chal­lenge has been work­ing in an indus­try with no his­to­ry of unionization.

There isn’t a cul­ture around here of a union, of stick­ing togeth­er,” said the orga­niz­er with New York Com­mu­ni­ties for Change, adding that divi­sions between black, brown and white work­ers have been an addi­tion­al imped­i­ment. I wouldn’t say there have been con­flicts, but there has been ten­sion,” she said. My job is to get peo­ple that before did not talk to each oth­er to build bridges.”

“$7.50 an hour, that ain’t no mon­ey, “ Leach said, who explained that the dai­ly chal­lenges voiced to him by New York City fast-food work­ers brought back mem­o­ries of what he and his col­leagues expe­ri­enced as san­i­ta­tion work­ers before they won union recog­ni­tion. They ain’t got no insur­ance. No kind of ben­e­fits. They get sick, they get hurt on the job, they can’t go to a doc­tor. They can’t pay for food. That ain’t liv­ing. They’re fight­ing the same fight for jus­tice we were.”

A week before Thursday’s strike, orga­niz­ers and fast-food work­ers lis­tened to Bax­ter Leach, who marched with Dr. Rev­erend Mar­tin Luther King in Mem­phis, Tenn., dur­ing the suc­cess­ful 1968 san­i­ta­tion work­ers strike. Leach said that the chal­lenges work­ers he met in New York described to him brought back mem­o­ries of what he and his com­rades endured before they won union recognition.

As with the job of san­i­ta­tion work­ers, the task of serv­ing junk food isn’t con­sid­ered a pres­ti­gious posi­tion in our soci­ety. But those on the pick­et lines Thurs­day in New York hope that the courage and dig­ni­ty with which they’ve imbued their strug­gle will inspire more of their fel­low work­ers to join them and push Rev­erend King’s dream of equal­i­ty clos­er to reality.

Peter Rugh is a facil­i­ta­tor for Occu­py Wall Street Envi­ron­men­tal Sol­i­dar­i­ty and chairs the Action Com­mit­tee of Shut Down Indi­an Point Now! He has writ­ten for The Indypen­dent, Ter​ra​s​pheres​.com, Com­mon Dreams and Social­ist Work­er. Pete blogs at EartoEarth​.org.
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