In rare strike, NYC fast-food workers walk out

After a Black Friday action at Wal-Mart, NYC fast-food workers walk out, challenging a nearly union-free industry

Published November 29, 2012 11:30AM (EST)

  (AP/Ben Margot)
(AP/Ben Margot)

At 6:30 this morning, New York City fast food workers walked off the job, launching a rare strike against a nearly union-free industry. Organizers expect workers at dozens of stores to join the one-day strike, a bold challenge to an industry whose low wages, limited hours and precarious employment typify a growing portion of the U.S. economy.

New York City workers are organizing at McDonald's, Burger King, Domino’s, KFC, Taco Bell, Wendy’s and Papa John’s. Organizers expect today’s strike to include workers from almost all of those chains, with the largest group coming from McDonald's; the company did not respond to a request for comment.

But employees were clear about their reasons for walking out. “They’re not paying us enough to survive,” McDonald's worker Raymond Lopez told Salon in a pre-strike interview. Lopez said he decided to join today’s strike because “This company has enough money to pay us a reasonable amount for all that we do … they’re just not going to give it to us as long as they can get away with it. I think we need to be heard.”

Lopez, a 21-year-old who’s been at McDonald's for two years, said he makes $8.75 an hour as a shift manager (organizers say this isn’t a supervisory position). He works at McDonald's and at two other jobs – catering and doing leaf work – while paying off student loans, pursuing an acting career, and helping to support his family.

“Everything we do needs to be fast, needs to be perfect,” said Lopez, and “when you’re actually there for eight hours smiling like you’re on the Miss Universe contest, it’s not easy.” He said McDonald's supervisors “make us work off the clock all of the time” and “there is a lot of verbal abuse.” Lopez recalled a supervisor telling him, “Hey, if you don’t want me to treat you this way, then give me what I want.’”

New York Communities for Change organizing director Jonathan Westin told Salon the current effort is “the biggest organizing campaign that’s happened in the fast food industry.” A team of 40 NYCC organizers have been meeting with workers for months, spearheading efforts to form a new union, the Fast Food Workers Committee. NYCC organizers and fast food workers have been signing up employees on petitions demanding both the chance to organize a union without retaliation and a hefty raise, from near-minimum wages to $15 an hour.

When an NYCC organizer started meeting with McDonald's workers across from his store, said Lopez, “It was a little difficult for me to believe that it was going to be possible” to change McDonald's. “I didn’t pay too much attention to it … it took me two or three meetings to start trusting them.” But as the number of workers meeting with NYCC increased, “my faith in this whole deal grew as well.”

Columbia University political scientist Dorian Warren described companies like McDonald's as poster children for the ways that “the nature and organization of work have changed” in the United States: “part-time work, contingent work, the inability to have control over one’s schedule … essentially no protections, and even where there’s existing protections, they’re not enforced … They don’t even approach living wage jobs,” and for most workers, “there are absolutely no benefits.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics pegs “Combined Food Service and Preparation Workers, Including Fast Food” as the lowest-paid job category in NYC. State labor department data show the city’s fast food jobs have grown by 55 percent since 2000. Meanwhile, according to a report from the National Employment Law Project, McDonald’s profits have increased 130 percent over four years.

University of Pennsylvania sociologist Robin Leidner said Tuesday that an industry norm in which “virtually everyone is part-time” puts workers in a bind: “No one gets enough hours to trigger the legal protections, and to make them eligible for any health benefits … You can’t earn enough with one job, but given the unpredictability, it’s extremely hard to hold down more than one.” Leidner worked at McDonald's (with the company’s agreement) as part of the research for her 1993 book "Fast Food, Fast Talk." She recalled a store manager who “was pretty frank about saying if he had some problem with someone, typically what he’d do is reduce their hours until they got the message. In other words, until they quit.”

Leidner said the jobs are also “very heavily surveilled”: Customers keep workers on their toes, cash registers store instantaneous sales data, managers regulate employees’ expressions, and corporate officials pore over individual stores’ metrics in search of ways to boost profits.

NYC isn’t the only place fast food workers are in revolt. Today’s strike follows a founding convention held earlier this month by an linked organization, the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago. WWOC claims 200-some members in fast food and retail. Its most dramatic actions took place on Black Friday, when workers leafleted and demonstrated at major companies and dropped a banner inside of Macy’s (they also joined pickets in support of local Wal-Mart workers). “We’re getting all the workers together and we’re standing up against CEOs,” said WOCC member Brittany Smith. “Because there’s more workers than there are CEOs.” Smith, a college student who recently quit her job at the retail chain Express and took a similar job at Urban Outfitters, said she now makes $8.75 an hour. “Some of the time I luck out and I can eat two meals a day,” she said. “But most of the time, I’m eating one.”

Like FFWC in New York, WOCC is a new independent union made up of workers tied together by a shared city and similarly low wages, not a single employer. Both FFWC and WOCC are backed by unions and labor community groups, and so far aren’t recognized by any employers. And they’re making the same demands: allow a fair process for unionization and start paying $15 an hour. Organizers say that could be achieved through union contracts with individual companies, or through joint bargaining with several employers at once. Either way, it’s a heavy lift.

As workers try to change their industry, will fast food companies retaliate? Organizers say they already have.

Jose Cerillo, a 79-year-old who cleans tables and floors at a New York McDonald's, told Salon he was suspended by the company on Monday after signing up co-workers on the campaign petition. According to Cerillo, management said the punishment was for violating a “no solicitation” policy. “They feel threatened because I’m organizing,” said Cerillo (he was interviewed in Spanish). He said he circulated the petition during break times and outside of work.

Cerillo said he got involved after receiving a phone call from an organizer at home a few months ago. “I was so happy,” he said. Cerillo, who has been working at a series of McDonald's locations since 1996, said he makes $7.40 an hour, 15 cents above minimum wage. “It’s just not enough to live.”

Cerillo said many of his co-workers share his frustrations but are hesitant to get involved: Of around 40 other employees at his store, “about three” signed his petition. “They don’t want to lose their job,” said Cerillo. But he said he remains eager to keep up the fight: “I feel happy, and I want to fight more … I want to do something worthwhile.”

In recent decades, Warren said Tuesday, even the most effective U.S. unions have “had such a hard time organizing in their core industries,” where they already have members, “that fast food just got left out … no one was really willing to take the risk and invest in fast food organizing.” Warren said research suggests that the industry’s demographics – predominantly women and workers of color – could improve prospects for organizing.

On the other hand, Leidner noted that the extremely high turnover and the relatively small number of workers in each store would make organizing that much more difficult.

The structure of the industry will also play a role: most individual stores are franchisees, technically owned by an individual who holds a contract with the national company and pays them fees and a portion of revenue. Any individual franchisee that buckled to pressure to transform conditions or eschew union-busting could have that contract revoked (one exception: establishments in public buildings like convention centers, among the only places you can find a unionized Starbucks). At best, the franchisee relationship could provide organizers with an additional point of leverage, creating unrest in stores that could drive franchisees to press corporate for a resolution, and vice versa. But at worst, the franchisee structure could offer another lever for corporate to crack down on any uprisings while evading any responsibility.

The New York and Chicago campaigns evoke two strategies that have been long debated but infrequently attempted in U.S. labor. First, “minority unionism”: mobilizing workers to take dramatic actions and make demands on management prior to showing support from the majority of employees. Second, “geographic organizing”: collaboration between multiple unions to organize workers at several employers and win public support for raising a region’s standards through unionization. This campaign is also the latest example in which community-based organizing groups, which unions have long leaned on to drum up support for workers, are playing a major role in directly organizing workers to win union recognition.

NYCC’s Westin told Salon in a pre-strike interview that the goal of this work stoppage is to give expression to workers' “energy and movement” and “anger around how they’ve been treated,” and “hopefully mobilizing the community, and mobilizing clergy, and mobilizing their fellow workers around them.”

Today’s strike also comes one week after non-union Wal-Mart workers escalated their unprecedented strike wave against the retail giant. Lopez said that, while he had already decided to strike, he drew additional inspiration from the Black Friday example. “I thought it was really ballsy for someone to do that,” said Lopez. “Which I admired.” Lopez said his decision to strike “got scary probably a couple days ago, when I realized the seriousness of this.” Despite that fear, he said, “I still believe in what I’m doing, so I’m going to go ahead and do it.”

“I don’t know what to expect” from the strike, said Lopez. “It’s such a unique thing. A lot of stuff could happen. It’s not going to be overnight.”

By Josh Eidelson

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Fast Food Strike Labor Mcdonald's Strike