Workers at a Manhattan McDonald’s and a Chicago Dunkin’ Donuts mounted strikes today to protest alleged unsafe heat. The single-store strikes are the latest in a wave of fast food walkouts, and could represent an additional front in low-wage workers’ struggle against the mammoth industry.
“I felt dizzy and sick” working in the heat without air conditioning, McDonald’s employee Luisa Dilla told Salon in Spanish. “My co-workers were afraid, but I wasn’t,” because “I just wasn’t going to work that way.”
Dilla and three other workers walked out of their store around 10 AM, after they say a co-worker fainted from the heat and had to be wheeled to an ambulance by paramedics. Dilla alleged that that when the worker – who had repeatedly said she didn’t feel well - went downstairs to vomit in the bathroom, a manager followed her there to order her back to work. Dilla said that when she went to check on her co-worker, “She was laying down on some chairs and vomiting and then she fell and fainted. Her eyes were rolling back…That’s when we said, enough is enough.”
In an “Excessive Heat Warning” for Manhattan today, the National Weather Service stated that without “protective action,” there was a risk of “sunstroke… muscle cramps… and/or heat exhaustion or heat stroke” due to heat and humidity “expected to make it feel like it is 105 degrees or greater.” Reached while rallying with the striking workers, New York City Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez noted that working in or around a fast food kitchen would be even hotter.
“This is a crime,” Rodriguez told Salon. “This is a crime to have workers doing their job, providing their services, with the temperature going more than 110 degrees without air conditioning.” The councilmember said the workers “have been working in that situation for four or five days,” and when “they brought that condition to the manager, they did not respond.”
Asked about the industry’s franchisee structure, in which most workers are legally employed by franchisees, and not directly by global corporations like McDonald’s, Rodriguez responded that the corporation remains responsible for the working conditions in McDonald’s stores, and “they should also read just the conditions under which an individual can buy a franchise.”
By late Friday afternoon, organizers said that the New York store’s owner had shown up with a portable air conditioning unit and met with Councilmember Rodriguez about the issue.
Workers have also been on strike today at a Dunkin’ Donuts store in Chicago, alleging that their management also failed to address their repeated requests to fix the air conditioning amid unsafe heat. Organizers say three workers there walked off the job around 5 PM CST last night, forcing the normally 24-hour store to shut down until managers arrived to re-open it this morning. “We couldn’t focus on the customers, and we felt light-headed,” striker Erick Guerrero told Salon. “And we just decided to walk out.”
McDonald’s did not immediately respond to a Friday request for comment. Asked about the Chicago strike, Dunkin’ Donuts sent a statement saying its outlets “are operated by individual franchisees who are responsible for making their own business decisions” and “are required to comply with all state, federal and local laws.”
These work stoppages come amid an unprecedented wave of fast food strikes. As Salon first reported, two hundred New York City fast food workers mounted a one-day walkout last November, followed by another citywide action about twice as large in April. Since then, workers have staged one-day strikes in Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Seattle. In each case, workers have demanded a raise to $15 an hour and the right to unionize without intimidation; each of these local campaigns is backed by a coalition including the Service Employees International Union. (McDonald’s has also faced strikes this year by international student guest workers in Pennsylvania and by sub-contracted workers on federal property in D.C.)
Those strikes have anchored a union-backed comprehensive campaign against the country’s fast food corporations. In New York City, that’s included the release of a report alleging rampant “wage theft” in the industry, which coincided with the news that state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman had issued subpoenas to at least one fast food corporation. The New York City Council held a June meeting on fast food wage theft and working conditions. New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, one of several mayoral candidates who’ve rallied with fast food strikers, told Salon yesterday that amid the “dumbing-down of wage and benefit levels,” unionization “is in the public’s interest more broadly.”
At the federal level, the Congressional Progressive Caucus has launched a “Raise Up America” tour to promote an increase in the minimum wage and support for low-wage organizing efforts. Interviewed at last month’s Netroots Nation conference in San Jose, where he’d joined fast food workers and a few congressional colleagues for a campaign kick-off, CPC Co-Chair Keith Ellison, D-Minn., said, “The significance of this wave of low-wage workers striking is that they have had all they can stand, and they have to fight back…All the Progressive Caucus can do if we are worth the salt contained in our bodies is to stand with them.”
The fast food effort faces long odds. But, while today’s two strikes involve only a handful of employees, high-profile actions amplifying safety allegations could mean additional public pressure on fast food giants. Stories of workers striking over threats to their health could fuel the campaign’s outreach to customers and politicians. Achieving incremental victories like getting air conditioning fixed in individual stores could build momentum and engage more employees. And the smaller strikes could help develop leadership and broaden the base of workers prepared to participate in future actions that stretch across the city – or beyond.