America's fast food nightmare: Why workers are going overseas to find a minimum wage

In parts of Europe, fast food workers get $20/hour. So why can't their American counterparts get $15, and a union?

Published December 3, 2014 4:16PM (EST)

       (<a href=''>lev radin</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(lev radin via Shutterstock)

American fast food workers have taken their struggle for $15 an hour and union recognition abroad in an informational and alliance-building tour spanning three continents and eight countries. The fast food labor campaign, which began in November 2012 when 200 fast food workers walked off the job in New York City, has staged seven one-day strikes. The most recent strike, on Sept. 4, involved tens of thousands of people, including picketing home healthcare workers, in 150 U.S. cities and marked the movement’s first civil disobedience, with more than 430 workers arrested nationwide.

Alvin Major and Flavia Cabral, the two workers traveling to Europe, are interested in learning more about the working conditions in other countries. They have been struck by the $20 an hour wages and significant benefits McDonald’s pays its Danish workforce. A recent New York Times story details the Danish workforce’s union-negotiated contract, which includes wages in excess of $20 an hour, five weeks’ paid vacation, paid maternity and paternity leave, a pension plan, overtime pay after 6 p.m. on Sundays, and fair scheduling practices that provide employees their schedules four weeks in advance and prohibit employers from forcing employees to take breaks or clock out early when business slows.

The comparison to how U.S. workers at the same companies are treated is stunning.

“We are on a fact-finding mission,” said Major, who is 49 and works at a Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) in New York City. “I’m here in Denmark, and I see it for myself. When they hear it, people often don’t believe it. They are doing the same work that we are doing in America. It makes me feel rejected. The companies are trying to maximize their profit. They don’t care about their workers.”

Major showed me a copy of the labor contract, negotiated by 3F, Denmark’s largest union, that he plans to bring home to show his co-workers. His $8 an hour salary typically provides monthly earnings of $1,300. After paying $1,000 for rent, along with his other bills, Major and his wife, who is unemployed, do not have much left over for their four children, who are 18, 16, 14 and 12 years old.

“In a country that we are supposed to be doing better than, they are getting $20,” Major said. “We want $15 and a union. If we get $15, we can actually do something, like food, clothing, shelter, take care of your family a little bit … What’s been happening is my kids haven’t been getting the kind of support I’m supposed to be giving them. You have to make choices, you know.” 

Flavia Cabral, who is 53 years old and works at a McDonald’s in New York City, also struggles to provide for her two daughters and her husband, who is recently unemployed, on her $8 an hour salary.

“The reason I am striking to get $15 and a union is I don’t get paid enough money,” Cabral said. “I am so worried about the future of my children — how they are going to go to school, how they are going to go to college. The most important thing to me is to send my kids to college so that they can finish their education because I did not have the opportunity to do that. I want my kids to have a better life than I have had.”

Cabral intends to continue organizing her co-workers until they earn higher wages and union recognition, no matter how long it takes.

“If I have to go to all of the sides of the world, I will go to all sides of the world to keep on fighting for $15 and a union,” she said.

The tour is divided into three separate trips by a pair of workers, five from McDonald’s and one from Kentucky Fried Chicken. Cabral and Major, from New York City, left for Denmark on Monday, Nov. 10, and will travel to Scotland and England before returning from France later this week. Albina Ardon and Moses Brooks, from Los Angeles, return later this week from Japan and the Philippines. And Dora Pena and Jessica Davis, from Chicago, are in Argentina and Brazil. Each group, accompanied by a Fast Food Forward organizer from their region and a media contact, will meet with local labor unions and politicians to increase awareness of their cause. Fast Food Forward is backed financially by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which has contributed more than $10 million over the last three years.

Though public information on comparative fast food wages by country is scarce, Denmark and France, which has a national minimum wage above $12 an hour, appear to be the only two countries out of the eight that will be visited where wages and working conditions significantly better than those in the U.S. In the Philippines, where Ardon and Brooks will speak at the inaugural meeting of the Respect for Fast Food Workers Alliance, the first attempt to form a fast food workers union in the country, wages are often less than $1.50 an hour. The McWage Index, a study by Orley Ashenfelter, an economics professor at Princeton University, compares real fast food wages across countries expressed through the price of Big Macs. The study finds workers in Denmark, France, Japan and the U.K. have purchasing power greater than their U.S. counterparts, while workers in Argentina, Brazil and the Philippines have far less.

The tour marks the continuation of an international labor alliance that formally began earlier this year, on May 5-6, when more than 80 fast food workers and union representatives from 26 countries came to New York City for an international fast food workers summit hosted by the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Association (IUF). A week later, the protest campaign went global, when workers walked off the job in 230 cities around the world, including 150 U.S. cities.

“The fight for minimum wage and against precarious jobs is global, it’s common in different countries,” said Massimo Frattini, the coordinator for the hotel and restaurant sector of the IUF, who is traveling with Major and Cabral on the tour’s European leg. “We’ve been asked by our affiliates to support their fight because it’s also our fight.”

Major and Cabral will meet with Denmark’s 3F, the French Democratic Confederation of Labor (CFDT), France’s General Confederation of Labor (CGT), and the U.K.’s Bakers, Food & Allied Workers Union. Albina and Moses, traveling in Japan and the Philippines, will meet with the Alliance of Progressive Labor in the Philippines, the Federation of Consumer Cooperatives Union, the National Federation of Healthcare Workers, the National Confederation of Trade Unions, and the Tokyo Youth Union in Japan. In Argentina, Pena and Davis will meet with Pasteleros. Each of the unions the workers will be meeting with is affiliated with the IUF, aside from the Japanese unions.

McDonald’s was chosen as the tour’s primary target — initial plans called for six McDonald’s workers to tour, but Major replaced a New York City worker who was unable to make the trip — due to its unmatched global reach and its domination of both the domestic and international fast food markets. The company employs around 760,000 people worldwide, only an estimated 140,000 of whom are U.S. employees. And it has 35,000 restaurants worldwide in more than 120 countries. McDonald’s 2012 profits of $5.6 billion came from revenues of $27.6 billion, for a profit margin of nearly 20 percent that far outpaced the S&P 500 average of 8.7 percent. Yum Brands, McDonald’s strongest competitor, had 2012 profits of $1.6 billion with an 11.7 percent profit margin.

Major and Cabral’s experiences are largely representative of the working conditions of the nearly 4 million U.S. fast food workers. Median wages are $8.69 an hour and median weekly hours are 30, according to a recent University of California, Berkeley-University of Illinois study that was funded in part by Fast Food Forward. Just 28 percent of the workforce regularly works a full-time, 40-hour week compared to 75 percent of the workforce as a whole, a scheduling strategy that absolves the employer of benefits and overtime costs. Even so, wage theft in the industry is rampant; a recent study found nearly nine out of every 10 fast food workers have been illegally denied contractually earned pay at some point in their fast food career.

Many families are dependent upon fast food wages. Sixty-eight percent are not in school and are single or married adults with or without children, according to the U.C. Berkeley-University of Illinois study. Only 32 percent of the workforce is younger than 23 years of age.

The low wages amount to poverty pay. According to Wider Opportunities for Women, a nonprofit women’s advocacy organization, a full-time wage of $14.17 is needed to live above subsistence levels, according to national averages. In order to make ends meet, 52 percent of fast food workers are enrolled in public benefits programs, according to the U.C. Berkeley-University of Illinois study, at an estimated annual cost of $7 billion to the American taxpayer. Taxpayers provide $1.2 billion to McDonald’s workers alone so that they can hope to achieve a subsistence standard of living. At the expense of its workers and the taxpaying public, the company has managed to privatize its profits while socializing its costs.

Both Major and Cabral mentioned employer intimidation as a primary reason for the still limited participation of their co-workers in the movement. Neither has seen anybody fired for participating in union activity, but they have heard managers disparage unions and broadly threaten workers who would join one, activities that are illegal under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Employers capitalize on their employees' precarious situations because they can get away with it.

“Due to getting minimum wage and living paycheck to paycheck, people are scared, and then managers misinform them and threaten them,” Cabral said. “Some people are scared to be out of a job for one week. If you are out of a job for one week, sometimes you end up in a homeless shelter because you cannot pay your bills.”

Though fast food labor conditions — and employer threats against unionizing — are severely understudied, the Economic Policy Institute and Human Rights Watch have published relevant reports on the National Labor Relation Board’s (NLRB) management of the unionization process.

The EPI report establishes that throughout the NLRB election process employers systematically subject workers to threats, interrogation, harassment, surveillance and retaliation for union activity. The report finds employers threatened to close the plant or store in 57 percent of elections, fired workers in 34 percent, and threatened to cut wages and benefits in 47 percent of elections. In two-thirds of elections, workers were forced to attend weekly anti-union one-on-one sessions with a supervisor. In 63 percent of elections employers used supervisor one-on-one meetings to interrogate workers about their union affiliation, and in 54 percent employers used such sessions to directly threaten workers with retaliation for their union activity.

The Human Rights Watch inquiry into Wal-Mart’s labor practices found that the company systemically denies its workers their rights. The report concluded: “[US labor laws] provide penalties too weak to adequately deter employers from breaking the laws, only requiring offenders to restore the status quo ante and imposing few, if any, economic consequences.”

As is the case in Denmark, unionization is one way fast food workers could address their working conditions — including wage theft, forced part-time hours, and other unfair scheduling practices — and bargain for more equitable pay. Industry arguments against raising the minimum wage, like those from the National Restaurant Association, assert that increased pay would force the industry to significantly downsize its workforce. The efficacy of this argument is largely a product of our anemic economy. Analysis from the National Employment Law Project (NELP) demonstrates the jobs recovery has been driven by a surge in low-wage jobs that have replaced the higher-paid jobs lost during the recession. The fast food industry has been a primary driver of this trend. Workers laid off in any kind of industry downsizing would not face promising job prospects.

The argument that an increase in wages will reduce fast food jobs also assumes that workforce wage increases would make the corporations unprofitable, though it does not address excessive corporate profits and executive pay. As I mentioned above, McDonald’s 20 percent profit margin far outpaces both the industry and the S&P 500 average.  A recent Demos report shows that the fast food industry has the highest CEO-worker pay disparity (1,200:1) in the economy.

The profitability cannot be addressed publicly because of the absence of public information. One way to address this uncertainty would be for fast food workers to bargain collectively with the corporations that employ them. The NLRB began this process by designating McDonald’s — and employers like it — a "joint employer" with its franchisors. This legal process, however, will take years to play out.

Peter Lykke, a 3F union official who bargains with McDonald’s, explained the benefits unionization brings to the Danish McDonald’s workforce, and how the lack of a unionized American workforce has helped 3F organize.

“It’s only because we stay strong that we have good collective agreements,” he said. “For us, it’s very important to have an example in the states of what we don’t want, and we can use that for our own organizing purposes. [In America] the wages are so low you can’t live on them, you have to do something. And these are business that are making a lot of money. These people are not asking for the same $21 an hour that we have. They’re asking for $15 an hour. That’s what we pay young people under the age of 18 in our agreements. They’re just asking for something that could support a decent living.”

Lykke explained that McDonald’s bargaining stance toward 3F has shifted within the past decade as the corporation has sought to enhance its reputation within Denmark. In addition to beginning to pay its European taxes in Denmark, McDonald’s began to willingly address previous breaches of the union contract involving issues like forced breaks, back pay and dismissal disputes. Lykke believes the shift was inspired by the declining sales that came along with a bad reputation.

“Basically, these companies are in business to flip burgers, they are not in business to fight unions,” Lykke said. “If they can flip more burgers by making an agreement with a union, they will do that. The bad image has to influence their sales. People will have to stop going there before they act on it. They don’t care if they have a bad reputation if money is coming in.”

Whether the growing American fast food worker movement can achieve similar success remains to be seen.

By Geoff Gilbert

MORE FROM Geoff Gilbert

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