In rare strike, NYC fast-food workers walk out
November 29, 2012
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 Westintold 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 Brittney 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 American Apparel, 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.”
Solidarity to all striking workers across the world!