Fast Food Workers Fight for $15 an Hour
The numbers speak for themselves. If today’s minimum wage had kept pace with inflation since 1968, it would be $10.52 instead of $7.25. For many Americans, this difference is the cost of rent or a car payment plus groceries and utilities. Had the minimum wage rose along with worker productivity during that same period, it would be $21.72, almost three times the present minimum.
Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren and her ilk cite this data in their campaign for a $9 federal minimum wage, but they are of course not demanding anything approaching $21.72, or even $10.52. The reason is, as every wage laborer knows, the faster and more efficiently one is able to work, the less that labor is actually worth. And there’s no better example of this than the fast-food industry, where some of the most exploited workers in the country toil away feeding millions each day at a breakneck pace. And they are rewarded with the absolute lowest pay allowable by law.
On Monday, answering a call from a national group called Fast Food Forward (FFF), about 200 fast food workers from all over New York City bravely walked off the job, risking firing, to demand more control over their work and their lives. FFF called a press conference and demonstration in Union Square, demanding a $15-dollar minimum wage and a union for fast food workers.
Franklin, a 24-year-old McDonalds worker, and the only person from his restaurant to walk out Monday, explained to me the intricacies and dynamics of his workplace so elaborately you think he ran the place. He’s certainly smart enough. But he’s making the fries. And earlier this month he suffered a serious burn on his arm from the french fry grease. He showed me the scars.
“My manager just laughed at me, no cream, no hospital” he told me. “I get so disrespected at work, and I can’t stand up for myself.” And what happens when he tries to push back? “They hold back my hours to punish me.”
I asked Franklin what his bottom-line demand was. A union, he said. That way, his manager wouldn’t be able to mess with his hours arbitrarily or laugh at his injuries. He’ll be able to work with self-respect.
Before long, a PR worker subcontracted by FFF for the day (to “put the workers in touch with the press,” as he put it) interrupted Franklin and me, wanting to know who I was. “You’re from VICE?” he exclaimed. “That’s awesome. Hold on, let me find you someone from the Williamsburg McDonalds!”
Thus prompted, Franklin suggested I talk to a press person. “Why do they keep trying to get me to talk to people who don’t actually work in fast food?” I asked. He grinned. I asked him if he thinks the politicians have his back. He laughs. “I’m a Democrat, but... nahhh."
This same thing happened whenever I tried to talk to the actual fast food workers. When I attempted to speak to one group of workers, they directed me to “the organizers.”
The truth is Fast Food Forward is no humble rank and file operation. It is a well-funded, well-oiled, and professionally staffed collaboration of the Service Employees International Union 32BJ (SEIU 32BJ), and New York Communities for Change (NYCC, formerly ACORN), two big time organizations inextricably intertwined with the Democratic Party. Beyond the utopian $15 rhetoric, this alliance is also seeking to build a union for fast food workers under the umbrella of the SEIU, and to provide a vehicle for various Democratic politicians to get out the vote, which I witnessed in no short order at Monday’s rally.
Besides individual acts of retaliation by management, like the case of Gregory Reyonoso, who was fired from a Brooklyn Domino's for bringing his co-workers to a FFF demonstration, there has been no public mobilization against FFF, except perhaps a media offensive.
While workers in New York and six other cities walked out on their jobs Monday, Fox Business Network covered the event by speaking with Richard Berman from the Employment Policies Initiative. He spouted tired anti-minimum wage rhetoric—that at $15 an hour large corporations would replace workers with machines and that the business model “simply does not support such a wage”—without disclosing that he was a corporate lobbyist with ties to the fast food industry.
Such propaganda is nothing compared to the union-busting campaigns of multinationals like Walmart.
In 2000, when meat cutters in Jacksonville, Texas, voted to unionize, Walmart eliminated their entire department. New hires at Walmart are greeted with anti-union propaganda in orientation. This is in keeping with an aggressive union-busting campaign in the public and private sectors of the US, unions like the SEIU are feeling this heat, and this is in part why they have begun to organize workers in the fast food industry.
And to be clear, before I find myself linked up on the Drudge Report, these workers really, really, really need a fucking union. We all do. The problem is, a successful union drive comes from the workers themselves. And there is a gigantic difference between a union drive and a public relations campaign, which is what FFF is corralling these brave workers into.
In a union drive, the bosses shouldn't find out that it's going on, or who is organizing it, until everyone in the shop has their back. That way if there is a move to fire them, everyone strikes. By contrast, Gregory Reyonoso, a spokesman for Fast Food Forward, was fired from his Brooklyn Domino's for being involved. A natural organizer, Reyonoso is now so famous that its very unlikely he'll be anywhere near a kitchen again any time soon. And this is where these union drives need to happen if they are to be successful, not in a press conference. It could be argued that it will only be through publicity that a union campaign ever succeeds in fast food, but the SEIU and NYCC is not telling workers that they're engaging in a PR exercise.
Condola, another McDonald’s employee, told me that since her manager found out she was organizing with Fast Food Forward, her hours have dropped from 40 to 14 hours per week. “I’m paying rent, lights, and cable on $80 a week,” she told me.
When I asked her if she thinks a union could stand up to that kind of retaliation, she said yes. And she’s probably right. But right now only one person in her whole workplace has her back. This is one problem with FFF’s strategy of imposing a union from above: Condola is “on strike,” but she can be easily fired for it, and it’s very possible that nobody in her restaurant will back her up, no matter how inspiring her example may be in the long run.
The entire Union Square demonstration was carefully planned by FFF, stage-crafted by 32BJ marshals in orange vests who lead the chants, directed the marches (following traffic laws and staying on the sidewalks), and worked with the police to keep everyone calm. NYCC workers fan through the crowd, trying to tell the marchers where to go and what to do. One young woman from NYCC interrupted my interview with an older worker who had begun to explain to me how he budgets his week on minimum wage. “You don’t have to talk to them,” she told him peremptorily.
When the march reached a McDonalds and the police attempted to push the crowd away, some in the crowd pushed back, chanting “Shame on you!” The crowd came alive. Franklin was right up front pointing his finger and yelling at the cops, and others pushed the metal barricade back at the officers. Suddenly a 32BJ marshal, a burly, bearded-white man in near constant contact with the police, gets between the crowd and the cops, physically pushing the crowd back, and announcing “We know the real reason we’re here... you can’t survive on $7.25!” Another burly man with an orange vest guarded the McDonalds door, fists clenched, to make sure nobody went in.
Thanks to the marshals, the conflict with the cops was diffused to make way for Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal and Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, two local Democratic politicians who served up reheated Fast Food Forward slogans to the crowd. Afterward the same bearded 32BJ marshal made an announcement: the demonstration is over, and now we’re marching... to the SEIU headquarters, for a meeting with still more Democratic politicians.
“Fuck the Democrats!” John, a retired letter carrier, union member, and general eccentric who came out to support the fast food workers, had told me earlier in Union Square. “I respect the Republicans more, they just come out and say, ‘We hate the working class!’”
John explained to me the downfall of American union in three acts: “The expulsion of the reds [communists and socialists, expelled in the 1920s-30s] which the union bosses lead, the Taft-Hartley Act [of 1947, which limited and institutionalized the unions], and Ronald Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers [in 1981].”
“Nowadays unions don’t fight,” he added, “they’re labor lieutenants. They just want to sit down with the bosses.”
John recalled with disgust the turning point in his relationship with his own union, the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC). In 1981 when Ronald Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers rather than negotiating with them, “AFL leaders said they wouldn’t fly as long as scabs were running the controls. They said they’d take Amtrak to the conventions. This lasted to weeks, and they were flying again. This was the moment for a general strike. But my union, all the unions, did nothing.”
John proclaimed, “Fuck the unions!” and he excitedly explained to me how the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) sold out New York’s school bus drivers earlier this year. But all the while he was wearing a shirt that read, “Stand With the Chicago Teachers Union”, and in his retired life he comes out to every pro-union rally he can. He seemed to know everyone there. When I asked him about the difficult political position for people like himself, who understand the need for worker organizing and celebrate its rich history, but also consider the modern unions to be “labor lieutenants” and “sellouts,” he shrugged.
“Fuck them. I’m out here for the workers.”
At the end of the demonstration, Marcellus, a fast food worker who had nearly lost his voice from chanting all day, told me that 50 percent of his workplace supports him, which is the highest estimate of anyone I spoke with. But he’s confident that when it comes to a vote, they will unionize. I asked him whether he thinks this is just the beginning, and he laughed and noted. “I prefer to think its the middle.”
But if today is any indication, these brave and resourceful workers' fight to set up a union will only be the beginning of their struggle against exploitation. A whole new set of bosses is already waiting in the wings.
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