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I Went to a Fast Food Protest

Just like the McRib, fast food worker protests don't come around often, but when they do, they attract tons of people. We spoke to individuals on both sides of the argument over whether or not to raise the minimum wage for fast food employees to $15 an...

Photos by Maggie West

Hot on the heels of the consumer bukkake party known as Black Friday, fast food workers got out their markers and poster board and rustled themselves up a protest. It was reported earlier this week that around 100 separate events were to take place today in cities around the country.

The largest of these protests occurred in New York and Chicago, under the auspices of the Fightfor15 movement, which also organized similar events in August of this year. I assumed that there was also some correlation between the timing of this event and the phasing out of the Dollar Menu, which kept me and plenty of other broke people from starving to death. If I can't get a double cheeseburger for a dollar, then the system is clearly out of whack.


Two rallies were staged in Los Angeles. The protest I attended was at the Silver Lake location on Sunset and Vermont. Despite being it one of the hipper parts of town, there was nothing alternative about this joint, but as you can see in the above photo, I came with my fly down. That's my way of "sticking it to the man."

McDonald’s employees were not wearing nametags when I arrived at the restaurant. When I tried to talk to them, they let me know that they were told not to speak to journalists. It seemed like this location had brought in their best looking, most personable employees for this inauspicious occasion.

After I bought a reasonably priced soda and milled about for awhile, the employees perked up when a gentleman who referred to himself as Luke ordered some fries in between hostilities directed at the amassed protesters. He claimed that the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) had hired the people that were picketing, which prompted the folks behind the register to tell me that they were certain that no one engaged in the protest worked at their McDonald’s location.

Many of the protestors seemed too young to be fast food workers, while others appeared to be sympathetic liberal activists. In particular, I noticed a heavy-set, bearded gentleman (who may or may not have been Clerks director Kevin Smith) who looked as though he recently dropped out of Sarah Lawrence to follow his passion for fingerpainting or something. He led the standard protest chants from behind a megaphone, barking instructions and dancing around as if Jack Black had stopped making people laugh and started making people think.


I approached a van full of kids who definitely weren't fast food workers. I figured the "15" on their shirt was their age, rather than how much they wanted to earn at their jobs. I approached their handler/driver, who quickly blew me off when I requested to speak to someone. I asked point blank if anyone in the van was a fast food worker, and she told me she didn't want to talk to me, and that she was just a friend of the passengers. Naturally, I wondered who paid for the van rental, which would be a bit pricey for someone making minimum wage.

I checked back with my friend/Ron Paul fanatic, Luke, who revealed that he also works for minimum wage, slinging beverages at a coffee shop in the neighborhood. His friends in similar situations, “spend their money on weed and 40s,” but he said that "being poor makes me dream." I wondered what that dream was. I’m guessing his dream has something to do with “scraping together enough spare change for his next meal” or something close to that.

It seemed a bit fallacious to assume that people fighting to earn a living wage and spend their free time organizing rallies don’t dream, or that there’s virtue in being broke in America. Unfortunately for those who preach personal austerity and lionize the working class guy who eats shit from his employers with a smile on his face, the American economy doesn’t function particularly well unless people spend lots of money. If that weren't the case, then I wouldn't have seen 50 articles about how slow Black Friday sales are "calamitous" for the nation.


In order to better understand the situation, I spoke to Alberto Castro, a worker at the Burger King on Century Boulevard and Broadway in LA. Alberto, unlike Luke, was willing to pose for a photo. He's been working at Burger King for 10 months, but he says he has colleagues who have been "working 10, 20 years, and still making $8 an hour. They are still at the same level as I am."

I asked why there wasn't more room for advancement at his Burger King, and he claimed the system is set up to discourage wage increases. “There is no possible way where my manager would give us a raise," he said, "because the managers themselves make a dollar, dollar-fifty more than us regular workers. We get a raise, they have to get a raise. I know these corporations don’t want that.”

Earlier, Luke had trotted out the old rhetorical bomb about how lucky people are to have jobs at all, and that there are new immigrants that would kill for a low-paying gig cleaning hot grease out of a deep fryer. I passed that on to Alberto, who quickly responded, "Many of these immigrants are accustomed to their own rules, and don’t have much knowledge of their rights in the United States. What these corporations put into these people is fear. Fear of losing their jobs.”

Alberto, like many other activists, doesn't have a firm grasp on what the result of their direct action will be. When I queried him about whether or not he thought fast food executives should take pay cuts to compensate for the increase in unskilled wages, he shrugged, blinked for awhile, and finally sputtered out, “Well, I’m not quite sure how to answer that, but right now, our goal is to send out a message to hope our demands are met.” When I asked him if he even had an idea what the consequences of his demands being met would be, he blinked a few more times, like he was trying to send a message in morse code. "We're not at that stage yet."

This lack of an endgame vision is what scares people like Luke when they hear about fast food workers uniting. They want Alberto and his ilk to work harder and be more ambitious rather than just ask for more money, but the opportunities to gain those skills are drying up. Going to college has become an expensive proposition, and government grants and loans are drying up.

If we should try to help the working poor is not a question. How we help them is, and until the two sides of this divide figure out how to raise people's earning potential, America will have a hard time getting itself out of the recession. In the meantime, I'm going to focus on something I can solve, which is buying the URL,