The McJobs Strike Back: Will Fast-Food Workers Ever Get a Living Wage?

On November 29, 2012, 200 workers from McDonald's and other cheap restaurants went on strike. Today, they're back. But is their cause doomed from the start?
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Edwin Guzman already lost his job once for union-organizing. But today, he and several hundred fast food workers across New York City are on strike anyway.

A few weeks ago, an organizer with the Fast Food Forward campaign, begun by New York Communities for Change (NYCC) and supported by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and other labor and community groups walked into the Burger King in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where Guzman works. He had a petition with him, calling for a raise to $15-an-hour and union recognition for the workers. Guzman and some of his colleagues signed.

Not long afterward, he had to take a couple of days off for a court date--he was being evicted from his apartment, in part because of his steadily decreasing hours and low pay at his job. Like most of the city's fast food workers, he makes just $7.25 an hour and struggles with irregular scheduling. When he returned to work, his supervisor called him in to talk.

"He told me he had to let me go," Guzman explained. "He felt like I disrespected him. He felt violated that I signed the petition."

When Guzman told the organizers what had happened, they explained to him that firing workers for union activity is illegal, and that they'd support him if he wanted to fight back. With the help of City Councilman Brad Lander, after a meeting with the boss, Guzman and one of his other coworkers were reinstated. That cemented his commitment to the union campaign.

***

Today is the second citywide day of strikes in New York's fast food industry. On November 29, 2012, some 200 workers at McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, KFC, Taco Bell, and Domino's Pizza locations across multiple boroughs struck in what Jonathan Westin, executive director of NYCC, called "their coming out party." Before that, Westin explained, the workers had been organizing behind the scenes, keeping their plans quiet. Now, he said, even in the face of intimidation from their bosses, the workers have been able to grow their movement.

"We'll have double the number of strikers, four or five hundred workers on strike, and double the locations too," Westin said. "We will have several stores where it will not just be minority strikes like it was last time, we will have the majority of workers at several stores out on strikes, making it hard for them to do business on this day."

The date, April 4, holds special meaning for the workers and many of their supporters in the community. It is the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. King was in Memphis to support the strike of the city's sanitation workers, whose "I Am a Man" signs made clear that their labor struggle was part of the larger civil rights fight. Last week, two of those strikers, Alvin Turner and Baxter Leach, met with some of the fast food workers to share advice and inspiration.

In addition to the historic significance of the date, this strike comes on the heels of two political victories for New York's low-wage workers: the passage, more than three years in the making, of a bill requiring that workers in New York City receive paid sick leave, and an increase in the state's minimum wage. Within that context, the workers are part of a growing movement for economic justice that is proving its political impact.

Beyond Minimum Wage
As part of the budget deal passed in Albany, New York state's minimum wage will go up to $8 an hour on December 31. The following year it will go to $8.75, and the year after that it will hit $9 per hour. This will mean, in the words of Michael Kink, executive director of the Strong Economy for All Coalition, billions of dollars in the pockets of one and a half million New Yorkers. And Kink credits the growing movement of low-wage workers for the victory.

"Two years ago we had a thousand people occupying the capital demonstrating against massive budget cuts, massive tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires," Kink said. After the original budget battle came rallies on May 12, 2011, and then the explosion that was Occupy Wall Street. "We built something of a movement for economic justice and won some victories," he said. "Last time around getting the millionaire's tax was a hand-to-hand combat full pitched battle, occupations in every major city in New York and lots of small ones. This time around it was like OK, let's pass the millionaire's tax. We're starting to make progress on significant elements of economic policy and economic justice."

Westin agreed. "Coming off the strikes last year, in conjunction with the Walmart strikes, I think it really did help change the narrative in New York and nationally on low-wage work. When the president talked in his State of the Union about minimum wage, Governor Cuomo talked about minimum wage in his State of the State--a lot of what happened last year helped drive the narrative in terms of getting things done."

But even $9 an hour, the target that President Obama named and that New York will hit in three years, isn't enough to live on in New York City. According to a 2010 report prepared by the Women's Center for Education and Career Advancement, the "self-sufficiency standard" -- how much it costs to live without relying on government subsidies -- for a single adult living in the Bronx (the cheapest borough) was $12.56 an hour; for an adult with one child, that number jumps to $23.39 an hour. And it's worth noting that in the three years since that report, the cost of a MetroCard alone has jumped $23 a month. Further, Amy Traub, a senior policy analyst at nonpartisan think tank Demos, noted that the median rental apartment price in Brooklyn has gone up some seven percent in the past year alone.

Naquasia LeGrand works at KFC on 4th Avenue in Brooklyn and has been part of the fast-food campaign since before the last strike. She noted that even $10 an hour would not be enough to really live on in the city, but said that the victory nonetheless shows how much the hard work she and the others have put into organizing is paying off.

Republicans in the State Senate blocked a plan to index the minimum wage to inflation, which Traub noted means another fight over the same issue in a few years. But they weren't able to block a wage increase for tipped workers, though just what that raise will be will be determined by a wage board convened by the governor. Kink pointed out that the wage board will provide another opportunity for organizing, as tipped workers within the fast food movement, the growing car wash movement, and airport workers can press for better wages.

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Sarah Jaffe is a freelance journalist who writes about feminism, politics, labor issues, and comic books.

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