This is the first multi-franchise effort among fast-food workers to organize and demand better conditions, and it's coming on the heels of viral strikes at Walmart stores around the country. Yet this campaign was building before the first Walmart worker walked out. Jonathan Westin, Organizing Director for New York Communities for Change, which led the effort to organize the fast food workers, said that they've had over 40 organizers talking to workers around the city. They've found that overwhelmingly, those workers can't afford basics like food, rent, or a Metrocard to get to work.
Harley Shaiken, a professor of education and geography at the University of California at Berkeley and expert on unions and labor, explained that while we may talk about fast food and retail workers as part of the service sector, their most prominent characteristic is that they're vulnerable workers, with low wages, few or no benefits, not enough hours, and little dignity on the job. Respect is as important as a wage increase to Jantuah and Jesska Harris, who works at a Midtown Manhattan McDonald's.
"With a mild uptick in the economy, we're seeing growing protest among workers that have become invisible," Shaiken said.
'A LAST CHANCE'
The median hourly wage for food service and prep workers is a mere $8.90 an hour in New York City, according to the New York Department of Labor. But Jasska Harris still makes the federal minimum wage -- $7.25 -- after five months on the job, and struggles to get even 35 hours a week. And that minimum wage buys less than it used to. A recent study from the National Employment Law Project pointed out that the value of the minimum wage is 30 percent lower than it was in 1968.
"I don't think we can afford to write off fast food anymore as simply a sector that offers transitional jobs for teenagers," said Annette Bernhardt, policy co-director at NELP. "Increasingly working families are depending on this industry, and unless we confront the serious problem of low wages in the fast food industry, we're not going to solve the job quality problem for the labor market as a whole."
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that seven out of 10 growth occupations over the next decade will be low-wage fields. And these jobs are not being done by teenagers. Across the country, the median age of fast-food workers is over 28, and women -- who make up two-thirds of the industry -- are over 32, according to the BLS.
"For a lot of people it's a second chance or even a last chance," Shaiken said.
Fast food weathered the recession, and the biggest names are seeing big profits. Yum! Brands, which runs Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC, saw profits up 45 percent over the last four fiscal years, and McDonald's saw them up 130 percent. (After Walmart, Yum! Brands and McDonald's are the second and third-largest low-wage employers in the nation.) Yet those profits are not being passed on to workers like Harris and Jantuah, who remain stuck at or barely above a stagnant minimum wage.