Notes From a Fast-Food Protest

A ground-level look at an international day of action

Demonstrators outside a Manhattan McDonald's last Thursday (Reuters)

From three blocks away, you could see the large yellow, black, and red McDonald’s sign flapping over 6th Avenue in Manhattan. At 6 a.m. last Thursday, the streets were, for the most part, deserted. But beneath this giant M, marking a 24-hour McDonald’s location, chanting, marching, and drums filled up blocks of an otherwise quiet space. People were holding sturdy red signs, white paper ones, and larger displays that required several people to hold. So many people congregated outside that they successfully dissuaded passers by from wandering in for a coffee or hash brown. This was the local instance of a world-wide day of action, during which workers in more than 150 cities and 33 countries went on strike for higher pay. Here in New York, the goal is a new $15 minimum wage and the formation of a union without retaliation.

“Going global? Where the whole world is standing up for this?” said Naquasia LeGrand, who makes minimum wage at a KFC in Brooklyn. “That never crossed my mind—not even going viral across the country. That’s amazing to me.” Later, by the time the group had moved a few blocks north, from the McDonald’s on 6th Avenue and 28th street to Herald Square, they’d gained more supporters and more attention. People from the Professional Staff Congress, the union that represents the faculty and staff at the City University of New York, and the 32IU 24BJ, a union of property-service workers, had rallied many of their own in solidarity. Photographers covering the event gravitated toward a couple with three young boys in tow. People walking by took Instagrams of an impromptu dance circle.

Liz Rene had only eaten a few carrots since she joined the group early that morning, but no matter. “I’m fueled up. I’m excited.” Rene, who is 24 and working at McDonald’s while in college, is optimistic about the group’s demands being met. “I think it’s going to happen sooner than we expected; it’s going to happen because we’re going to make it happen.” By this time, around 10:30 a.m., the McDonald’s on 6th avenue had already re-opened. The windows were cleaned and tourists and regulars were free to hop in for an iced coffee. Rene works at that location, and she was not surprised to hear that it was back to business. “You can’t stop money flow,” she said from Herald Square. “You can’t stop money flow.”

Frankie Tisdale traveled from Canarsie to Manhattan to strike because he’s become increasingly frustrated with the work environment at KFC. He has two kids, and his hours have been cut. Tisdale says he’s not eligible for full time benefits if he clocks in fewer than 30 hours, and that’s what he gets. “They change my shift unexpectedly every week,” he says, which makes it hard to negotiate picking his kids up from school. “Everything I have to scrape up,” he says. “I’m working, and I have nothing.”

Currently, the minimum wage in New York is $8 an hour. But minimum wages are not hard to live on only because of the smallness of the compensation, but because of all the other ways in which minimum-wage workers do not have control over their lives. This last January, Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, wrote about the trap of existing on a minimum wage: “They pay so little that you cannot accumulate even a couple of hundred dollars to help you make the transition to a better-paying job. They often give you no control over your work schedule, making it impossible to arrange for child care or take a second job.”

If Tisdale earned $15 an hour instead of $8, he would open a bank account, try to save some money, pay his bills on time, and start a college fund, he says.

The strikes were designed to garner media attention, and for good reason: According to Mark Jurkowitz, the associate director of Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, less than 1 percent of available news space is used to cover poverty.

In Herald Square, the group got a call that they had three minutes to wrap up before moving out. Their next spot was a Domino’s a few blocks away. As they walked toward the flashing billboards of Times Square advertising H&M and Coke, more people joined. An 18-year old skipping school came to support a friend. A man hugging a 4-foot stuffed fish and banging a stand alone toilet seat followed along behind. (He wasn't officially part of the group, he told a police officer.)

As the line turned left on W 40th street, it started to rain.