With Nothing to Lose and a Living Wage to Win, Fast-food Walkouts Spread

Fast-food workers walked off the job in about 50 U.S. cities on Thursday, the latest show of force from a unionization campaign that began with a one-day strike involving 200 people in New York City last November. Since then, the union drive has taken root in several East Coast and Midwestern cities including Boston, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Detroit, Flint, Mich., and Milwaukee. The actions on Thursday marked new territory for the campaign with picket-lines going up in West Coast and Southern cities — Los Angeles, Seattle, Tampa, Fla., Raleigh, N.C., and Houston among them.

“Everybody is standing up today,” said Naquasia LeGrand. The 21-year old New Yorker divides her time between the two Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets she works for — one in Brooklyn, the other in Queens — and organizing the union drive. She was among a crowd of 100 or so that shut down a Midtown Manhattan McDonald’s before dawn Thursday with chants of “Can’t Survive on 7.25” — a reference to the going fast-food wage in New York State.

Jose Avila, a 22-year-old Houston, Texas, resident who works for Subway, watched on TV as the fast-food strikes spread earlier this year. “Why aren’t we stepping up?” he asked himself.

That summer, campaigners with Texas Organizing Project approached Avila while he was working behind the counter at his job. It was one of the hottest days of the year and the store’s air conditioner was broken. “They came in and they saw the struggle I was going through,” Avila said. “They spoke about the strike they were planning, and I decided to jump in and fight the fight.” On Thursday, he and approximately 100 other fast food workers went on strike in the city, holding rallies, pickets and speak-outs at numerous Houston restaurants.

This new escalation comes as the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Their struggle is an indicator of just how far the country has to go before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of equality — both legal and economic — is realized.

“Part of that march was about economics,” said Rev. David Madison, pastor of the Greater Ward African Methodist Episcopal Church in Houston, who mobilized his congregation for the job actions on Thursday. Many of his congregants work in the fast-food industry and went on strike.

“The civil rights leaders of that era knew very well that freedom is very hollow if you don’t have economic justice,” Rev. Madison said. “Fifty years later we are still fighting for people to be able to live and work and raise their children on a decent wage.”

Outlets that saw picket-lines crop up at their doors include billion dollar fast-food outlets whose brand icons plaster roadsides and smear televisions coast to coast: McDonald’s, Burger King, Little Caesars and Domino’s, to name a few. These restaurants are divided among individual franchise owners, but the common thread of exploitation runs through them all. Their workforce, largely drawn from traditionally marginalized and oppressed social groups including African-Americans, Latinos and first-generation immigrants, earn wages at or just above the legal minimum and are provided no job security or health benefits to speak of. Those who took part in Thursday’s strike raised a common demand of $15 an hour and union recognition.

The effort has been underwritten largely by the Service Employee’s International Union, which has provided funding for localized community groups like Texas Organizing Project and New York Communities for Change to mobilize on the ground. Some critics have speculated that the strikes have more to do with the SEIU flexing its political muscles on behalf of the Obama administration than achieving the campaign’s stated objectives. However, workers again and again say they decided to join the campaign because they felt as if they had nothing to loose.

Kareem Sparks, a 30-year-old Brooklyn McDonald’s worker, said he had heard about the campaign before but was too focused on getting by on his $7.25 hourly wage and keeping his second job as a landscaper to pay it much mind. What motivated him to strike, Sparks explained, was seeing his youngest son graduate from kindergarten and his oldest from middle school. Sparks couldn’t afford to take them out to eat to celebrate or buy them presents.

“It was either that or making rent,” he said, “All I could afford were balloons.”

He laughs bitterly when asked about opportunities for advancement at McDonald’s. The chain boasts of its Hamburger University, a management program run out of its Illinois headquarters. “Like the UN,” the McDonald’s website says, Hamburger University has “interpreters working with us, and we have the ability to teach in 28 languages including Spanish, German, French, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese.”

But workers like Sparks aren’t reaping the benefits. He said, “There’s a guy I work alongside whose been at the same job for 13 years. He makes $7.45 an hour.”

Sparks joined the union drive in the run-up to the previous round of walkouts, which took place on July 31. Once his employer got wind of it, he was offered a promotion. “They wanted to make me a manager,” he said. “I turned them down, since that would mean I couldn’t organize, I couldn’t speak out.”

Since the union drive got underway in New York City and began spreading nationwide, there have been numerous instances of higher-ups firing workers and using other forms of retaliation, such as slashing their hours to prevent them from unionizing. In response, workers have mobilized in each other’s defense, in some instances shutting down restaurants and negotiating with management to rehire laid-off employees. Other cases are being handled through courts by lawyers retained by the local campaigns.

When Sparks talks to fellow workers, he reminds them that they have rights on the job. “Supervisors and general managers automatically assume that they can intimidate workers and make us feel like we don’t have the right to organize, when we do.”

Often, these conversations happen at fast-food restaurants, where, when he can afford it, Sparks takes his children for dinner. “People in this country like to eat fast food,” he explained. “I indulge in it myself. When I get a chance to go out and spend a little money on fast food, I try to acknowledge the workers. I try to educate them on the situation. I show them clips on my cellphone of me talking to the press, being on TV. I basically encourage them to join in because we need as many people with us as possible.”

Like Rev. Madison, Sparks sees the struggle that he and his co-workers are engaged in as tied to the legacy of the civil rights movement. “There was a change then. There can be a change now if we keep mobilizing,” he said. “We came a long way by standing together. I don’t see any reason why we should give up now.”

For Naquasia LeGrand, who took part in the first one-day strike last November in New York, Thursday’s job actions multiplied her sense of what is possible. She expects that, as more and more workers see their counterparts joining in the union drive, it will have a snowball effect and their numbers will continue to increase. “Who knows?” she said. “The whole world could stand up.”

• This article was first published at Waging NonViolence.

Peter Rugh is a writer and activist based in Brooklyn, New York. Read other articles by Peter, or visit Peter's website.