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Rugh reports: "Working conditions at fast food franchises tend to be about the same across the board: highly exploitive."

Fast food workers across New York City stood up Thursday against the $200 billion fast food industry. (photo: Press TV)
Fast food workers across New York City stood up Thursday against the $200 billion fast food industry. (photo: Press TV)

Strike Launches Largest Union Drive in US Fast Food History

By Peter Rugh, Waging Nonviolence

30 November 12


hile the emblems of Wendy's, McDonald's, KFC, Domino's and other greasy dynasties are hard to escape in the American landscape, those who cook, clean, ring up orders and otherwise serve as the fulcrum of these franchises often go unnoticed. These workers, however, were hard to miss today as they stepped off burger assembly lines across New York City and into the street, picketing in front of their workplaces. The strike, which took place at numerous restaurants across the city, is the start of the largest effort to unionize fast food workers in American history. Organizers are calling the campaign Fast Food Forward.

Revenues in the fast food industry are expected to near $200 billion this year. Yet the demands of their workers are modest: $15 an hour and the right to unionize with the Fast Food Workers Committee.

"We're out here for better wages, better working conditions, and union protection," said Michael, an 18-year-old employee of a Burger King located not far from Wall Street. Michael says that growing up he was encouraged to "go the right way and get a job," but now that he has a job he's having trouble getting by. "There's people my age that try to let this stabilize them. We got bills, we got rent. We're living from check to check, hoping the next one will be better and it's not. We can't live on this."

Gregory, an East Harlem KFC worker several years older than Michael, said he and his coworkers earn minimum wage ($7.25 an hour), receive food stamps and still don't have enough to get by and provide for their kids. Gregory lives in Rockaway, Queens - an area that was inundated with floodwaters from Superstorm Sandy. When he sought back pay from his employer for time lost during the storm, his request was denied. He was given a meal on the house instead.

Working conditions at fast food franchises tend to be about the same across the board: highly exploitive. The fast food industry provides cheap, warm meals to those pressed for time, who often cannot afford more nutritious forms of nourishment. Simultaneously, these corporations take advantage of economic desperation in the black and brown, immigrant and working-class communities where they can get away with paying starvation wages and reaping gargantuan profits. Wendy's, for instance, took in $615 million in 2011, an increase of 6 percent. But workers say checks from their employer often bounce, and some check cashing outlets won't accept them. Organizers with New York Communities for Change (NYCC), which has been working behind the scenes for months to build the strike, say that McDonald's recruits in homeless shelters. Nearly every "benefit" listed on the company's website, including free uniforms, appears with an asterisk beside it, indicating that the supposed perks are "subject to availability and certain eligibility requirements and restrictions." Profits at McDonald's have ballooned 130 percent in the past four years.

The largest of the fast food behemoths, McDonald's was also the swiftest to shift into damage control mode today, issuing a statement informing the public that the company is committed to a dialogue with their employees "so we can continue to be an even better employer."

Asantewwa Ricks with NYCC said that before she began working on the strike drive, she thought fast food employees were "18-, 19-year-old kids who wanted cash for Beats headphones and True Religion jeans." She has since learned that is not the case. Often, workers remain in the industry for years and see little to no bump in their salary. The minimum wage they receive often forces tough choices on them, such as whether to work late, or to make it back before the shelter where they reside locks its doors. At an organizing meeting early on in the campaign, Ricks asked a room full of fast food workers if they had ever suffered on-the-job injuries. Just about everyone present lifted up scars from grease on their arms.

A coalition of unions and community-based workers' rights groups gathered ahead of the strike on Tuesday in a meeting room at the Service Employees International Union headquarters in Manhattan to discuss ongoing campaigns seeking dignity and improved pay for the working poor citywide. More than 100 people attended, representing roughly 40 organizations, along with a cluster of clergy from a variety of faiths. The coalition had helped spearhead a day of action on July 24, which saw hundreds of low-wage workers from the city's five boroughs congregate in Union Square, and it has also been working with car wash employees demanding raises above the $5.25 hourly standard and, in some cases, back pay. Workers at four car washes have already won union representation in recent months.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who spoke at the July 24 rally, sent an aide to Tuesday's meeting. Quinn is currently ahead in the upcoming mayoral race, but she has drawn ire from workers' rights advocates over her opposition to sick pay legislation. While NYCC is circulating a petition for her to back the bill, the Daily News reports that wealthy business owners - who have already thrown over a quarter of a million dollars her way - sent a letter of their own to Quinn demanding just the opposite. Jonathan Westin, a lead organizer with NYCC, said while the group disagrees with Quinn on the issue of sick pay, he views it as a positive sign that she appears interested in the demands of fast food workers.

Perhaps seeking an edge on Quinn, two other Democratic contenders for mayor were on hand, Bill Thompson and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio. The candidates stood in pressed suits, at opposite ends of the room, grinning at one another. It is with good reason that politicians are showing an interest in the fast food workers' fight for a union; bystanders receiving leaflets from picketers Thursday were widely sympathetic to the cause.

"These guys shouldn't be making 7.25 an hour," said Steve Carlson, a union carpenter. "That's crazy. Especially in Manhattan, the cost of living is so high."

Still, while politicians might lose campaign contributions that sway an election by standing up for a cause like this, workers could lose their jobs. By organizing in the workplace, walking off and gambling on solidarity, they have risked the only means of subsistence available to their families and themselves. Westin said that since workers began the union drive six months ago there have been instances of retaliation from management, but he declined to elaborate because these cases are currently being dealt with in court. For those on strike and their supporters however, the potential benefits outweigh the risks.

"The goal of this strike is for workers to be able to put food on their table and buy their children presents for Christmas," Westin said, though he admits this is a long term battle and likely won't be resolved by the holidays.

The fast food strike that broke out today may have larger implications than are immediately apparent. There are 50,000 fast food workers in New York City, and while those who walked off were few in number by comparison, the strike could galvanize workers elsewhere to take a stand as well. If the push for a union is successful, it will be an illustrative example to those both in the industry and in other low wage professions that standing up to the boss can pay off.

For Michael and his fellow Burger King employees, walking off the job was about more than a wage hike or forming a union. These demands are a means to a higher end. "We work hard, as if we were slaves," he said. "It's not only the wages. It's also about how we get treated. We deserve respect." your social media marketing partner


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+16 # TrueAmericanPatriot 2012-11-30 17:20
In the last 8 months I've been in Wendy's and 'Mickey D's' around 4 or 5 times; I had a frosty at Wendy's a couple of days ago. Wendy's is Ohio-based, so I know enough about it to know that the late Dave Thomas is turning over in his grave. When he passed, the execs didn't even wait for the ground to firm up over his gravesite! Within days, the menus were altered and all of its prices were raised. His daughter (for whom the franchise was named) distanced herself from the operation, until they begged her to come on board for promotional reasons. I understand now why she wanted no part of it, once her father had passed. He would NEVER have allowed mistreatment of his workers. I sure miss him. He was one of the few remaining wealthy men who had a soul, and WAS NOT all about MONEY.
+3 # Joe Bob 2012-12-01 01:14
It's about time.
+5 # JetpackAngel 2012-12-01 02:33
First retail, now fast food. The peons have had enough!
+6 # mdhome 2012-12-01 06:10
TAP, "He was one of the few remaining wealthy men who had a soul, and WAS NOT all about MONEY."

The fact that he was a rare man is sad.
+8 # RMDC 2012-12-01 09:54
Uninoized workers are the only way to fix the US economy. Too much wealth that is generated by workers all over the US goes to the top 2%. Wealth needs to be spread around the working population more evenly. This is what Obama told Joe the Plummer when asked in 2008. So far he seems to have changed his song. He would not meet with the strikers in Wisconsin.

But Unions have always been organized from the bottom up. Expect no help from Obama or anyone in government. They will fight alongside of McDonalds, Walmart, and the rest.

The bottomline is -- no better pay and benefits, no labor. See how long Walmart can remain open if no one shows up to work. Workers need a negotiated contract. They should no longer be "at will" employees.
+2 # Chris S. 2012-12-01 10:33
Yeah ! Let's Organize ! Let's get on Board ! How can us folks that never "do" fast food help?
0 # rockieball 2012-12-02 09:41
Well Chris for one call the TV stations and tell them that you will not watch a program that has fast food commercials of any kind. I know it might mean no American Idol but you can always get a ROKU and watch commercial free programs. I did and do not even have cable anymore. Next is call and email the corporate offices. They do not know that you like me do not eat in fast food.
+3 # reiverpacific 2012-12-01 12:38
Y'know, if these corporations just cut their advertising (TV commercials especially) budgets that enrich the owner-media just for one aspect of expenditures, they'd be able to pay their employees below management level a bit better
But that's probably not even on the corporate radar.
-4 # get the money 2012-12-02 09:07
Unions are a waste of time. They then to make people weak.. Now the only people that make the money are the ones in the union hall. Sad... If you dont like the job find another one... End of story
0 # rockieball 2012-12-03 08:07
Yup a waste of time. Do you work a 40 hour week? Do you get overtime pay? Do you get vacations, holiday pay? Even if you do not belong to a union you can thank a union for them. You can also thank unions for ending child labor, minimum wage and the economic greatness of this country when in the 40's thru the 60's 80% of the American workers were in unions and this country was the largest manufacturing country in the world. This country can thank people like you who feel for the "You can do better with a union." that corporations began to use as they dismantled American Factories and moved them to other countries in the name of profit and greed nothing more. Even Ronald Reagan praised unions, unfortunately it was the unions in Poland fighting communism while at the same time firing ATC union employees because he broke the agreement.
-2 # get the money 2012-12-03 08:49
at one time we neaded unions but not now... get real.. fire them all and find new workers that want to work
0 # rockieball 2012-12-05 12:31
That want to work for nothing and live in eternal poverty. That's what you really mean. They and their children forever locked into a lower class with no way out.
-2 # get the money 2012-12-03 08:46
i have NO use for unions.. the make people weak... if ya dont like your job quit...i dont need someone to do the talking for me. never have never strong!!!!!
0 # mighead 2012-12-04 22:21
Anybody who thinks a big corporation that has to pay higher wages is going to maintain their current prices is sadly mistaken.

The person that is going to pay for any increase in 'costs' is the consumer; and often the ones frequenting the targeted companies are ones who can least afford to pay any price increases.

The shareholders are the last ones to give up any of their profits...

I would like to see profit-sharing given equally to the workers as to the shareholders. I would like to see this policy for all corporations earning one million and up.

Also, many (most?) of these neighborhood outlets are owned by franchisees...a nd not the corporation reaping the profits from them. Thus, the only concern of the corporation is whether the owner pays them; and NOT whether the owner pays their employees.

One of the MacDonald's outlets is located in the Walmart store where I work. The owner owned 4 MacDonald outlets and at each one he used the 'legal' social security number of one of his employees to declare taxable earnings for 4 other 'illegals'.

When the victim and the authorities finally caught on, they took him out in handcuffs. But now, 4 years later, he still owns the stores and he's still in business and he's never gone to jail.
0 # rockieball 2012-12-05 12:33
Let these fast food places raise their prices. Double them, triple them, that way people will stop eating their crap and start eating foods that do not make them look exactly like the cattle that were fatten up for them to eat. Like those who say they have no use for unions, I have no use for the unhealthy food these places serve.

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