Inside Fast Food Workers' Historic Fight for Living Wages
The term "McJob" has come to epitomize all that's wrong with the low-wage service industry jobs that are growing part of the U.S economy. "It beats flipping burgers," the cliché goes, because no matter what your job might be, it's assumed to be better than working in a fast-food restaurant.
Today in New York City, though, hundreds of workers at dozens of fast-food chain stores are walking out on strike, demanding better of those jobs. At McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, KFC, Taco Bell, and Domino's Pizza locations, workers have been organizing, and today they launch their campaign. They want a raise, to $15-an-hour from their current near-minimum wage pay, and recognition for their independent union, the Fast Food Workers Committee.
Saavedra Jantuah, who works at a Burger King on 34th St. in Manhattan, explained that the $7.30 she makes per hour after two years on the job doesn't pay her enough to support her son. "I'm doing it for him, I'm going on strike so I can bring my family together underneath one household," she said. "A union can help us get to where we can make it in New York."
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 says.
'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 of $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," says 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.
"The question about fast food is the same question that workers have been raising about Walmart. Both of these campaigns are a window onto the larger debate on to whether America is going to have a living wage economy in the 21st century or not," Bernhardt said.
RAISE THE FLOOR
Wages in the fast-food industry have stayed low for two basic reasons. First, many are low-skill service jobs in an efficient assembly where workers are easily replaced and don't require much education. Second, there is a large supply of people who are willing to make cheap burgers at a low wage. It is easy to look at this scenario and conclude, "well, economics determines prices and wages, and that's that." But the full story is more complicated. Cheap fast food and their cheap workers impose a cost on the country in the form of food stamps, welfare through the tax code, and social safety net programs. This is a place for government to intervene -- and for corporations to sacrifice some of their profits -- by raising wages to a livable level.
"We're paying a few cents less for a hamburger and fries which aren't very good for you, but we end up paying large sums through social safety net programs," labor economist Mark Price says. "There's definitely a role for public policy to help workers who are low income, but there's no reason that the cost of goods in this industry shouldn't reflect the actual cost of living."
The timing of this campaign in New York comes as Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature are under pressure to raise the state minimum wage, and a battle over paid sick days for New York City workers remains stalemated in the City Council. Bernhardt noted that to really improve conditions for low-wage workers in New York, "It's going to take both public policy intervention in terms of raising the minimum wage as well as organizing workers to lift the wage floor in this sector."
THE SCOURGE OF LOW-WAGE SERVICE JOBS
Low-wage employers have been hearing lots of rumblings of discontent lately, from Walmart to New York's Hot and Crusty bakery, and today, with workers like Harris saying they're tired of being treated like animals, having orders barked at them. And New York has conditions that make it easier to organize than many other places--with fast food restaurants clustered block by block, Shaiken noted, and a union-friendly climate, it could help light a spark that could spread.
"What's going on here in New York city is people taking their economic welfare into their own hands and organizing to raise their own wages," Price said. "We're going to be stuck in this cycle of a slowly growing economy with high unemployment. The only way to reverse that is to get wage growth, particularly at the bottom and the middle." And the best way to get wage growth when unemployment is still high is for them to organize.
Yet unions have been in decline for over thirty years, with just about 7 percent of the private sector organized. Part of that is the changes in how we work, said Stephen Lerner, longtime labor organizer and architect of the groundbreaking Justice for Janitors campaign. "You used to have factories with thousands of people, it was easier to build solidarity. But work has disaggregated, people are now working at very small worksites, often with it being unclear who owns the place. All of that becomes exacerbated in places where wages are really low, turnover is high. There's a whole set of things that make it harder for workers to join together."
"It's a very tough challenge," Shaiken noted, "but ultimately so was organizing industrial unions in the middle of the Great Depression."
What we've seen with Walmart and now with the fast food workers is an independent organization, supported by traditional labor unions (in this case, the Service Employees International Union along with New York Communities for Change, United NY, and the Black Institute), can be more creative in its organizing tactics. Lerner is particularly inspired by the one-day strike that the workers are undertaking today. "The old strike, you used to go out and stay out until you win. But the workers now are so angry and mistreated an the way you express that is short-term walkouts."
In the Walmart strikes, in the Justice for Janitors campaign, and now in New York, Lerner noted, organizers have moved to find strategies that make sense to workers, that aren't trapped in the same old formulations that worked in factories but don't make sense for food service. "The key thing is not letting how workers organize be defined by the legal regime which has not only failed to protect workers but also was constructed for a very different kind of workplace," Lerner said.
"For so long, a lot of labor and other folks have avoided these industries because they thought they were too low wage, too hard to organize, and now our economy has become an economy of mostly low wage service jobs," Westin said. "It was the same thing when they were organizing factories in the early 1900s. They organized those factories and lifted an entire segment of the population into the middle class. This could happen here. We could lift an entire segment of the US population out of poverty and into the middle class."
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.