While President Obama continues his economic speaking tour, walkouts at fast-food restaurants rippled across cities nationwide last week, calling attention to the nation’s growing wealth gap. At the franchise stores of McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Burger King and KFC and other grease-slinging corporations, thousands of people protested the low wages dished out by the biggest names in the industry and raised a common demand: $15 an hour and the right to unionize.
“We are all going through the same thing,” said Naquasia LeGrand, who works at a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in Brooklyn and has emerged as one of the most outspoken voices in what is emerging as a national campaign. “We get burns from deep fryers. We don’t have health benefits. We get treated unfairly in the workplaces. We need more wages.”
The campaign — underwritten by the Service Employees International Union — kicked off with a one-day strike New York City last November, when approximately 200 people walked off the job at stores across the five boroughs. Since then, the campaign has had no trouble finding a home in other American cities where the cost of living continues to rise but the minimum wage has flatlined.
On the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death on April 4, approximately 400 people picketed their shifts at fast-food restaurants across the Big Apple. They carried signs reading “I Am a Man” and “I Am a Woman.” The former was the slogan of the striking garbage collectors whom King was supporting in Memphis at the time of his assassination in 1968. Late April also saw low-wage worker actions sweep Chicago and Washington, D.C., while the campaign reached Seattle a few weeks later. Last week, thousands walked off the job at restaurants in Detroit, Flint, Kansas City and in the half-dozen cities where the campaign had already taken root.
“We can’t thrive in an economy where the fast-food industry generates billions in profits and their workers can’t put food on the table,” said Camille Rivera, executive director for United NY.
Based on economic trends since the 2008 Wall Street meltdown, Rivera predicts that a full 50 percent of the jobs in the United States will be low-wage positions by 2020. She argues that fast-food chains could use their profits as an engine for economic growth, rather than forcing the hordes of people with no other employment options to subsist on the bare minimum. Instead, “we’re continuing to live in an economy where we’re not making it,” she said.
For it’s part, McDonald’s has launched a personal finance education program for its employees rather than offering them a raise. The corporation teamed up with Visa to establish PracticalMoneySkills.com, a website promoting financial literacy that even Forbes magazine ridiculed as wildly unrealistic. A sample budget on the site allots $600 a month toward mortgage or rent even though the national average cost of rent is $1,062. There is no column in the sample budget for education or child rearing expenses. The original version of the budget did not include money for heat.
With more and more Americans facing fast-food insecurity, President Obama launched a national economic speaking tour in late July. He has so far, however, offered little in the way of new, specific policy proposals. Meanwhile, the president’s proposal to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour has stalled in Congress. Even if it were to pass, the slight bump would do little to lift millions employed in minimum-wage industries out of poverty.
Analysts agree that the odds are stacked against the fast-food campaign winning collective bargaining rights or what would amount to a near doubling of wages. The union drive, however, could have broader implications on the living standards for millions of people across the country.
Nelson Lichtenstein, the director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California–Santa Barbara, doubts the campaign will achieve its immediate demands. Instead, he argues that the struggle could lead to broader victories if it keeps the discussion of wages front and center in the national dialogue.
“If your goal is a collective bargaining agreement at the 42nd Street McDonald’s, you might get it actually. But it won’t do you any good,” said Lichtenstein, explaining that the majority of the nation’s fast-food outlets are run by individual franchise owners and organized by regions. This structure enables mega-chains like McDonald’s to divert responsibility for abusive labor practices while generating super-size profits. Such a victory, however, could set off a larger wave of concessions from the industry in major metropolitan areas — compromises that likely wouldn’t include contracts but would most certainly feature a bump in pay.
More significantly, Lichtenstein explained that the strikes could energize the political campaign to force Congress to raise the minimum wage. They also bring the subject of inequality and the stagnation of wages to the forefront of the policy agenda, as Occupy did.
Yet Lichtenstein a draws sharp contrast between the low-wage worker campaign and the Occupy movement. While the latter offered a wide-ranging revolutionary vision for equality, the movement famous for its homemade cardboard signs featured little in the way of direct demands. The fast-food union drive, on the other hand, advances concrete objectives.
“The campaign clearly shares the same energy and spirit and even some of the same demographics of the Occupy movement,” said Lichtenstein. “But Occupy was a little too vague about what they wanted. This campaign isn’t vague at all. They want 15 bucks an hour and the right to form a union.”
The fast-food campaign, however, lacks the bottom-up structure that allowed Occupy to spread so quickly. Instead of encouraging spontaneity, SEIU and partner organizations have heavily scripted and controlled the actions, leaving few of the decisions to the actual people risking their jobs by walking off shifts and picketing their restaurants. But the campaign’s top-down structure has not diminished broader public sympathy for the campaign, nor the genuine commitment people employed in the fast-food industry who are becoming outspoken leaders in the struggle.
“I’m really proud of this movement,” says LeGrand. “It’s something historical; it’s never been done.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Camille Rivera still held her former position as the Deputy Political Director for SEIU Local 32BJ. She is now the executive director of United NY.
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