Low-wage worker coalition forms to challenge historic inequality

Workers assembling to march to the downtown Manhattan McDonald's. (WNV/Geoff Gilbert)

Workers assembling to march to the downtown Manhattan McDonald’s. (WNV/Geoff Gilbert)

With the sun not yet up over downtown Brooklyn, hundreds of fast food workers and their supporters gathered a few blocks from their target armed only with signs stating the reasons for their discontent — “Poverty Wages Don’t Fly,” “Respeta Nuestros Derechos,” and “8 Bucks Really Sucks.” They marched, aided by music from the local bands Red Baraat and Rude Mechanical Orchestra, to picket Burger King’s flagship downtown Brooklyn restaurant. To the surprise of a few early morning patrons, the workers swarmed the restaurant, closing it for business for nearly an hour as they chanted, “Walk Out,” to their co-workers behind the counter and held a makeshift rally.

Using the staircase leading to the restaurant’s second floor as a platform, workers, politicians and faith leaders addressed the crowd. New York City Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo, rising to a chorus of “Show me $15,” reminded the workers of the symbolic significance of their location in New York City, the origin of the campaign for $15 an hour wages and the right to form a union that had spread to nearly 200 cities on Dec. 4.

“What I want you all to know,” Cumbo told the crowd, “is that the world’s eyes are on New York City right now. How we stand is going to dictate how the rest of the world stands. This is not just a fight for us; this is a fight for the next generation, and the generation after that. And we are standing currently at this time on the right side of history.”

Cumbo continued by reaching beyond the fast food campaign, which was celebrating its two-year anniversary with its eighth collective action, choosing to contextualize its significance with allusions to both our society’s historic economic inequality and the policing and criminal justice inequity made evident by recent grand jury decisions to not indict white policemen for the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, both unarmed black men. The protesters, many of whom live in racially-profiled stop-and-frisk neighborhoods, held a four-and-a-half minute silence near the end of the rally, a tribute to the four-and-a-half hours Mike Brown’s dead body was left unattended on the street where he was killed in Ferguson. They repeated the moment of silence later in the day at a press conference and rally held in front of City Hall, where they marched following a second, late-morning, rally at a McDonald’s in downtown Manhattan.

“As we stand here today with anger in our hearts and frustration in our hearts, it’s so important that we continue to fight and to stand strong because the inequality we are seeing in our police system and our law enforcement system also transcends into our housing systems and our education system and into the rights of workers,” Cumbo declared. “We are here today because we are launching a fight on all fronts. We are making sure we take back our schools, we take back our homes, and if we don’t get back all of the things that we want, we’re going to shut all of this down.”

The beginnings of a low-wage coalition

The presence of airport workers, convenient store workers and home healthcare workers standing in solidarity with the fast food workers in actions all across the country lent Cumbo’s words further significance. In a development that could potentially transform the fast food workers’ campaign, airport workers and convenience store workers picketed with the fast food workers for the first time. Home healthcare workers joined the fast food workers for the first time during their previous strike on Sept. 4. The low-wage workers are attracted to the fast food campaign by the media attention it has generated — the fast food workers made headlines when they staged civil disobedience arrests during the Sept. 4 strikes and for a national workers’ convention held in Chicago over the summer, along with international fast food worker collaboration that resulted in an international strike on May 15.

Cleo Polanco, who works for Roma Cleaning at John F. Kennedy International Airport, explained that the airport workers’ collaboration with fast food workers stems from their similar working experiences. “We have the same fight as fast food workers,” Polanco said. “We are fighting for fair wages and respect.” Polanco alleges his supervisors will not let he and his co-workers wear union buttons at work, nor will they allow them to discuss the union at the airport during breaks. Polanco also claims that those who support the union receive extra attention from supervisors, which has caused some of his co-workers to quit.

Airport workers at New York’s JFK and LaGuardia airports work for companies contracted by airlines like Roma Cleaning, Prime Flight, Air Serv and Aviation Safeguard. They are primarily responsible for security, cleaning, baggage handling and wheelchair attending. Concerned by low wages and unsafe working conditions, the airport workers began a campaign to unionize independent of the fast food workers, though it was inspired in part by their example, along with that of Walmart workers, who have been waging a similar campaign since 2011. The airport workers have staged two one-day strikes in the last four months. Fast food workers, notified of the airport strikes by community organizers and Service Employees International Union labor organizers who have been working with both campaigns, have also attended the airport workers’ actions. The airport workers seek to join SEIU-32 BJ, the largest property service union in the country. Employees at LaGuardia of Air Serv, a Delta contractor, voted earlier this year in favor of SEIU representation, according to organizers, but the company has yet to bargain with them.

Addressing the crowd in the downtown Brooklyn Burger King, Walbert Santiago, a security officer for Prime Flight at LaGuardia, said, “I’ve got six kids. I’m struggling right now. The holidays are coming. We have to fight for $15 and a union.”

Santiago, 37, works night shifts and spends many of his days speaking with co-workers throughout the airport about the union campaign. He has not experienced any employer opposition. Both Santiago’s mother and father are union members. Organizers mentioned the workers’ exposure to unions through friends and family — in addition to seeing the high-profile fast food and Walmart campaigns in the media — as a factor that has motivated their campaign for union membership.

Jerome Murray, 26, spoke at the press conference at City Hall. Murray has worked at CVS for 7 years, where he makes $9 an hour and works according to an unpredictable schedule that fluctuates from anywhere between 10 and 30 hours depending on the week. He also works as an after-school teacher and must fit his entire schedule around the unpredictable CVS hours. Murray, who is a member of the Retail Action Project, spoke at the City Hall press conference where he addressed the commonality shared by convenience store and fast food workers.

“We’re basically fighting for the same thing y’all are fighting for,” Murray said. “This is why I support you; it’s why I am here today. We need to be heard and to make these corporations pay because they are making money and living good. We shouldn’t be suffering at all. If we want to make change, we have to be loud and stick together and unite. That’s what we’re doing here today.”

Faith leaders equate worker rights with human rights

New York-area faith leaders continued the support they’ve lent the fast food movement since its beginnings. “It’s about speaking truth to power from a faith perspective about the dignity of human life,” explained Kercena Dozier, the community and faith organizer with NY United and New York Communities For Change, or NYCC. “I think the faith community can uniquely provide that perspective, so it’s important for faith leaders to be involved.”

Dozier reaches out to faith leaders, connecting them with each other and the workers in an attempt to turn people out for the actions and to continue to spread word of the movement through faith communities. In advance of the Sept. 4 action, Dozier organized a New York City Labor in the Pulpits series that sent fast food workers and organizers to speak to communities of all faiths throughout the city to discuss the movement’s values and its ambitions for $15 an hour and a union. In advance of this action, Dozier planned a Five Day Fast Food Forward Prayer and Fast, for which interfaith clergy members throughout the city fasted and led prayer and meditation sessions in the lead up to the action to spread awareness of its cause.

Many faith communities include among their congregations fast food or other low-wage workers, explained Rabbi Michael Fienberg, the director of the Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition, which has supported the campaign since its first action. The connections are easily drawn for these communities directly exposed to life in low-wage industries. Other communities have gotten involved due to religious traditions that speak to worker rights and economic justice. C.B. Stewart, associate minister at Greenpoint Reformed Church in Brooklyn, became involved with the campaign through work on the living wage campaign that raised wages for workers whose employers receive more than $1 million from the city in tax breaks or financing. Stewart explained that faith leaders throughout New York City frequently remain in touch after working on economic justice campaigns and get together informally to seek out more ways to get involved.

Rabbi Rebecca Lippmann of Kolot Chayeinu in Park Slope, Brooklyn addressed the relationship between worker rights and human dignity for the crowd gathered in the downtown Brooklyn Burger King. “The thing that I always remember is a thing that in Hebrew we refer to as ‘B’Tzelem Elohim’ and in English as ‘we are all created in the image of God,’” Rabbi Lippmann said. “Every single person in this room was created in the image of God … We’re going to be working together until there is $15 and a union. And until everybody gets to live in a way that the image of God would dictate. You all deserve to live with a wage that would support living in a dignified way.”

Fast Food Forward and the need to organize

The strikes serve as great recruitment tools for the fast food workers and organizers. Many workers cite employer intimidation and the fear of losing the limited income they do have as the primary obstacles they face in recruiting their co-workers. The collective actions — replete with extensive local and national news coverage, attention from local and national politicians and faith leaders, along with the raucous environment of the actions themselves that feature marching bands, truck drivers honking in support, and bemused onlookers smiling as they document with their smart phones the rallies they unexpectedly encounter in the street — reinforce the belief in the cause of both the participating workers and those still on the fence. The workers, who traveled in six caravans in between the two actions to demonstrate their support for co-workers they seek to recruit in restaurants throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan, expressed to me a sense of empowerment that comes along with having inspired a fast food movement that has now spread to nearly 200 cities nationwide and has garnered support internationally.

Marching Cobras of New York playing as the group marches from the downtown Manhattan McDonald's to City Hall. (WNV/Geoff Gilbert)

Marching Cobras of New York playing as the group marches from the downtown Manhattan McDonald’s to City Hall. (WNV/Geoff Gilbert)

The fast food corporations and their supporters claim the strikes are labor union fronts whereby participating workers are paid from a union strike fund to participate. The existence of the strike fund to support the workers, many of whom depend on federal assistance to meet their basic needs even without skipping a day of work, misconstrues the dire material conditions that have brought the workers together for the movement’s collective action.

A recent University of California Berkeley-University of Illinois report finds that the median fast food hourly wage is $8.69 and that the median weekly hours are 30. The combination of low pay and low hours results in annual fast food median earnings of $11,056, which makes 52 percent of fast food workers nationwide reliant on some sort of federal benefits program to meet their basic needs of food, housing, education, clothing and healthcare. Despite the poverty wages, nearly nine out of 10 fast food workers claim to have experienced employer wage theft. Jose Carrillo, 81, has worked at McDonald’s for 10 years. He tries to help support his children and grandchildren on an hourly wage of $8.10. Despite the wages and his eligibility for social security, Carrillo’s family qualifies for food stamps.

“I’m here because I make a misery salary,” Carrillo said. “We cannot live and support our families this way.” Carrillo, who has been involved in the campaign since the beginning, mentioned employer intimidation during the beginning of his involvement. He said that Fast Food Forward organizers, most of whom are employed by NYCC or the SEIU, have helped him file a claim with the National Labor Relations Board that is still being processed.

Criticism from the left of the fast food campaign and the SEIU remains legitimate. It is not clear that decisions are made within the movement by workers in a democratic manner, a feat that would be incredibly impressive given the complete lack of worker organizing within the fast food industry until no earlier than three years ago.

The SEIU, meanwhile, has spent nearly $10 million orchestrating the campaign, according to the New York Times. The nationwide movement has no official name, though many of the city-level campaigns have official names. In New York, organizers operate under the title, Fast Food Forward. The SEIU has invested in full-time organizers, like Fast Food Forward’s organizing director, Kendall Fells, in addition to enlisting the nationwide support of BerlinRosen, a public relations firm employed by many progressive political officials and candidates. The SEIU has also financed the Chicago workers convention and a worker alliance-making tour to Europe, Asia and South America, in addition to funding videos in support of the campaign and partial funding of the aforementioned investigation of fast food industry working conditions.

It remains to be seen how, if at all, the SEIU will leverage its contributions in support of any strategy for victory that emerges. There is reason for skepticism, given the SEIU’s recent track record of agreeing to “neutrality agreements” that take issues concerning compensation and working conditions off the table prior to negotiations in exchange for the employer’s agreement to allow the workers to organize without management interference.

Fast food worker decision-making

The fast food workers, however, do appear to have established somewhat autonomous decision-making processes with the help of organizers. Many cities involved in the campaign have set up worker organizing committees that meet regularly to arrange support for co-workers facing employee retaliation and to strategize generally about the movement. Shantel Walker, who is employed by Papa John’s and makes $8.50 an hour and typically works 25-hour weeks, is a member of the New York City organizing committee. “Us as co-workers felt we had to stand together to do something,” Walker said, referring to the day’s strike. “And this is what we came up with.”

The committee, which, according to Walker, typically meets every week in person, depending on the workers’ schedules, formed in early 2013. There are about 10 people on the committee, Walker said, and any worker who is interested can participate in the committee. Meetings usually entail discussions of organizing attempts in restaurants throughout the city and conference calls or Internet chats with organizing committees in other cities. When the workers hear of employer resistance, Walker said, they typically arrange a mass show of support at the store where their co-worker has been threatened. The members of the city organizing committee, along with other organizers actively engaged with the campaign, act like union stewards, as they speak with co-workers in their restaurants and other restaurants about the benefits of becoming involved in the campaign. Most of the campaign’s recruitment comes from these engaged workers, who will sometimes refer interested co-workers directly to organizers. Walker told me that she travels to other Papa John’s restaurants and the restaurants of other fast food chains to recruit workers on her days off.

Workers have also formed a National Worker Organizing Committee that makes strategic decisions, including the planning of specific actions. The national committee decides on the dates and types of actions that will take place, according to Naquasia LeGrand, 23, a member of the national committee who works at a KFC in Brooklyn. The composition of the committee is always changing, as the movement continues to grow and more cities get involved. As the list of participating cities has nearly reached 200, representation on the national committee is now organized primarily by region. There are currently 26 workers on the committee who meet primarily via conference call roughly twice each month. They make their way through an agenda, determined by the workers and Fast Food Forward’s Kendall Fells, that usually includes report backs from their communities and discussions of future actions. The members of the national committee, which totaled 14 at the time, led the national worker conference held in Chicago over the summer, according to LeGrand.

Jose Lopez, organizer with Make the Road NY, speaking at City Hall press conference. (WNV/Geoff Gilbert)

Jose Lopez, organizer with Make the Road NY, speaking at City Hall press conference. (WNV/Geoff Gilbert)

LeGrand and Walker emceed the press conference in front of City Hall, concluding the day’s New York City action, as they introduced workers from each of the represented industries, and community organizers, along with members of local AFSCME outfits, DC 37, the city’s largest public employee union, and Local 372, the non-teaching education employee union. It is doubtful the fast food workers, beginning to form a larger low-wage industry coalition, could have arrived at that moment — delivering a clear message to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio in support of his ongoing effort to petition the New York state legislature to relinquish to the city the control to raise its minimum wage — without support from the SEIU and local organizing outfits like the NYCC, NY United, and Make the Road New York.

Where the movement is heading

The movement’s success will be determined by its ability to pressure the corporations to come to the table and to force municipal, state and federal politicians to break with these same corporations, which are frequent and generous campaign contributors, to enact legislation to raise minimum wages and put in place protections for otherwise vulnerable workers, similar to the Retail Workers Bill of Rights recently passed in San Francisco.

“There is always going to be the challenge of these multi-billion dollar corporations pushing back and not wanting to give the workers the wages they are owed and deserve,” explained Jonathan Westin, NYCC’s executive director. “[The fast food workers] took arrests in August. Escalation continues to raise the stakes, in terms of public consciousness and for the corporations to know the workers are serious. This isn’t just about rallying outside their store one day; this is their life.”

A significant obstacle to fast food unionization was overcome with the National Labor Relation Board’s decision to name McDonald’s a “joint employer” with its franchisees, which means workers, pending the certain legal challenges, are poised to form or join unions that can negotiate directly with the corporations. Voters in five states approved increases of their minimum wage during the midterm elections, while the strong majority of Americans favor a federal increase in the minimum wage. At this point, the campaign’s success depends on its ability to recruit more workers not just within the fast food industry, but throughout the entire low-wage economy.

This story was made possible by our members. Become one today.