On Aug. 29, fast-food workers in 58 cities around the country refused to go to work in the second one-day strike in recent months. Their campaign for “$15 an hour and a union” is the first-ever attempt by these low-wage workers as a group to improve their pay and conditions. This time, the strike spread to the South and West.
1,000 restaurants are struck
We attended a rally of strikers in New York City on Aug. 29, where we met workers from McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Checkers, and Taco Bell. There were only about 200-300 people there, but speakers claimed that workers had struck 100 restaurants all over the city. There had been earlier rallies that day as well. Speakers claimed that 1,000 restaurants were affected nation-wide.
The N.Y. campaign is being run by N.Y.C. Communities for Change, a group sponsored by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). It is not clear if SEIU intends to actually conduct union drives in these workplaces, but it was clear at the rally that Communities for Change is keeping tight control over the campaign. It “invited” the press to talk with the workers, but a worker we talked with was not sure what the union’s role was or even how unionization takes place.
Low wages, few hours
The workers we talked with were earning minimum wage, $7.25 per hour, or a few pennies more. They complained about the pay and that many are not allowed to work more than 29 hours a week so that employers can avoid paying compulsory full-time workers’ benefits. Even full-time workers at these wages make way too little money to live on in NYC, let alone for single parents to support children. One McDonald’s worker spoke of bringing her lunch from home because the workers have to pay for anything they eat at work, and she can’t afford even the “value meals” she makes.
The workers we talked with didn’t complain about the kind of work they did, but of having to do several jobs at once in small restaurants, without any reasonable compensation.
We talked with a Burger King worker making $7.25 an hour. She had previously had a better job as a cashier in a café and made $8.00 an hour, but she lost it. In financial trouble, she couldn’t pay her rent and ended up in a shelter; there she was required to take any job she could get, and wound up at Burger King, where she has worked for four months. Seven people in her store walked out for the strike—all the minority workers except for members of one family. Only the manager there makes even $10.00 an hour.
She and others spoke of their desire for “dignity” as well as raises, citing verbal abuse by the bosses and lack of regular wage increases, vacations, or any benefits at all. One Checkers worker told us that every time the workers had asked for raises, the boss said he didn’t make enough to give any. However, he did find a way to give tiny raises after the first strike day (and after she had worked there for 3 years): he raised her from $7.50 to $7.75. That was not nearly enough to give her a living wage. She contrasted White Castle, where a friend told her that the workers receive raises every six months, and paid vacations.
In a similar campaign, low-paid retail workers at Walmart have walked out in several one-day strikes. They recently gave Walmart until Labor Day to respond to their demands; if not met, they promise to intensify their actions nationwide on September 5.
We are dismayed by politicians and unions
We are not shocked, but we are dismayed, at politicians’ responses to these first ever, cross-country strikes by minimum wage workers. Obama has proposed raising the minimum wage to $9 per hour, which is still less than the minimum wage in the past, adjusted for inflation. And there seems no chance that any increase will get through Congress. Conservatives still speak against an increase on the grounds that minimum-wage jobs are held by teenagers seeking spending money, when this has not been the case for years. Most of the jobs are held by adult women, unsurprisingly, many of them minorities.
Cities or states could impose higher minimum wages, especially since these are businesses that cannot re-locate to other places the way manufacturers and call-centers can. But cities and states have shown little inclination to do so. NYC is in the middle of a mayoral campaign, yet when the leading Democratic candidate, Bill de Blasio, a liberal, spoke at the Aug. 29 rally, he promised only that, if elected, he would attend all their rallies, not that he would do anything to raise the minimum wage!
We were also annoyed by the rally and campaign’s emphasis on the mass of profits in the fast-food industry and its “greed,” as if low wages were caused merely by the lack of redistribution of profits to wages. Surely these adult workers can understand the effects of the “permanent recession” and unemployment driving down wages. But if the unions talked about actual economic conditions, they could no longer hold out the “easy” dream-solution of higher pay that is the basis for their own bread-and-butter.