Thousands of fast-food workers in 60 cities from coast to coast walked off their jobs Thursday in an escalating nationwide protest. Strikers are seeking raises to $15 an hour, paid sick leave and the right to unionize America’s second-biggest employer, the restaurant industry, which is predicting its 2013 profits will “reach a record high of $660.5 billion.”
“This is not a cause, this is a movement,” said Letitia James, Working Families Party elected member of the City Council and a candidate for Public Advocate, speaking at a Union Square rally. “This is about economic justice… They [owners] would like you to believe that fast-food workers are primarily teenagers. They are not. They are primarily women with children who are struggling to make ends meet. So this is about economic justice. We are here to honor the legacy of Dr. King to stand with fast-food workers who are only demanding $15 and a union.”
“We organized the strike,” said Shantelle Walker, a McDonald’s employee who walked out in New York. “We want to let America know that we need a union and we need $15 an hour.”
The corporate mainstays of the industry, from fast-food giants like McDonald’s to full-service chains such as Olive Garden and Red Lobster, have a rebellion in their kitchens and dining rooms that’s not going away. Thursday’s walkouts—which were joined by poorly paid workers at retail and drug chains—represent a new strategy of publically shaming low-wage, low-benefit employers.
“Public shaming is necessary because we have greedy corporations who care nothing about the public, they care about the public’s money,” said Charles Helms, of the Hudson Country Central Labor Council, AFL- CIO, at the Union Square rally. “So the only thing we can do is get out on the streets to let the public realize that they’re after our money. That’s all they care about.”
“We are saying $7.25 is not enough. We want the right to unionize. People need secure jobs and good paying jobs,” said Katarina Claudio, from Make the Road New York. “We think naming and shaming has the greatest impact in terms of the industries feeling it, customers feeling it, and it creates as much visibility as we can have out here: It is most effective combined with policy changes.”
The growing movement, which timed Thursday’s protests to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. called for civil and economic rights, is turning to direct action because of frustration with the political process, where victories take too long and are often undercut by restaurant industry lobbying. Instead, shaming corporations and putting minimum wage and sick leave ballot measures directly before voters—who polls find consistently support them—is becoming the new normal.
“Minimum wage and paid sick days are universally popular among Republicans and Democrats alike,” said Saru Jayaraman, co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), which has been working for a dozen years to change the industry’s exploitive business model and labor practices. “Legislators constantly tell us that we need to show them a groundswell of support to over some the NRA [National Restaurant Association] lobbying.
"Who are they listening to? If they aren’t listening to the people, then the people have to make it happen themselves.”
Growing Movement, Growing Clout
Thursday’s nationwide walkouts are just the most visible sign of a sophisticated and growing progressive movement made up of community activists, church groups, union organizers, economists, editorial writers and third political parties. They have focused on the restaurant industry because it historically has paid the vast majority of its 12.2 million workers minimum wage or a few dollars above, not offered benefits like paid sick days or healthcare, and overwhelmingly employs women and people of color.
The federal minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour, was last raised in July 2009. A sub-category for tipped workers, which includes waiters, waitresses, bartenders and busboys, was last raised by Congress in 1991 and is $2.13 an hour. A majority of states and a few cities have raised these wage floors, but the industry average for 2.5 million food preparers and server is $8.75 an hour, federal labor statistics report. If tips do not bring wages up to the legal minimum, employers are supposed to make up the difference.
At McDonald’s, which has 860,000 U.S. workers, an employee making $8.75 an hour would have to work 1.6 million hours to match the CEO’s pay. Glassdoor.com, a job seach site, shows how McDonald’s thrives by paying paltry wages. It lists more than 200 job titles at McDonald’s, yet only a few—for top franchise managers or corporate executives—pay more than $10 an hour. That gulf, between a low-pay workforce and high-paid corporate management, can be closed, Thursday's strikers said.
They point to studied by progressive economists that have embarrassed McDonald’s by noting that raising the price of a Big Mac by a nickel would pay for half of a $10.10 minimum wage for its workers. Another study by ROC found that raising the federal minimum to $9.80 an hour in steps over three years would “provide a 33 percent wage increase for regular minimum wage workers and would more than double the wages of tipped workers.”
Yet according to ROC, virtually every national restaurant chain, whether fast food or full-service—with the exception of In-N-Out—refuses to pay living wages and benefits, even though most stayed profitable during the Great Recession and ongoing recovery. Moreover, the industry’s lobbying operation, led by the National Restaurant Association, repeatedly tells legislators they can’t afford better wages and benefits even as it is predicting record profits and then boasts that it is repressing living wages and benefits.
This June, NRA newsletters cited blocking 27 out of 29 states from increasing minimum wages, and stopping bills in a dozen states requiring paid sick leave. In two states that raised minimum wages, New York and Connecticut, it blocked or delayed raising the tip wage in shadowy last-minute deals. The NRA also took credit for new laws in six states that pre-empted local governments from requiring paid sick leave. The NRA claimed better wages and benefits would kill jobs, despite its forcast that profits would reach a “record” of $660.5 billion in 2013. Nonetheless, the NRA convinced Republicans, and enough Democrats, to vote against workers.
These frustrations have not stopped activists from turning to the political process, which has produced some notable victories. But it has underscored that bolder and newer strategies were needed, like direct action such as Thursday’s nationwide walkouts, as well as taking steps to put miminum wage and sick leave laws directly before voters in states that allow ballot initiatives.
“It is not organic,” said Jen Kern, national issues campaign director for Working Families, speaking of the coast-to-coast organizing. Her group was instrumental in raising the minimum wage and passing paid sick leave legislation in Connecticut and New York City. “It’s like Rosa Parks being trained. This is a serious commitment to calling out the scourge of low wages.”
The Political Score, So Far
2013 has seen some victories for the movement. State minimum wages were raised in Connecticut and New York. In Washington, D.C., a bill raising wages for employees at big retailers like Walmart is heading to the mayor’s desk this week. But, in Connecticut and New York, the NRA cut last-minute deals that left food servers and bartenders without increases. Activists say that D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, a Democrat, is expected to veto the bill after Walmart threatened to close stores and not expand into poor neighborhoods. In Washington, which also passed local sick leave legislation in 2008, the NRA made sure it did not apply to tipped workers.
As a result of these frustrations, the movement is looking to ballot measures in states where large majorities of voters from both major parties routinely say they support better wages and benefits. New Jersey will be voting on a $1 mimimum wage increase this fall. Organizers in Massachusetts just announced a petition drive to raise their state minimum wage and to require paid sick leave for the 2014 ballot. The ballot campaigns scare the NRA, which spent (it says $100,000; activists like ROC say it was closer to $1 million) to defeat a mandatory sick leave measure in Denver in 2011.
But even on mandatory earned sick pay, there’s been progress. Connecticut passed a first-in-the-nation bill in 2011 (although business lobbyists are trying to gut it). Rhode Island followed this summer. New York City adoped a sick leave law this spring, affecting 1 million people. So did Portland, Oregon. And other blue states, such as Vermont, are considering living wage legislation.
Americans should pay closer attention to the protest walk-outs by fast-food workers demanding $15 an hour and sick leave because what is happening at the bottom of the economic ladder is increasingly defining the fate and future of America’s middle class.
“These jobs not only affect our economy, but the existence of the middle class depends on making sure that there are good jobs,” said Rebecca Smith, coordinator of the National Employment Law Project’s (NELP) Immigrant Worker Justice Project. “If jobs leave money in people’s pockets, they’ll spend it and busineses will grow, and businesses will hire. Everybody does better when everybody does better.”
The fast-food workers walking out for better pay are caught in a new economic crossfire—but they are not the only industry with low-wage business models and exploitive corporate bosses. The most notable feature of the current economic landscape is that the millions of middle-class jobs that disappeared in 2008’s Great Recession have been replaced by lower-paying work.
“These are not just entry-level jobs,” said NELP’s Smith. “These are careers in which many people are spending their entire lives. We have to make sure these are good jobs so that people can support their families and be in the middle class. This is the workforce that we have now.”
The service sector—retail sales, food prep, labor, waiters, personal care and home aides, office clerks—has been growing the most since 2008 and is projected to keep growing through 2020. The new jobs are often part-time, low-wage, without benefits, and non-union and often at profitable corporations unwilling to share their bottom-line successes with their frontline employees. And some growing fields, such as home care workers—whose employees are 90 percent women—have been exempted from paying mininum wage and pay less.
These realities are why the fast-food workers are leading a national movement for living wages and humane working conditions—a movement organizers say will continue in coming months until their demands are met.
“Direct action is the best action,” said McDonald’s employee Shantelle Walker. “When corporations see we are fighting for what we want, we’re going to get what we need. We see the numbers we put out every day…They don’t want to know our name, only our numbers, they want to know what we can produce for them, [but] we want to know what they can produce for us!
“They think we’re Mc’lovin’ it, but really we’re hatin’ it.”
Steven Rosenfeld covers democracy issues for AlterNet and is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).
Jodie Gummow is a senior fellow and staff writer at AlterNet.