While the Black Friday Walmart strike grabbed media attention this month, an army of full-time organizers labored quietly to launch another historic labor action. A lead organizer claimed that "hundreds" of fast food workers across New York City were walking off the job on Thursday, in what some experts called the first multi-restaurant strike by fast food workers in the country.
"No more lies! Hold the fries!" shouted a few dozen protesters outside a Burger King near Penn Station on Thursday -- at least half of whom appeared to be organizers, as opposed to workers. "Supersize our wages," they chanted, while bundled up against a brisk New York day.
Short protests (like the one pictured above) were popping up at more than two dozen fast-food restaurants across the city Thursday, said Jonathan Westin, the organizing director of New York Communities for Change, which has spearheaded the effort.
The action reportedly involved employees of McDonald's, YUM! Brands (which operates Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC), Wendy's, Domino's and Papa John's who were demanding better wages, union recognition, and an end to retaliation against workers who attempt to organize. A campaign called Fast Food Forward drove the strike, supported by various community and civil rights groups.
Unionizing fast-food restaurants has been a pipe dream for many organizers and workers, but in an industry so vast, with turnover so high, a large-scale, orchestrated strike has seemed a daunting challenge.
"It's a fairly high-turnover position, so there's never been a successful union effort," Domino's Pizza spokesman Tim McIntrye told The New York Times. "People who are doing this part-time, seasonally or as they work their way through college don't find much interest in membership."
It's unclear how many of the workers involved in the Thursday protests were genuine strikers -- restaurant employees who abandoned their scheduled shifts -- but Westin said that 14 of the 17 employees scheduled to work Thursday morning at a McDonald's near Grand Central Station opted for the picket line instead, and that hundreds would skirt work at some point that day.
Linda Archer, a 59-year-old McDonald's employee, has Thursdays off, but was joining the midday protest outside Burger King. She said that she wasn't any of her co-workers would be walking out when the strike hit her Times Square employer later in the afternoon.
"They're intimidating," she said of her employer, "especially with the Hispanics and the immigrants. They put the fear in them: 'You'll be fired. You'll have no security.' "
Archer said that when her manager found out that she was collecting signatures for a petition to join the campaign, he cautioned her that she could be fired. But Archer remained hopeful that with some carefully applied pressure she might win higher wages and union representation. "I know a union would protect us," she said.
McDonald's pays its crew members an average wage of $7.63 an hour, according to the employer review site Glassdoor.com. At Burger King and Wendy's they earn $7.66 an hour. At Taco Bell, $7.77. That adds up to an average annual salary of $16,000, for those working 40 hours a week, every week of the year.
Fast-food service is one of the lowest paid, and fastest growing, jobs in the country. In New York City, the fast-food industry has grown by 55 percent since 2000, according to the New York State Department of Labor, 19 times faster than private sector employment overall. Flipping burgers is no longer just a source of part-time pocket change for teenagers, but a major employer of working families. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, two-thirds of fast-food workers are women, and their median age is 32 years.
Critics of the industry see the fast-food sector as pioneering a dangerous new model of employment for the U.S.: low-wage and part-time, which deprives workers of benefits, security and many labor protections.
"The fast-food industry employs tens of thousands of workers in New York and pays them poverty wages," Westin told The Times. "A lot of them can't afford to get by. A lot have to rely on public assistance, and taxpayers are often footing the bill because these companies are not paying a living wage."
a July report from the National Employment Law Project.
Raymond Lopez, a 21-year-old who says that he has worked for McDonald's for two years, and earns $8.75 an hour, told Salon that his managers "make us work off the clock all of the time" and that "there is a lot of verbal abuse."
Many of the workers are hoping to unionize, which would grant them greater leverage in securing higher wages -- $15 an hour is the ultimate prize, protesters say -- as well as other benefits, like affordable health insurance and paid sick days. They aim to be represented by the Fast Food Workers' Committee, an independent union similar to the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago -- knit together by a shared city, as Salon points out, as opposed to an single employer.
Scattered, coordinated strikes are a new strategy for fast-food organizers, similar to the tack taken by Walmart organizers last week. Rather than trying to unionize individual stores, these organizers have downplayed the role of the union, and choreographed a more large-scale, grassroots effort with numerous community allies.
according to 2011 Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
And city officials have aggressively kept Walmart out of the five bureaus, with Councilman Charles Barron saying last year, "We're desperate for jobs, but we're not going to take anything. We want jobs with dignity, jobs with integrity, jobs with self-respect."
But if the unions are successful at getting recognition at the speedy eateries of the Big Apple, the ripple effect could be enormous. So, experts say, the towering parent companies are likely to put up a fight. Jose Cerillo, a 79-year-old cleaner at a New York McDonald's told Salon that the company suspended him on Monday for signing up his co-workers for the campaign during break times.
"I was so happy," he told Salon about the moment that he received a phone call from organizers. Cerillo has been working for McDonald's 16 years, and makes $7.40 an hour. "It's just not enough to live," he said.
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