McJobs Should Pay Too: Inside Historic Fast Food Workers’ Protest For Living Wages

As low-paying service jobs become the new normal for millions of families, we should rethink the balance of power between fast food workers and their businesses.


The term “McJob” has come to embody everything that is wrong with the low-paying service jobs that are part of the US economy. “Better than flipping burgers,” the cliché says, because whatever job you do is assumed to be better than working in a fast food restaurant.

Today in New York City, however, hundreds of workers from dozens of fast food chains are going on strike, demanding better jobs. In McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, KFC, Taco Bell and Domino’s Pizza stores, workers have organized themselves and are launching their campaign today. They want a $ 15 an hour increase in their current near-minimum wage and recognition from their independent union, the Fast Food Workers Committee.

Saavedra Jantuah, who works at a Burger King on 34th Street in Manhattan, said the $ 7.30 an hour she earns after two years of work doesn’t pay her enough to support her son. “I am doing it for him, I am going on strike so that I can bring my family together under one household,” she said. “A union can help us get to where we can be successful in New York.”

This is the first multi-franchise effort among fast food workers to organize and demand better conditions, and it follows viral strikes at Walmart stores across the country. Yet this campaign was taking shape before the departure of Walmart’s first employee. Jonathan Westin, organizing director for New York Communities for Change, who led the effort to organize fast food workers, said they had more than 40 organizers who spoke to city workers. They discovered that the vast majority of these workers could not afford basic items like food, rent or a metro card to get to work.

Harley Shaiken, professor of education and geography at the University of California at Berkeley and expert on unions and labor, explained that while we can speak of workers in fast food and retail as part of the sector of services, their most important characteristic is that they ‘vulnerable workers, with low wages, little or no benefits, not enough hours and little dignity at work. Respect is as important as a raise for Jantuah and Jesska Harris, who work at a McDonald’s in Midtown Manhattan.

“With the economy rising slightly, we are seeing growing protest among workers who have become invisible,” Shaiken said.


The median hourly wage for restaurant and preparation workers is just $ 8.90 an hour in New York City, according to the New York Department of Labor. But Jasska Harris still earns the federal minimum wage – $ 7.25 – after five months on the job and struggles to get even 35 hours a week. And this minimum wage buys less than before. A recent study of National labor law project points out that the value of the minimum wage is 30% lower than it was in 1968.

“I don’t think we can afford to think of fast food as just an industry offering transitional jobs for teens,” said Annette Bernhardt, co-director of policy at NELP. “More and more working families depend on this industry, and unless we face the serious problem of low wages in the fast food industry, we are not going to solve the problem of the quality of the food. employment for the labor market as a whole. “

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that seven of the ten growing occupations over the next decade will be low-wage fields. And this work is not done by adolescents. Across the country, the median age of fast food workers is over 28, and women – who make up two-thirds of the industry – are over 32, according to the BLS.

“For a lot of people, it’s a second chance or even a last chance,” Shaiken said.

Fast food has weathered the recession and the biggest names are reaping big profits. Yum! Brands, which operates Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC, has seen its profits increase 45% in the past four years, and McDonald’s has seen them increase by 130%. (After Walmart, yum! Brands and McDonald’s are the nation’s second and third largest low-wage employers.) Yet those profits aren’t being passed on to workers like Harris and Jantuah, who remain stranded at or barely above. a stagnant minimum. salary.

“The question about fast food is the same one that workers have raised about Walmart. These two campaigns are a window into the larger debate about whether America is going to have a living wage economy in the 21st century or no, “Bernhardt mentioned.


Wages in the fast food industry have remained low for two basic reasons. First, many of them are low-skilled service jobs in an efficient set where workers are easily replaced and do not require much education. Second, there are a large number of people who are ready to cook cheap burgers with low pay. It’s easy to look at this scenario and conclude, “Well, the economy determines prices and wages, and that’s it. But the whole story is more complicated. Cheap fast food restaurants and their cheap workers impose a cost on the country in the form of food stamps, welfare through the tax code, and welfare programs. It’s a place where government can step in – and for companies to sacrifice some of their profits – by raising wages to an acceptable level.

“We pay pennies less for a burger and fries that aren’t very good for you, but we end up paying big sums through welfare programs,” said labor economist Mark Price. “Public policy certainly has a role to play in helping low-income workers, but there is no reason why the cost of goods in this industry should not reflect the true cost of living. “

The timing for this campaign in New York comes as Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature are under pressure to raise the state’s minimum wage and a battle for paid sick days for workers in New York City remains deadlocked in city council. Bernhardt noted that to truly improve conditions for low-wage workers in New York City, “it will take both government intervention in terms of raising the minimum wage as well as organizing workers to raise the wage floor in New York. that sector “.


Low-wage employers have heard a lot of rumblings of discontent lately, from Walmart to New York Hot and crispy bakery, and today, with workers like Harris saying they’re fed up with being treated like animals, getting barked at. And New York has conditions that make it easier to organize than many other places – with fast food restaurants clustered block by block, Shaiken noted, and a union-friendly climate, it could help ignite a spark that could spread. .

“What is happening here in New York is people taking charge of their economic well-being and organizing to raise their own wages,” Price said. “We’re going to be stuck in this cycle of a slow growing economy with high unemployment. The only way to reverse this is to get wage growth, especially at the bottom and the middle.” And the best way to achieve wage growth when unemployment is still high is to organize.

Yet unions have been in decline for over thirty years, with just 7 percent of the private sector organized. Part of this is due to changes in the way we work, said Stephen Lerner, longtime union organizer and architect of the groundbreaking Justice for Janitors campaign. “Before, you had factories with thousands of people, it was easier to create solidarity. But the work fell apart, people now work on very small sites, often without knowing who owns the All of this is exacerbated in places where the wages are really low, the turnover is high There is a whole series of things that make it more difficult for workers to unite.

“It’s a very difficult challenge,” Shaiken noted, “but in the end so was organizing industrial unions in the midst of the Great Depression.”

What we’ve seen with Walmart and now with fast food workers is an independent organization, backed by traditional unions (in this case, the Service Employees International Union with New York Communities for Change, United NY and the Black Institute) , can be more creative in his organizational tactics. Lerner is particularly inspired by the one-day strike that the workers are leading today. “The old strike, you used to go out and stay out until you win. But the workers are now so angry and mistreated that your way of putting it is short-term walkouts. “

In the Walmart strikes, in the Justice for Janitors campaign, and now in New York City, Lerner noted, organizers have struggled to find strategies that make sense for workers, that aren’t trapped in the same old formulations. that were operating in factories but did not make sense for food service. “The point is not to let the way workers organize themselves be defined by the legal regime which not only failed to protect workers but was also designed for a very kind of workplace. different, ”Lerner said.

“For so long, many workers and others avoided these industries because they thought they were too poorly paid, too difficult to organize, and now our economy has grown into an economy made up mostly of service jobs. at low wages, ”Westin said. “It was the same when they organized factories in the early 1900s. They organized these factories and raised an entire segment of the population into the middle class. It could happen here. We could pull an entire segment of the American population out of poverty and into the middle class.


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