The yellow arches of McDonald’s have always symbolized a dubious kind of globalization: worlds apart bridged by the tentacles of multinational corporations, spawning enormous profits for a few, and Big Macs for all.
The arches may have a different symbolic power now that they’ve sparked a global movement for living wages and the right to unionize. On Thursday, in an expected 230 cities spread across six continents, workers from McDonald’s and other fast-food chains rallied together to demand wages of $15 an hour and to protest their working conditions. Demonstrations were planned from Casablanca to Belfast, Santo Domingo to Venice, Bangkok to Auckland and across the US.
According to the fast-food industry, the rallies are all show. “These are made-for-TV media moments—that’s pretty much it,” Scott DeFife, the executive vice president of the National Restaurant Association, told The New York Times. “The vast majority of these protesters are not actually restaurant workers.”
Low-wage work isn’t TV—it’s reality, and an impossible one, for millions of people. On Thursday, I talked to several of them about their reasons for striking. Though DeFife may be unable to hear them, the truth is that many fast-food workers simply can’t afford to be silent.
“I can’t afford anything. I’m working forty hours a week to still struggle,” said Dominiik Allison, a Wendy’s employee who joined a rain-soaked rally in Chicago on Thursday. Allison is 31, and he’s raising a 12-year-old son and a 1-year-old daughter by himself. He described life as an endless series of irresolvable choices.
“Do I sacrifice food in order to make sure my kids get back and forth to school and daycare? Should I not eat for this week so that a bill can get paid? Should I not have a cellphone this month so that I can provide the necessary pampers and clothes for my 1-year-old?” He’s looking for a second job, but isn’t sure how he’ll manage the time.
“We’re the ones that turn the key to make the money for you guys,” said Allison, referring to fast-food CEOs and shareholders. “You’re not the ones at the restaurant to do the work. You’re not the ones cleaning the stalls. You’re not the ones serving the burgers. You’re sitting up there in your high offices telling everybody else what to do—which is fine, but pay us so that we in turn can make more money for you.”
Robert Taylor, another fast-food worker with two kids, had to quit his job at a Chicago McDonald’s for several months late last year because he couldn’t afford to pay for transportation and for someone to watch his children while he worked. He picked up his old job again in April, at $7.75 an hour; his first paycheck, he said, was about $144. A hundred dollars went to an electricity bill. After getting back and forth from work, the remaining $44 was gone, too.
“So where does that leave me to buy pampers and wipes and a Happy Meal? I can’t even afford to buy my kids nothing at the job I work at. I can’t even buy them an ice cream in the summertime because I don’t have enough money. Do you know what I’m saying? I’m not even making enough money to buy ice cream,” Taylor said.