“Fast Food Forward” workers and supporters picket outside Wendy’s in New York, April 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
The McDonald’s at the corner of 51st Street and Broadway is a monument to the dedication of corporate rebranding experts. Crouched near the northern edge of Times Square, it has been spiffed to a state of clean-lined cheeriness, the chain’s signature ketchup-and-mustard decor replaced by trendy hues and fake blond wood. The walls are bedazzled with plucky pictures of kids and tomatoes, and on the outside, peppy word-art telegraphs positive vibes to incoming customers: “Friendly… wholesome… dreams…”
Behind this chipper façade, however, the 51st Street McDonald’s is neither friendly nor wholesome, and dreams rarely come true, at least for the phalanx of underpaid workers—by and large Latino and African-American—who struggle to break the golden $7.25 an hour wage ceiling. While McDonald’s profits jumped 135 percent between 2007 and 2011, enough to earn its last CEO $8.75 million a year and its new CEO $13.8 million a year, these workers are forced to survive without benefits, sick leave or a living wage.
“You can’t be expected to survive on that little bit,” said Alterique Hall, 24, who has been working as a supervisor at McDonald’s for roughly three years. Hall earns $8 an hour, but his hours have been sliced over the years, and he frequently takes home as little as $60 to $100 a week. And so he often walks several hours to work from his home in Harlem because he can’t afford subway fare. At times, he’s relied on food stamps. As for his phone, it often gets cut off, because, he said, “Do you fall behind on the rent or do you pay the phone bill?”
If this were a typical narrative of low-wage labor—one of the many that unspools daily across New York’s five boroughs—this is where Hall’s story would begin and end: in the blunt grammar of need and struggle. But on November 29, 2012, after months of quiet organizing, Hall and his co-workers decided to rewrite this predictable tale. As part of Fast Food Forward, a new organizing initiative, they joined some 200 workers from across the fast-food spectrum—Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Domino’s—in a one-day mass strike. Their demands: $15 an hour and the right to join a union.
“We’re fighting because we refuse to tolerate the disrespect of being underpaid,” said Hall. “I’m worth more than a minimum wage; I’m worth a living wage.”
In the annals of low-wage labor, the story of Fast Food Forward is a startling tale, not the least because the November strike was widely believed to be the largest mobilization of fast-food workers in United States history—until that record was broken in April when some 400 workers struck again. But the fast food campaign is also an important part of an emerging New York tale.
Despite the profusion of low-wage jobs, grassroots labor campaigns have been few and far between in these parts. Here, as elsewhere, the labor movement has been under attack—from big business, small business and, not the least, the mayor, whose distaste for unions is so strong that he frequently refers to them simply as “special interests.” And here, as elsewhere, unions have struggled to adapt to the changing shape, and face, of the economy. Many simply haven’t bothered.
“We don’t have a clear set of practices around how you organize in scattered sites and subcontracted, private sector situations like we’re in,” explained Janice Fine, a political scientist and professor of Labor Studies and Employment Relations at Rutgers University.