NYC Fast Food Workers Strike for a Union and Higher Wages
Fast food workers walked off the job last week across New York City in a surprise effort aimed at increasing their paychecks and the creation of an unusual union.
Employees at Burger King, Domino’s, McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Wendy’s participated in mini-strikes last Thursday as part of the “Fast Food Forward” campaign that seeks to double the average pay to $15 an hour. The strikes, organized by pro-union group New York Communities for Change, have the ultimate goal of a city-wide union of fast food workers that would cover members across multiple stores and franchises.
The strikes come in the wake of recent walkouts by Walmart store and warehouse employees across the nation.
As the nation’s job market slowly recovers from 2008’s economic downturn, fast food is one of the fastest-growing employment sectors, along with other typically low-paying gigs. According to the National Employment Law Project, 43 percent of job growth in the past two years has come in the restaurant, retail and temp industries.
Doing shift work at McDonald’s has never been considered a professional occupation that could support a family, but for many it may be the only job available. However, 40 hours a week at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour brings in just over $15,000 per year, hardly enough to make ends meet, especially in New York.
Despite the low wages, the traditionally temporary nature of the jobs have stymied any past efforts to unionize. “You’ve got a couple of reasons that I believe they’ve stayed non-union for this long,” John P. Hancock, Jr., a labor and employment attorney for the firm Butzel Long. “They’re very transitional. Up until recently, most people were working there either to get some extra money for Christmas, working through high school and very recently, senior citizens supplementing their income working there.”
The outlook has changed as fast food workers, even ones with other professional skills, accept the bleak prospect that they could be in their current position for years to come. “When you have employees who are transient it’s difficult to organize them,” Hancock says. “They’re gone every six months.”
“What’s changed is people are there for two, three, four years now and they’re not going to be paid more than $8 an hour,” the attorney says. “It’s not like you’re going to make more the longer you stay there, unless you get promoted. That’s a change brought about by the economy. Those jobs were never intended to be career jobs but they’re turning into longer-term jobs.” Employees who are more committed to their jobs have a larger stake in trying to improve working conditions.
However, another difficulty in forming fast food unions is that employees don’t work for McDonald’s, per se– they work for an individual franchisee who owns a particular restaurant, which limits the scope of collective bargaining with any one store owner. Organizers are trying to get around that roadblock by forming a city-wide union that would represent workers across the industry regardless of which restaurant or franchise they work at.
“That would be unique. They’re doing something I’ve never seen before,” Hancock says. “Normally a corporate campaign is against one large company that’s dependent upon the public, like a hospital, bottling company, car dealership, where it’s owned by one employer. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.”