It was still dark when the fast-food workers began gathering outside the McDonald’s just north of Times Square yesterday morning. Carrying signs that read “Strike for higher pay for a stronger New York,” they lined up outside the restaurant, where workers from the night shift were still on the job. Some of those outside were scheduled to take over for the day shift, but they wouldn’t be going in. Instead, they were taking part in the largest strike of fast-food workers in history, as roughly 400 workers from franchises across the city picketed to demand better treatment, a union, and wages of $15 an hour.
“I’m striking because everybody’s had enough,” said Alterique Hall, wearing a black watchcap and jacket against the 6 a.m. cold. “We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired. No person should wake up and be depressed about going to work.”
Hall, who makes $8 an hour and has no health insurance after two and a half years on the job, described bounced paychecks and the stark decisions of the working poor. “There have been times when I’ve been down to my last $2.25, asking myself, ‘Am I going to go to work or go to the welfare office?'” he said.
The strike was the first major action by the Fast Food Forward campaign since it first debuted with a one-day strike in November. If that strike, composed of about 200 people, was the campaign’s first shot across the bow of fast-food chains, yesterday’s strike, with roughly double the number participating, was a definite escalation.
Fast Food Forward is organized by New York Communities for Change, United NY, and the Black Institute, and backed by the Service Employees International Union.
As Josh Eidelson’s excellent reporting on the campaign explains, the erosion of worker protections has changed how people organize. The shifting landscape of labor law has made many kinds of strikes illegal and dangerous for non-union workers, but the symbolic value of a strike remains strong.
Because modern U.S. strikes are often more about humiliating management than shutting down business, workers go out on strike for a single day rather than walking off the job indefinitely. And rather than waiting until a majority of workers are willing to take the risk of going on strike, organizers mount strikes with a minority of the workforce, in hopes that their courage–and their safe return to work afterward–will inspire more of their co-workers to join in the next time.
After the morning’s debut action at 52nd Street and Broadway, the coordinated strikes spread to an estimated 60 locations throughout the city. Edwin Guzman joined a crowd of nearly 100 mobbing the sidewalk outside a Wendy’s on the Fulton Mall in Brooklyn. Guzman, 23, had been fired from a Burger King in Sunset Park three and a half weeks earlier, after signing a union petition.
“The boss told me he felt I was disrespecting him by signing it,” Guzman said. But Guzman was the one who felt disrespected. When he had asked his boss for time off so he could attend to court proceedings stemming from his inability to make rent, he was turned down. When Guzman got Fast Food Forward organizers involved, the boss reluctantly rehired him a few days later. But in recent weeks, Guzman has seen his hours cut dramatically, to the point that he’s now only taking home $75 a week. “I have to make these decisions,” Guzman says. “Do I wash my clothes, do I pay my phone bill, or do I eat?”
Up on East 116th Street, a slightly smaller crowd was picketing outside a Domino’s Pizza.
Roslynn Russell, a three-year Domino’s veteran, said she too had her hours docked after signing a petition. Where she used to get 27 to 30 hours a week, she now only gets nine. “It’s definitely punishment,” she said.
If yesterday’s strike was in large part a symbolic gesture to persuade workers that the campaign has momentum and that they can take part without fear of retaliation, it was also a political gesture in a city where the mayoral campaign is entering high gear. City Comptroller John Liu and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, both candidates for mayor, spoke at the closing rally outside a McDonald’s on 125th Street yesterday evening.
“This is exactly what New York City needs,” Liu told the crowd. “This growing wealth gap is a big problem for our economy as a whole.”
De Blasio sounded a similar populist note. “You can’t ask people to take care of their families, to take care of their children, if there’s no money to take care of them with,” de Blasio said. “People all over this city, people all over this country are waking up to just how unfair things have gotten.”
For her part, presumed mayoral frontrunner Christine Quinn, who as City Council speaker blocked popular legislation mandating paid sick days for years before bowing to pressure and reversing herself last month, tweeted her support for the Fast Food Forward campaign.
At demonstrations throughout the day, fast-food workers carried printed signs that said “I am a man,” or “I am a woman,” invoking the signs carried by striking workers involved in Martin Luther King’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. Organizers selected yesterday as the strike date because it was the anniversary of King’s assassination in Memphis, where he was helping striking sanitation workers protesting poverty wages.
The connection of the Fast Food Forward campaign to King’s anti-poverty work was driven home eloquently by Kirsten John Foy, an aide to de Blasio and a candidate for City Council, who gave a rousing speech to the crowd.
“When Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. laid down his life, he was fighting for poor people,” Foy said.
He lost his life organizing a poor people’s campaign. He was traveling the country saying we have to respect the rights of workers. We have to respect labor. We have to respect people that will put their shoulder to the plow, that will not rely on government to take care of them and their families. 45 years later, we stand on 125th Street and we are saying the same damn thing, and it is unacceptable.
In 1968, the enemy was Bull Connor, fire hoses and dogs. In 2013, the enemy is McDonald’s and corporate greed, but we’re here to say the same way we beat back Bull Connor, the same way we put Jim Crow in the grave, is the same was we’re going to slaughter corp greed. We’re going to take it to the corporate suites, and we’re going to hurt them in their pockets. If they think that today is insignificant. if they think that the numbers too small, if they think that their pockets are too deep, I say to say to them their arms are too short to box with God.