By Laura Gottesdiener – November 29, 2012
From the Chicago teachers’ strike to WalMart walkouts to protests at fast food restaurants across New York City, 2012 is shaping up to be the year that labor fought back.
Thursday, coming less than one week after the Black Friday WalMart walkouts, hundreds of fast food restaurant workers are striking in high-traffic commercial centers in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The strikes, which began at 6 am this morning and will continue throughout the day, will hit some of the world’s biggest fast food chains, including McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Dominos, Burger King, Kentucky Friend Chicken and Taco Bell, and carry an industry-shaking demand: the right to unionize and wage increases to $15 an hour.
Fast food workers in New York City earn just below $9.00 an hour on average, and rarely receive health care, paid sick days or other benefits that make it possible to live in an expensive urban center like New York City. These workers are also often given only 20 or 30 hours of work a week, which keeps their annual income far below the poverty line. According to organizers on the campaign, many workers have to resort to collecting public assistance, eating at their restaurants to save money and sometimes even living in homeless shelters--necessities that not only make their lives incredibly challenging but also put intense strain on the city’s social safety net.
The top companies, meanwhile, have been netting considerable profits; according to The Atlantic’s Sarah Jaffe , Taco Bell and KFC’s profits have risen nearly 50 percent over the last four years, and McDonald’s have jumped a staggering 130 percent. Most troubling, these types of low-wage, low-protection jobs are the majority of positions being created as the economy slowly recovers from the 2008 recession. According to a report by the National Employment Law Project, nearly 60 percent of the jobs added since the recession have been these types of low-wage jobs, particularly in retail sales and food preparation.
Given the intense economic inequality of this rapidly growing industry, the sector is ripe for worker organizing. However, the high turnover rate in the industry and the challenge of battling some of the world’s most massive corporations has thus far deterred any group from launching an ambitious and comprehensive campaign.
Beginning in January of this year, New York Communities for Change, in partnership with UnitedNY, the Black Institute the Service Employees International Union, and faith groups across the city, set out to change that legacy, deploying more than three dozen full-time organizers into the city’s fast food sector.
“Low wage work has accounted for the bulk of new jobs added since the recession,” said Jonathan Westin, a leader with New York Communities for Change. “We can't wait for the economy to produce better jobs--the economy won’t grow as long as people's paychecks are so low. It’s that simple.”
The strikes began at six am Thursday morning when 14 of 17 workers walked off the job at a McDonald’s near Grand Central. (The company was forced to call in replacement workers to keep the store open.)
By seven and eight o’clock, workers refused to assume their shifts at fast food restaurants across Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. Major strikes are scheduled for noon at Penn Station and Downtown Brooklyn, and a 5 pm rally at Times Square outside the McDonald’s is expected to attract hundreds of workers.
In addition to the WalMart walkouts, thousands of low-wage airport workers in Los Angeles also went on strike last week, disrupting the busiest travel day of the year to protest the termination of their union contracts and the elimination of their family healthcare insurance.
The fast food campaign is the latest in a wave of low wage worker protests in New York. There have been protests at six grocery stores and four car washes this year, all campaigns organized by New York Communities for Change. Meanwhile, smaller labor centers have also joined the push to organize precarious workers. The Laundry Workers’ Center waged and won an 11-month campaign to create a workers’ association at a 24-hour cafe on the Upper East Side, setting an precedent for the industry about the legal victories that can be won for low-wage, immigrant workers.
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