Pamela Flood works at Burger King in Flatbush, Brooklyn, to pay the bills while she puts herself through school. She’s studying to be a medical assistant and holds down two jobs – two, because the $7.25 an hour that Burger King pays just isn’t enough for Flood to support her three kids and pay her tuition.
On November 29, Flood and about 200 other fast-food workers across the city of New York went out on strike, calling for a raise to $15 an hour and recognition of their independent union, the Fast Food Workers Committee.
$7.25 an Hour
“I’m out here just to show people that you don’t have to take $7.25 an hour for your hard work,” Flood said, while joining other strikers on a picket line outside the Wendy’s at Fulton Mall. “You deserve better than that. It’s not only about the money, it’s about respect. When you’re making so little money, people don’t respect you. They think you’re not smart, and that’s not the case. It could be anybody that’s getting $7.25 for any reason.”
Indeed, though the common perception of fast-food jobs is that they’re for young people or students, the median age in the industry is 28, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. What’s more, women make up two-thirds of fast-food workers, and their median age is 32.
The organizing campaign among fast-food workers is being led by New York Communities for Change (NYCC). That makes it an unusual workplace organizing drive, led by a community organization rather than a labor union. In the last few years, NYCC has also worked to organize grocery store workers, car wash workers, and child-care providers. A week after the fast-food strike, workers from these industries rallied with members of other unions, including the PSC, in a December 6, 2012 labor protest in Times Square. The protest connected the “fiscal cliff” confrontation in Washington with broader issues of economic justice, demanding an end to tax cuts for the rich and an economy that works for all.
“It’s a hard road to hoe to organize collective action in the fast-food industry,” said Frances Fox Piven, professor of sociology and political science at the CUNY Graduate Center. “They’re small sites, a lot of turnover in the labor force.” The citywide approach of NYCC, she said, is “the way that it has to be done. The question is whether they can do social-movement-style strikes with community support and the support of the unions.”
Joshua Freeman, professor of history at Queens College, the Graduate Center and the Murphy Institute, told Clarion, “This approach shows a kind of flexibility by the mainstream New York labor movement that I don’t think you would have seen a couple of decades ago. It’s the kind of thing you’re going to need if you’re going to organize fast food. You’re going to have to bring in other kinds of players: religious groups, political organizations, neighborhood groups, and it’s still going to be tough.”
The one-day strike by the fast-food workers parallels the one-day strikes that have been happening at Walmart stores and warehouses around the country and Ruth Milkman of the Graduate Center and the Murphy Institute sees parallels between the community-based strategies of today’s organizers and pre-Wagner Act forms of organizing. “If you go back to the pre-New Deal era, this was very common,” Milkman said.
Freeman agreed, pointing out that corporations’ aggressive anti-union tactics have all but eliminated the federal protections for unions under the National Labor Relations Act. Companies routinely fire pro-union workers, in violation of the law, then drag out labor board proceedings as long as possible and pay the occasional fine as a cost of doing business. “We’re almost in a post-New Deal situation, that’s why you do need different tactics and strategies than 30 or 40 years ago,” Freeman said. “I think these folks are trying to feel their way toward that.”
The one-day strike, in particular, is proving to be an effective tactic: Marty Davis, an employee at the Wendy’s on Fulton Street, said that their boss is nicer to the workers now, and Truvon Shim, who’d had his hours slashed after taking a few days off to deal with the damage Superstorm Sandy did to his Far Rockaway home, was back working two hours last week after walking off the job.
Milkman noted that it makes sense to use short strikes as a tactic. “The law does supposedly protect what’s called concerted activity,” she noted, “so you get all the publicity, and people don’t lose income. It’s not like they have a chance of getting an immediate victory. If they went out for a long time, [the company] would just replace people.”
New York City’s fast-food workers are feeling good about the strikes. Davis said that when workers saw those who went on strike walk back in the day after, with community leaders by their side, it made people realize that they could do it, too: “Now, there are more people on board with going on strike.”