1-day wage strikes by workers are spreading

Steven Greenhouse / New York Times News Service /

Published Aug 1, 2013 at 05:00AM

From New York to several Midwestern cities, thousands of fast-food workers have been holding one-day strikes during peak mealtimes, quickly drawing national attention to their demands for much higher wages.

What began in Manhattan eight months ago first spread to Chicago and Washington and this week has hit St. Louis, Kansas City, Detroit and Flint, Mich. On Wednesday alone, workers picketed McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Popeye’s and Long John Silver’s restaurants in those cities with an ambitious agenda: pay of $15 an hour, twice what many now earn.

These strikes, which are planned for Milwaukee today, carry the flavor of Occupy Wall Street protests and are far different from traditional unionization efforts that generally focus on a single workplace. The national campaign, underwritten with millions of dollars from the Service Employees International Union, aims to mobilize workers — all at once — in numerous cities at hundreds of restaurants from two dozen chains.

None of the nation’s 200,000-plus fast-food restaurants are unionized.

The strategists know they want to achieve a $15 wage, but they seem to be ad-libbing on ways to get there. Perhaps they will seek to unionize workers at dozens of restaurants, although some labor leaders scoff at that idea because the turnover rate among fast-food employees is about 75 percent a year. Or the strategists and strikers might press city councils to enact a special “living wage” for fast-food restaurants. Or perhaps by continually disrupting the fast-food marketplace from counter to counter across the country, they can get McDonald’s, KFC and others to raise wages to end the ruckus. The protests’ organizers acknowledge that yet another goal is to push Congress to raise the federal minimum wage and pressure state legislatures to raise the state minimums.

“These companies aren’t magically going to make our lives better,” said Terrance Wise, who earns $9.30 an hour after working for eight years at a Burger King in Kansas City, plus $7.40 an hour at his second job at Pizza Hut. “We can sit back and stay silent and continue to live in poverty, or on the other hand, we can step out and say something and let it be known that we need help.”

In explaining why her union is pouring dozens of organizers and significant sums into the effort, Mary Kay Henry, the SEIU president, said, “Our union’s members think that economic inequality is the No. 1 problem our nation needs to solve. We think it’s important to back low-wage workers who are willing to stand up and have the courage to strike to make the case that the economy is creating jobs that people can’t support their families on.”

The protests in Detroit on Wednesday had a particularly poignant backdrop, given that the city has declared bankruptcy. Dozens of workers, joined by members of various unions and community groups, picketed in front of McDonald’s and Taco Bell, shouting chants like, “Hey, hey, ho, ho $7.40 has got to go” — the amount per hour many of them are paid.

“Fifteen dollars an hour would be great — we’d be able to pay our living costs,” said Christopher Drumgold, 32, a father of two who receives $7.40 an hour after a year working at a McDonald’s on Seven Mile Road in Detroit. “On what I’m earning right now, you have to choose between paying your rent and eating the next day.”

Restaurant industry officials say the strikers’ demand for $15 an hour is ludicrous because it amounts to more than twice the federal minimum wage. (The median pay for fast-food workers nationwide is $9.05 an hour.) Industry officials say a $15 wage might drive many restaurants out of business and cause restaurant owners to hire fewer workers and replace some with automation — perhaps by using more computerized gadgets where customers punch in the orders themselves.

Scott DeFife, executive vice president of the National Restaurant Association, said the one-day walkouts were not really strikes, but rather public-relations-minded protests that have caused very few restaurants to close.

“It is an effort to demonize the entire industry in order to make some organizing and political points,” he said, adding that only a small percentage of restaurant jobs pay the minimum wage. He said most of those positions were held by workers younger than 25.

Organizers of the protests — called Fast Food Forward in New York and Fight for 15 in Chicago — say that it seems to be catching fire. Some fast-food workers in St. Louis, inspired by the strikes in New York and Chicago, held their own one-day walkout.

“Things are going phenomenally. Workers all over the country are taking action in an industry where there had literally been no action or traction a year ago,” said Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change, which played a crucial role organizing the first fast-food strike in New York last November.

Explaining the focus on fast-food workers, Westin added, “In a lot of low-income neighborhoods, probably the largest employer is the fast-food industry, and we’re not going to reduce the level of poverty in those neighborhoods unless we try to get that industry to provide jobs that pay a living wage.”

Normally workers go on long strikes for weeks or months to press an employer to agree to contract demands or to recognize a union. But low-paid fast-food workers, most of whom work part-time hours, cannot afford to strike for two weeks or two months.

“One-day strikes work very well because it keeps workers engaged in their restaurants, talking to their co-workers,” said Martin Rafanan, executive director of Can’t Survive on $7.35 — the Missouri minimum wage — and an organizer of the strikes in St. Louis.

Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said he doubted the fast-food strikes would result in unionization. While unions might be excited by the current burst of enthusiasm, he said unions had learned to be cautious, adding, “You pour in a lot of resources, saying, ‘Yes it does work,’ and a year later it disintegrates.”

Nonetheless, he said the periodic chaos the one-day walkouts cause could influence the industry to pay more and could nudge lawmakers to raise the minimum wage (which Republicans in Washington strongly oppose).

Dorian Warren, who teaches a course on labor organizing at Columbia University, noted that most of the urban workers taking part in the single-day strikes were black and Hispanic, demographic groups that often lean in favor of unions.

“I think a vast majority would vote for unionization,” he said. “Many are earning so little they have nothing to lose.”

“Will they get $15 an hour?” he added. “I don’t know. If they get to $10 or $12, that’d be huge.”