There’s no chicken-and-egg argument when it comes to organized labor: The union precedes the strike. If workers at, say, an automotive factory, aren’t unionized, you aren’t going to see a shutdown over labor issues. And since turnover is so high in the fast-food industry, efforts to organize have often fallen flat, despite the notoriously low wages.
Recently, however, that logic has been turned on its head by a group of young, ununionized food services workers in New York City, who staged a surprise strike yesterday. More than 200 restaurant employees affiliated with the community-labor organization Fast Food Forward walked off the job at McDonald’s, Wendy’s and other chains around the city. The strikers are asking for wages to start at $15 an hour, rather than the $7.25 minimum wage, and for the right to organize a union without fear of retaliation.
The evening of the action, which will be followed by a second, likely larger walk-off next Thursday, strikers Joseph Barrera and Tabitha Verges were both guests on the new MSNBC show “All In with Chris Hayes.” The pair articulated just how difficult it is to live in New York City on low-income wages.
“I think the fact the pay doesn’t allow me to live day-by-day with the basic needs is enough for me to be outraged enough to do something about it,” said Barrera when asked what prompted him to strike. Explaining the difficulty of living off of his KFC income, where he works as a supervisor, he points out that “I’m not able to maybe always buy the food that I need, may have to skip meals.”
Verges, who says she pays $700 a month in rent for her Manhattan apartment, echoes Barrera’s frustration, saying that she has to go without too. “I don’t have enough to even survive for the basic necessities for my household.”
The action took place on the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers when he was slain. Minimum wage was $1.60 in 1968, which amounts to about $11 an hour in 2013 dollars, according to the National Employment Law Project's Tsedeye Gebreselassie, another guest on the show.
If hourly pay that was effectively higher than today’s minimum wage was worth striking over 45 years ago, then it’s amazing that a burgeoning labor movement in fast food hasn’t cropped up before now. As Verges see it, “It’s not right, and it’s unfair,” to have to work for so little pay. And she, Barrera and other are doing what they can to change that injustice.
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Willy Blackmore is the food editor at TakePart. He has also written about food, art, and agriculture for such publications as TastingTable, Los Angeles Magazine, The Awl, GOOD, LA Weekly, The New Inquiry, and BlackBook. Email Willy | TakePart.com
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