Labor rebellion: Fast-food workers, inspired by Walmart strikers, demand higher wages

Liz Goodwin
The Lookout

Last month, workers at hundreds of Walmart locations nationwide staged protests—many on Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year—demanding the retail giant pay higher wages.

Walmart downplayed the rare show of rebellion, saying it involved only a fraction of its 1.6 million U.S. employees. But the protests, which garnered a slew of media attention, both shed light on a pressing issue and represented one of the most significant labor actions against the big-box store in its history.

The protests also inspired another group of low-wage workers to stage their own. Last week, about 200 fast-food workers in New York City walked out of their workplaces—chains affected included Burger King, Wendy's and McDonald's—to demand a "living wage" of $15 an hour and an end to the practice of keeping workers on part-time hours to avoid giving them benefits or overtime. The employees also want to form a union for the city's estimated 50,000 fast-food workers to negotiate pay and benefits.

One protester was fired but reinstated after community leaders, including New York City council members, persuaded the management at the Fulton Mall Wendy's in Brooklyn to take her back.

Jonathan Westin, organizing director of the nonprofit New York Communities for Change and one of the organizers of the latest protests, said the Black Friday strikes at Walmart inspired the fast-food protesters to put aside their fears of losing their jobs. "Workers saw that you could step out and be courageous and take on your bosses," Westin said. The group had been talking to fast-food workers since the summer about working conditions and unionizing, but last week was the first major demonstration.

Most fast-food employees, he noted, work part time and are paid minimum wage ($7.25 an hour), so they don't make enough money to support their families. "Many have to rely on public assistance," Westin said. "The taxpayers are fronting the bill for what these multibillion corporations are refusing to pay in wages and benefits."

The Walmart and fast-food protests are remarkable because low-wage employees are often the most vulnerable and easily replaced in the workforce, and so they rarely publicly complain about working conditions. Angela Cornell, director of the Labor Law Clinic at Cornell University Law School, said it's unusual to see such workers striking, especially when the unemployment rate is still high.

"These workers are under an enormous amount of financial strain right now," Cornell said. "Wages have been stagnant … while everything else is going up for them. It's been going on for so long now that ... they're willing to take the risk, because the situation is increasingly intolerable."

Their frustration might also be bubbling up from longer-term economic changes in the country. The U.S. workforce's average salary used to rise at almost exactly the same rate as its productivity, which meant the more we produced, the better we were paid. That link began to break in the 1980s, and now, though U.S. workers are more productive than ever, wages have been stagnant for years. A study from the National Employment Law Project notes that the minimum wage is worth 30 percent less than in 1968. Meanwhile, corporate profits are at record highs.

"They are long overdue for improvements in wages," Cornell said. The issue has become more pressing since the recession, as nearly 60 percent of all jobs created since 2008 have paid hourly wages of $13.83 or less.

The economic argument for these low wages is that people like cheap hamburgers, pizza and other fast food, and that higher wages would mean higher prices that could put franchises—most independently owned—out of business. And, because the jobs require minimal education, owners don't need to pay more to fill the jobs.

But at a crowded rally organized by unions and community groups in New York's busy Times Square on Thursday, mayoral hopefuls Bill de Blasio, New York City's public advocate, and Bill Thompson repudiated that line of thinking. They threw their support behind the effort for higher wages for fast-food workers and other low-income New Yorkers, saying such employees should unionize and demand a "living wage." De Blasio said New York has become "a tale of two cities," with the city's poor workers increasingly living far away from Manhattan's elite, unable to live in the city where they work in essential jobs.

"You can't raise a family on minimum wage," Pamela Flood, a Burger King worker with three children, said onstage at the rally. "With food and diapers, my paycheck is gone after two days. We need a change."

Many labor experts, however, see an uphill battle to forming a fast-food workers union. Not only are these employees regarded as replaceable, but also the franchises are operated by a patchwork of owners and employee turnover is high.

"It's very difficult to do," said Professor Gary Chaisen, a labor expert at Clark University. "They're extremely vulnerable. They're hesitant to join unions, because they're worried about losing their jobs."

That fear is rational, because U.S. law allows managers to fire employees if their work stoppages affect the company's bottom line. But it is also illegal for employers to discourage workers from seeking to unionize by threatening them with consequences.

Monica Bielski Boris, a labor expert and assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said perhaps fast-food workers would have better luck organizing into a nontraditional union, like the "hiring hall" model used in the construction industry. Businesses looking to hire must go to the hiring hall to find workers and negotiate certain wages and benefits in advance.

Felicito Tapia, a deli worker at a Hot & Crusty bakery on 14th Street who attended the rally, said he attempted to form a union at his store last spring, mainly to get paid sick days and a higher wage. "With $7.25, you can't do anything. That salary is nothing," Tapia said, while holding a sign demanding a $15 hourly wage for fast-food workers.

Tapia has worked at different Hot & Crusty locations for 10 years, but he has never been able to take off a holiday, including Christmas, which is something he would want to negotiate if he ever successfully unionizes.

Tapia's unionizing efforts failed, but workers at another Hot & Crusty location on the Upper East Side succeeded after temporarily shutting down their store in protest. The workers there signed a union contract at the end of October that guarantees them paid sick days and holidays—a benefit the vast majority of food workers in New York City do not have.