Supersize Our Wages — Give Us a Union!

Last week, Walmart, this week, MacDonald’s. A coordinated strike of fast food workers at several New York City restaurants on Thursday marked the public debut of the largest effort to organize fast food workers ever.

The campaign enjoys the support of clergy and several community groups, and is being spearheaded by New York Communities for Change (NYCC), a group responsible for unionizing NYC grocery stores and carwashes.

Steven Greenhouse reported on Thursday morning’s walkout for the New York Times:

The first walkout took place at 6:30 a.m. at a McDonald’s at Madison Avenue and 40th Street, where several dozen striking workers and supporters chanted: “Hey, hey, what do you say? We demand fair pay.” An organizer of the unionizing campaign said that 14 of the 17 employees scheduled to work the morning shift had gone on strike.

Forty full-time organizers are working with employees at McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Domino’s, and Taco Bell locations to form a new union, the Fast Food Workers Committee. Employees at NYC fast food outlets are asking for both a living wage ($15 an hour) and freedom from retaliation.

Greenhouse reported on customer reaction inside MacDonald’s:

One customer drinking coffee inside the McDonald’s said she supported the organizing effort. “If anybody deserves to unionize, it’s fast food workers,” said the customer, Jocelyn Horner, 35, a graduate student.

Indeed, organizing fast food workers seems obvious — and obviously difficult. Columbia University Political Scientist Dorian Warren spoke to Salon on why a large scale effort to organize the industry hasn’t happened already:

In recent decades, Warren said Tuesday, even the most effective U.S. unions have “had such a hard time organizing in their core industries,” where they already have members, “that fast food just got left out … no one was really willing to take the risk and invest in fast food organizing.” Warren said research suggests that the industry’s demographics – predominantly women and workers of color – could improve prospects for organizing.

The transient, low-paid workforce and franchisee system under which fast food outlets operate will make the effort to unionize difficult. Ruth Milkman of the City University of New York spoke to The New York Times on the here today, gone tomorrow nature of precarious workers in the industry, as well as the geographical importance of the New York Campaign (a similar campaign began earlier this month in Chicago):

“These jobs have extremely high turnover, so by the time you get around to organizing folks, they’re not on the job anymore,” she said. Nonetheless, she said the new effort might gain traction because it is taking place in New York, a city with deep union roots where many workers are sympathetic to unions.

The efforts at fast food restaurants and organizing at Walmart are examples of the rarely used strategy known as “minority unionism,” in which workers stage actions and call on management prior to organizing a majority of employees. Raymond Lopez, a 21-year old aspiring actor who works at the Madison Avenue MacDonalds and showed up on his day off to join the strike, wants to believe it could work.

From Salon:

“It was a little difficult for me to believe that it was going to be possible” to change McDonald’s. “I didn’t pay too much attention to it … it took me two or three meetings to start trusting them.” But as the number of workers meeting with NYCC increased, “my faith in this whole deal grew as well.”

NYCC, who is also receiving support from the Service Employees International Union, has a record of taking on difficult organizing projects involving low-wage and immigrant workers and winning. We’ll continue to report on their brave efforts against Goliath fast-food chains.


This article originally appeared on Unionosity.com.