By 11:30 this morning, several dozen people wrapped in winter coats and wielding hand-drawn posters had assembled on the corner in front of the Wendy's on the Fulton Mall in downtown Brooklyn, across from the Modell's and the Bank of America, with the purpose of addressing that most fascinating question in labor relations: Can fast food workers ever be unionized? Here, in New York, today, a lot of fast food workers decided to skip the theory and proceed directly to the "Fuck you, pay me" phase of the process.
"I'm tired of being courteous to guests for $7.25!" thundered one of the workers to her peers. As a former McDonald's worker who was never asked to work the register due to a lack of enthusiasm for customer service, I find that sentiment very difficult to argue with. The protest at Wendy's was just one of several throughout New York City today, all part of the launch of a new unionization campaign aimed at NYC's fast food workers, one which is backed by several activist groups and big unions and dozens of organizers and is not, I daresay, fucking around. Our city is, if you open your eyes, a bit, littered with fast food restaurants—it is only the most affluent neighborhoods that can afford not to have them. All of these restaurants are staffed by our fellow New Yorkers. Many of them are paid $7.25 an hour, the state minimum wage, and they're scheduled for fewer than 30 hours a week, on average. They're asking for $15 an hour. Still not all that much to live on. But much more than they get now.
Latoya Hall, who works at a McDonald's on Eastern Parkway, had taken the day off to wave a sign in front of a Wendy's on Fulton St. A fairly remarkable act of solidarity, if you think about it. "Our boss said we need to protest to get another job," she said, laughing. She started at her McDonald's six months ago, at $7.25 an hour; she subsequently received a raise, of ten cents. When an organizers showed up at the restaurant a month ago to speak to workers about their wages being too low, she agreed. And here she was. Some of her coworkers were there too. Others agreed, but were too scared of losing their jobs to come.
"I understand. I've got two kids," Hall said. "But I've been in this game for ten years, and I'm still at square one."
Truvon Shim works at a Wendy's on Livingston Street, not far from the one where the protest was being held, and with the same owner. He lives in the Rockaways, and commutes one hour and 45 minutes to work. He said that his house was destroyed in Hurricane Sandy. "I'm sleeping on couches, in hotels, with friends," he says. Five of his coworkers were there. When they first started talking to organizers, he says, his boss told them not to, and then posted a sign at work saying that they'd be terminated if they joined a union; that sign came down, he says, after workers told the boss it was illegal. Tomorrow, Truvon will go back to work. "I have no fear," he said.
Kirsten John Foy, a dapper activist formerly of the National Action Network and the NYC Public Advocate's office, was out to support the protesters. "This is 2012. Not 1812!" he hollered, to cheers of support. "The struggle for decent livable wages is a moral issue, not a political issue," he said. Unionizing fast food workers is uncharted territory, and Foy acknowledged that it would be a long term project—"If this is a one-shot deal, then it means nothing," he said, gesturing across the protesters, who had started marching up and down the sidewalk, back and forth, perhaps just to stay warm. "Protests are one thing. Boycotts are another. Wendy's ain't the only burger flipping joint on the block."
Despite the dozens of loud strikers waving signs on the sidewalk, a slow but steady stream of oblivious customers still trickled into Wendy's for lunch. At one point, as the chants of "No music, hey! Fifteen and a union, hey!" progressed into serious hand-clapping, a hefty man in a leather jacket and braids peeked out of the Wendy's door; then, fast food bag in hand, stepped out onto to the sidewalk and started dancing, while eating his fries. He was followed out, moments later, by a Wendy's employee with a nametag reading "Alex," who emerged to raucous shouts and pounds all around. It was indeed Alex's rock star moment. Someone produced a boombox, and "Ain't No Stoppin Us Now" was played.
One of the leaders of the workers, a woman in a pink and black Northface jacket and dyed red hair and the sort of natural charisma that comes with having Enough Of This Shit, stood in front of everyone for an Occupy-style mic check. She had been there, on the corner, since early in the morning, dragging her kids in tow. "Guess what, Wendy's?" she hollered. "My kids said to tell you, next time they gotta wake up early, they want 15 and a union. I can't even get a cab for $7.25! If I can't get my 15 and a union, guess what, Wendy's? You can't get your labor. Because I'm tired."
Part-time, minimum-wage, fast food work would make anyone tired. Fast food workers do not generally have the public's respect. They are mocked as easily replaceable, unskilled, shiftless. They do not have political power. They certainly do not have money. But, as evidenced by the Not To Be Fucked With look on that woman's face and the words she spoke, they do have the single piece class consciousness that has launched a thousand revolutions throughout history. "I'm calling the shots," she roared, "because I do the labor!"