Last Thursday, the fast food workers of New York went on an unprecedented strike from some of the country’s most well-known and prosperous fast food chains to protest for better wages and the formation of a union. These stores generate profits in the billions while the workers that keep it running don’t make a living wage. Despite the impression that many fast food workers are merely teenagers making pocket change the average age ranges from 28-32. In an expensive city like New York, adults making minimum wage with unpredictable schedules and paid sick leave is inexcusable. Having burn scars on arms is almost an omnipresent badge of honor in the fast food industry; instead of being given proper equipment to prevent injuries, the workers just accept it as the norm.
The biggest issue is that franchise owners believe it’s easy to take advantage of workers because their situations are so dire, owners believe employees are not in a position to argue. And the situations ARE bad. Before the strike, one worker relayed a story of having to choose between paying for transport home or for a meal. Choosing to eat, he ended up walking 11 miles from his fast food job in East Harlem to his home in Brooklyn. Fast food owners have intimidated their workers for too long, often cutting hours (and, thus, income), firings for being merely minutes late and many other offenses and workers are kept in check because no one wants to lose their jobs. It’s unconscionable that workers, who have already been dealt a hard hand at life, in addition have to deal with harassment at work and not knowing if they’ll be able to support themselves from month to month.
But unlike many jobs in America that can and have been outsourced, service jobs like in the fast food industry are here to stay. There is no real reason why the higher-ups at these companies can’t pay their employees more, other than to profit more for themselves. Hundreds of workers across the city to walk off their jobs and join the crew of community and labor groups, clergy and politicians who joined them at dozens of fast food restaurants from the Bronx to Bed-Stuy. The workers summarized their own experiences being employed at minimum wage and their lack of upward mobility, stuck in a cycle of toiling in one low-wage job after another.
After a day of protests, hundreds rallied in front of McDonald’s in Times Square. With impenetrable energy, various speakers, including councilman Jumaane Williams, reminded the crowd that “today, we’re straightening out our backs! [The fast food industry] ain’t gonna ride our backs no more!” The following day, politicians, clergy and community groups escorted workers back to their job to prevent possible antagonizing from owners. One Brooklyn worker was subsequently fired for his participation in the demonstration, but with support and protests from the community, he was rehired an hour later.
On the heels of the Black Friday protests at Walmart, the time to rise up is now. But the fight extends past just fast food workers: this is a fight for all of us. We will continue to spread this message on our day of action, December 6th, where we will persist in our fight for economic justice. Low wage workers are fighting for a better economy and a better way of life for everyone, and that should be something everybody wants to get behind.