McDonald’s and the global revolution of fast food workers

NYC Fight for $15 rally. Liz Cooke, CC BY

When it comes to their wages, McDonald’s workers around the world are not “Loving It” – and they haven’t been shy about expressing their discontent over the past four years.

But this Labor Day, America’s fast food workers can celebrate victories that have improved wages for some of them. And they can applaud a global labor movement of low-wage workers that they helped spark and continue to inspire.

In April, fast food workers led the most global strike in history. It took place in 300 cities, in more than 40 countries in every region of the globe. It was a day of action against what activists called “McJobs” – low-wage, precarious work. And it caught the attention of the world.

From Manhattan to Manila, from Tokyo to Toronto, fast food workers were joined in living wage protests by home health care workers, airport workers, retail workers and millions of others who are fully employed but do not earn enough to make ends meet.

Earlier in the year, 27-year-old Florida McDonald’s worker Bleu Rainer drove from Tampa across the state to protest outside of the Republican debate at the University of Miami.

Chanting, “We work, we sweat. Put $15 in our checks,” he says protesters succeeded in injecting the fight for a living wage into the feisty Republican debate, where billionaire candidate Donald Trump raised eyebrows by insisting that wages in the U.S. are already too high.

When America’s low-wage workers, a disproportionate number of whom are African-American, convened in Richmond, Virginia this August, they vowed to continue fighting and tied their struggle to the larger battle to overcome American racism. They coined the new slogan: Black Work Matters.

As a labor historian, I became interested in the global fast food workers movement, which uses history, popular culture and social media to organize and make its case. Over the last year, I’ve talked to fast food workers in Tampa, New York, Los Angeles, Manila, Philippines and Phnom Penh, Cambodia, among other places.

They are literally hungry for change and they are making change happen.

A global network

Like popular culture, the problems of today’s work world are global. As the slogan goes, “McJobs Cost Us All.” Vast, transnational low-wage employers like McDonald’s and Wal-Mart drive wages down for everyone. With more than half of U.S. workers earning less than US$30,000 a year in 2014, the poverty line for a family of five, it is not a surprise that the Fight for $15 movement has attracted workers of all kinds.

The movement is bigger than just the United States. In Manila, young Filipino activists in the RESPECT Fast Food Worker Alliance staged singing, dancing flash mobs in their nation’s legislature to demand labor protections. And, in Moscow, fast food workers staged protests to highlight the fact that they were not teenagers working for “going out” money but adults trying to support families with inadequate wages.

Where did all this anger come from? In 2015, 52 percent of fast food workers in the U.S. received public assistance to make ends meet. Many had to work two and three jobs. Some commuted to work from homeless shelters. Maia Montcrief from Long Beach, California, told me that she lives in a one-bedroom apartment with six people. She is one of the lucky ones.

Though fast food workers have protested at many global and localized chains, the main focus of their movement has been McDonald’s. With 36,538 restaurants in 119 countries, McDonald’s is the world’s second-largest private employer. Only Wal-Mart employs more.

“Because McDonald’s has employees everywhere,” activist Bleu Rainer told me, “everything they do has a global impact that affects all workers.”

Bleu’s story

Rainer is a 27-year-old McDonald’s worker.

“I’ve worked in the fast food industry in North Carolina and Florida,” Rainer told me, “and in eight years I’ve made no more than eight dollars and five cents an hour.” He said that even when he was offered a promotion to manager, his salary did not increase.

Bleu Rainer.

“I have witnessed the torture of not having enough to afford rent, which led to me sleeping from house to house,” Rainer says. “One time I even had to sleep at bus stops because I was homeless. I have had to rely on food stamps just to get a good meal and when those food stamps run out it’s back to nothing at all. Sometimes I think to myself: I’m working so hard every day. So why am I still hungry? Why am I not making a living wage? Why can’t I feed myself?”

Beginning in 2012, Rainer and a small group of New York City fast food workers kicked off a protest against poverty wages. It was a decidedly 21st-century movement. They used one-day flash strikes instead of long-term actions that hurt workers more than employers. They deployed social media to organize and publicize their actions. And they gleefully subverted expensive corporate slogans – especially the McDonald’s jingle “I’m Lovin’ It,” the first worldwide ad campaign for the burger giant, which they paid Justin Timberlake $6 million to sing on TV.

“Poverty Wages: Not Lovin’ It” became the slogan of a new movement, and signs with those words soon appeared in as many countries and as many languages as the original version.

When I first met Rainer in Tampa, he was helping to organize a broad coalition of low-wage workers: fast food workers, home health care attendants and adjunct college professors – none of whom made enough money to pay their bills. As we sat together at a table in a West Tampa Cuban diner, the professors made clear that they saw themselves paddling in the same boat as fast food workers and home health care aides. They earned around $8 an hour, worked on short-term contracts and had absolutely no job security. “They try to convince us we’re better, we’re the elect,” said Cole Bellamy, who teaches 12 courses a year. “But that’s the lie they tell us to keep us quiet.”

“We are all fast food workers,” said graduate student Keegan Shephard.

“Or maybe we are all professor adjuncts,” said Rainer.

The successes

Their campaign has been remarkably successful in a short period of time.

This March, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the McDonald’s corporation is a joint employer of those who work in franchise-owned restaurants, a huge victory for fast food activists. Last summer, New York state granted a $15 minimum wage to the state’s 180,000 fast food workers. Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles also passed $15 living wage ordinances. This spring, the state of California, which has a population of nearly 40 million people, passed a phased-in statewide $15 wage. The wages of federal food workers have been raised. Wal-Mart has raised its minimum. McDonald’s offered increases to those who work in restaurants owned outright by the corporation, which pressured franchise owners to do the same.

Four years ago, when the first fast food workers’ strikes were held in New York and Chicago, the $15 minimum wage seemed a fantasy. Now it is a reality in many of the largest labor markets in the U.S., and it is fast food workers who launched the tidal wave.

Yet, with all this success, the life of an average fast food worker is still difficult, at best. One reason most fast food workers are so poor is because their wages are so low. But it is also because computers scheduling shifts change workers’ hours at the drop of a hat, making it impossible for parents of young children to plan child care or to know for sure whether they will be able to pay their bills each month. Algorithms, I have learned through numerous interviews, maximize efficiency for the company and cut labor costs whenever possible. Workers believe they are used to intentionally keep workers’ hours low enough that they are not covered under state and federal labor laws and can be seen as part-time or temporary workers.

One McDonald’s worker I met in New York City in 2015, who depended on his full-time salary, showed me a paycheck for two weeks’ work that totaled $109.

Contrary to public opinion, most fast food workers are not teenagers on their first job but adults supporting families. The average fast food worker is 29 years old. Over 25 percent are parents. Nearly one in three have college degrees – or are working their way through college.

This is not the first time that restaurant workers have organized. Restaurant unions have, in different eras, been strong in some big cities, especially New York and Las Vegas. But this is the first time that fast food workers have organized, and it is definitely the first time that they have organized in conjunction with a range of other low-wage workers and on a global scale.

Massimo Frattini, a former hotel worker from Milan who is one of the global coordinators for fast food workers’ actions, told me that he was stunned by the worldwide response when the first global strike took place in 2014.

On that day, fast food workers in 230 cities, in 34 countries, on six continents, walked off the job to dramatize their need for a living wage, full-time work and union recognition. The scale of the strike surprised pretty much everyone: the workers, the organizers and definitely McDonald’s.

Workers staged mock trials of a weeping Ronald McDonald for wage theft in the streets of Seoul. They shut down McDonald’s in Brussels and in London’s Trafalgar Square.

“We were not aware of how organized workers were in the fast food sector in the Philippines or Thailand or New Zealand,” Frattini said. “But the truth is they knew that alone, they were helpless against these massive corporations. But maybe together they could raise the issue on the global stage. And they could provide better services and negotiate better agreements for their members.”

Over the next year, workers from New York, Chicago, and 150 U.S. cities met with workers from Denmark, Argentina, Thailand, South Korea, the Philippines and numerous other countries. The Service Employees International Union in the United States and Frattini’s international union of food, hotel and farm workers, which represents 12 million workers in 120 countries, paid for these meetings.

Workers compared notes on wages and working conditions. Workers from McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken from every continent on Earth began planning strategy for global living wage agreements.

One of the original organizers, Naquasia LeGrand, was just a 22-year-old kid from Brooklyn who was tired of working three jobs. She looked back during the summer of 2016 on what she had helped start in 2012. She said: “We triggered something epic that had never been done.” Indeed they had: a global fast food workers’ revolution.

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