Unions join fast food workers in coast-to-coast actions

By Deirdre Griswold and Kathy Durkin

Dec. 5 — The coast-to-coast movement to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour from the current miserable federal minimum of $7.25 took a big step forward today.

Fast-food workers, union organizers and many community and labor supporters staged imaginative and militant actions at chain eateries notorious for their low wages and high profits.

Favorite targets were McDonald’s, Burger King, Popeyes and Wendy’s. Participation in these actions ranged from dozens to hundreds of people.

Many started early in the morning with occupations. Workers and their supporters marched into fast-food restaurants chanting slogans and waving placards as delighted employees watched. Some were able to stay inside as long as half an hour before being ushered out by police who were called by managers.

Often these occupations were preceded by rallies where representatives of unions, community groups, religious organizations and sometimes elected officials — usually representing oppressed communities — expressed their support for the workers’ demands for higher pay, the right to be in a union and no reprisals for their organizing activity.

Workers World received short reports from around the country by participants in some of these actions. There were no reports of arrests at these protests, reflecting the reluctance of the superexploiting chains to further antagonize what is an extremely popular mass movement.

Actions in New York took place in several of the city’s sprawling  boroughs.

In Manhattan, one target was a McDonald’s on Broadway a few blocks south of Central Park. Some 250 people occupied it at 6:30 in the morning. Speeches focused on “We can’t survive on $7.25. We need $15 and a union!” Outside, speakers in English and Spanish demanded respect for the skills and efforts of fast-food workers and talked about the need to “Organize, organize, organize.” After the rally, workers danced to the beat of drums and chants of “Power! Workers’ power!”

In downtown Manhattan, at Foley Square near court buildings and City Hall, hundreds of mostly unionized workers rallied in solidarity with unorganized workers to demand a living wage for all. Many low-paid workers walked off the job to join the rally. A huge contingent of mostly young Black and Latino/a workers made a dramatic entrance into the square with a marching band. Many wore hats with the emblem “Fast Food Forward,” a national organization demanding a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

Union contingents included the Professional Staff Congress-City University of New York, Communication Workers, the United Federation of Teachers, District Council 37 AFL-CIO, 32 B-J, the Department Store Union and the Hotel Trades Council, among others.

Before the mass rally, activists with the People’s Power Assemblies movement and Occu-Evolve held impromptu protests in front of a nearby McDonald’s and a Dunkin’ Donuts, notorious for paying their workers low wages and no benefits. Flash mobs entered both locations with chants of “No one can survive on $7.25!” and “Workers have a right to organize for a union!” Smiling workers there showed they appreciated the solidarity.

In Brooklyn, a crowd tried to go into a Wendy’s on Fulton Street. Many were union organizers and fast-food workers. The chants and signs were the same as at the other New York rallies, but also called for “No reprisals.” Management locked the doors, so a rally was held outside.

Chanting “Fast food workers, raise their pay, or we’ll keep yelling and won’t go ‘way!” and carrying signs calling for a $15 minimum wage, a group from the Buffalo, N.Y., International Action Center marched into a Burger King to the applause of the workers inside. Outside, the group held a well-attended press conference covered live on four channels and promised, “We’ll be back!”

In Baltimore, the “We Deserve Better” Workers’ Assembly went inside the North Avenue McDonald’s, did a “mic check” and distributed special “Thank you” cards with organizing information to workers and customers. The action got a lot of support inside and outside the restaurant, with people joining the picket line. A delegation from this protest then traveled to another McDonald’s at Fort Avenue and held a picket line outside.

Fast-food workers in South ‘Fight for $15’  

Fast-food workers across the U.S. South participated in the national strike. Nearly every Southern state had at least one city with strikes involving several stores, with strikes in four to six cities in Texas, Georgia and North Carolina.  The Southern Workers Assembly had organized support for fast-food strikers in many Southern cities and will convene local Workers’ Assemblies with other organized and unorganized workers to help develop the fast-food and low-wage workers’ struggle.

In North Carolina, there were picket lines at several stores in Charlotte, Raleigh/Durham and Greensboro.  At 6 a.m. workers gathered at a Burger King on Capital Boulevard in Raleigh and led chants and freedom songs. A cypher of a popular Michael Jackson song had workers singing, “All I wanna say is that they don’t really care about us.”

Strikers then headed to a Burger King in Durham near North Gate Mall, where emerging powerful worker-leader Willette Dukes works. “Despite all my hard work, and even though fast-food companies make billions in profits every year, I can’t afford to feed my family,” said Duke. “After 15 years’ experience in fast food, I am still making just $7.85 an hour at Burger King. Because of this, like the majority of fast-food workers, I am forced to rely on government assistance to make ends meet.”

Later, a few hundred striking fast-food workers from Raleigh/Durham and Greensboro gathered at a McDonald’s on Avondale Drive. They crammed into the lobby and knelt in prayer led by the Rev. Curtis Gatewood, vice president of the North Carolina NAACP and leader of the MoralMonday/Forward Together movement. Workers then began fierce chants that shut down operations for nearly 30 minutes. Workers on the clock were supportive, and one was brought to tears of joy seeing these courageous workers fighting for $15 an hour and a union.

Workers and supporters then marched down Roxboro Street toward a plaque marking a historic 1957 sit-in at Royal Ice Cream Parlor, three years before the seminal Greensboro Woolworth’s sit-in that sparked sit-ins at lunch counters across the country.  Joined by state Sen. Earline Parmon, the workers and community supporters made the connection between their struggle and the Civil Rights movement of the past.

Dozens of fast-food workers and supporters excitedly gathered on a busy street in southeast Atlanta at 5:30 a.m.  Banners declaring “Strike!” unfurled as the chanting group made its way to a Krystal restaurant, passing Long John Silver’s, McDonald’s and Wendy’s.  “We can’t survive on $7.25,” was the theme of workers who spoke, whether they were employed at Subway, Burger King or Church’s.

An impromptu rally near the drive-through window featured strikers, state Sen. Nan Orrock and Walter Andrews, president of Communication Workers union Local 3204.  People entered the Krystal to hear from more workers.

Jamar, a 7-year Long John Silver’s worker, got a raise to $7.50, but said management was cutting hours.  Lea Noel described working two minimum-wage jobs seven days a week to provide for her children.  Workers, many of them parents, testified about their failed efforts to find better-paying jobs. All took pride in standing up for their right to a livable wage.

An evening rally was held at a Burger King near the historic Black campuses of the Atlanta University Center. Georgia state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, a 50-year labor and civil rights activist, and other community leaders joined the large march into the restaurant.  Students and newly organized campus cafeteria workers supported the workers’ struggle.

Passing motorists honked their horns in support of the chanting Burger King strikers.   Workers like Rufus Scott explained that no matter how hard they work, low-wage workers can’t pay for necessities. Kiki, a parent, told of working without breaks and having to work at a second Burger King.

Jobs with Justice/Atlanta helped bring out union and community support for these strikers.

From Wisconsin to Washington workers demand a livable wage

In Wisconsin, low-wage workers and their labor-community supporters held various protest actions to demand a $15 hourly wage in Madison, Milwaukee, La Crosse, Stevens Point and Green Bay.

Dozens of low-wage workers and their supporters, including members of a diverse array of labor-community organizations, rallied at St. Mark’s Church in Kansas City, Mo. After the rally, the growing crowd, which also included many family members of the workers, headed out to pack the lobbies of three nearby fast-food restaurants — Popeye’s, McDonald’s and Wendy’s — chanting, “We can’t survive on $7.25” and demanding $15 an hour.

In downtown San Diego, a noisy crowd of fast-food workers, unionists and community activists in front of Wendy’s made the purpose of their presence crystal clear: “We’re united for a $15/hour wage floor and the right to form a union without retaliation.”

Underpaid workers, with their families and supporters, rallied at a McDonald’s in downtown Oakland, temporarily taking it over when they marched inside.  Later that day, the group, which included workers from Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken and other fast-food chains rallied at the Fruitvale Bay Area Rapid Transit station in the city’s Latino/a community.  After marching around a Wendy’s, demonstrators marched into and took over a Jack in the Box for 30 minutes.

Three McDonald’s workers were fired for joining in the day’s walkout.  Another protester, a 15-year worker at Jack in the Box, was fired because he could not produce a green card in response to a corporate requirement for documentation.  There are plans to hold a mass “walk-in” very soon to try to get these workers rehired.

Momentum for a $15-an-hour minimum wage is growing in the Washington state cities of Seattle and SeaTac.  In November, residents voted in the $15 hourly wage in SeaTac, an airport company town, in which many immigrant workers live.

On Dec. 5, workers led by Working Washington set off from SeaTac and marched 15 miles to bring the struggle for a $15 minimum wage to Seattle.  Demonstrators were welcomed at the Abu Bakr Islamic Center, a community center for many of the airport’s African workers.

When marchers reached Seattle, they entered a Wendy’s, where they explained the $15-per-hour struggle to the workers inside.  They also stopped at Hing Hay Park in the International District, home to many in the city’s Asian community.

As it reached City Hall, the march of fast-food and Walmart workers, members of the Service Employees and the Food and Commercial Workers unions and community supporters had grown to 250.   At City Hall, newly elected City Council member Kshama Sawant, who ran as a socialist, vowed to take the $15-an-hour campaign to the Seattle City Council as her first priority.  McDonald’s workers there explained the great need for this hourly wage.

Sharon Black, Joyce Chediac, G. Dunkel, Terri Kay, Dianne Mathiowetz, Bob McCubbin, Jim McMahan, Monica Moorehead and Dante Strobino contributed to this roundup.