by Maxine Phillips
Four years ago I shivered with a handful of people in front of a McDonald's in midtown Manhattan agitating for a $15 minimum wage for fast-food workers. The only news outlet that covered the demonstration was Al Jazeera, which had a U.S. office at the time. The demonstration was part of a national campaign of one-day strikes by workers in fast-food restaurants in an effort to improve conditions in an industry marked by high turnover and low wages.
The strikes were supported by coalitions of unions, clergy, and community groups across the country. Few people thought that they had much chance of success. In New York, Michael Bloomberg was mayor, and the restaurant industry was united in its opposition to a living wage and regulation.
This week, I stood with dozens of fast food workers and their allies at the office of the New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer to mark the official launch of Fast Food Justice, which is the first nonprofit worker organization to register under legislation that allows fast-food workers to take payroll deductions for the organization. Under the legislation, passed last year by the New York City Council, 500 workers in the fast-food industry needed to sign up for payroll deductions that their employers would send to the non-profit, non-union organization.
Critics warned that it would be hard to get 500 signatures in an industry notoriously hard to organize. The law went into effect in late November, and organizers quickly gathered 1,200 signatures. The Restaurant Law Center, the legal arm of the National Restaurant Association, filed suit in federal court to overturn the legislation, but Fast Food Justice maintains that it is not a labor organization of the kind regulated by federal law.
With monthly deductions of $13.50, the organization hopes to make gains among New York City's 65,000 fast-food workers and guarantee a steady stream of income so that it can work toward improvements in the industry.
Speaker after speaker praised the efforts of the workers, who have been fighting for several years for a rise in the minimum wage (now $13.50, rising to $15 per hour by the end of 2018) and of legislators who have also passed fair scheduling standards. The fair scheduling standards require fast-food employers to give advance schedules to workers and to offer more hours to existing workers before hiring more part-time staff.
"We want to be able to feed our families," said one worker, who told of starting out a few years ago at the then minimum of $7.25 an hour and being fired when she needed to take a sick day.
The legislation is part of a package of progressive steps being fought for that include affordable housing, decent health care, lower cost transportation, and equality in the workplace.
"Faith leaders have been proud to stand with fast-food workers in New York City over the past five years as they fought for and won a $15 minimum wage," said Rabbi Michael Feinberg, executive director, Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition (far left in photo).
As Department of Consumer Affairs Commissioner Lorelei Salas (at podium) said, the demands of fast-food establishments have made workers "endure unpredictable schedules and incomes that make it hard for them to create budgets, schedule child care, or pursue education or a second job." The combination of a progressive mayor and city council, persistent organizing by workers, and broad coalition-building with groups as diverse as Planned Parenthood of New York City and the Fair Workweek Initiative of the Center for Popular Democracy has brought some measure of financial security and work stability to fast-food workers.
Other cities have passed a $15 minimum wage law over bitter opposition, and others have initiated fairer scheduling, but organizers hope that this launch is for the first of what will be many worker organizations that can bring justice to workers in an increasingly hostile and anti-worker environment.
Maxine Phillips is a co-convener of the Religion and Socialism Working Group of Democratic Socialists of America.