Activism

'My Fear Has Gone Out the Window:' Fast-Food Worker Movement More Energized Than Ever

Last week, workers went on the largest fast-food strike in history. Could this be the civil rights movement of our time?

Fast food workers occupy a McDonald's store in Oakland, Calif., to demand a $15 hourly wage and a union.
Photo Credit: Alyssa Figueroa

“Walk out! We got your back! Walk out! We got your back!” shouted hundreds of fast-food workers and their supporters in a crammed McDonalds store.

All eyes were on Marta, as she paced around behind the McDonalds counter trying to figure out if she could join her fellow workers on the other side.

In unison, the workers continued to shout, “Walk out! We got your back!” News cameras flashed on Marta’s face, and organizers advised her over the counter about her rights.

Marta walked over to consult her managers, sparking hope in the crowd that she just might do it.

By this point, Maria, another McDonalds worker on duty, had already gathered her things in the back and walked directly out from behind the counter into a thundering crowd and several hugs, leaving the counter door behind her swinging enticingly.

Marta continued to pace and talk to her managers, who shrugged at whatever she said. Then Marta disappeared. When she returned, her black purse was hanging on her shoulder and her sweater was draped over her arm.

The crowd erupted —“¡Si se puede! ¡Si se puede!” (Yes, we can!) — as Marta pushed through the door without looking back. She clapped and danced as the crowd engulfed her with the chanting.

This was the scene at the Jackson Street McDonald’s in Oakland, Calif. on Thursday. And while it was unique in character, it mirrored scenes from 158 U.S. cities and 93 international cities, making this global fast-food strike the largest in history, spanning 36 countries. What started as a New York City fast-food strike in Nov. 2012 has now grown into a worldwide movement energized enough and rooted in such a clear value of fairness it could arguably be labeled the civil rights movement of our time — complete with heroes like Marta risking their livelihoods to do what they believe is right.

At least, that's how Rhonesha Victor sees it. Victor has worked at KFC/Taco Bell for two years, and joined the strike Thursday to demand a $15 hourly wage and a union — a fight she sees as more significant than most realize.

“For people trying to criticize what I’m doing, I always bring it back to that,” she said. “A couple years ago, women didn’t have the right to vote, black people couldn’t vote. But they fought for their rights and what they believed in, and they got it. And this is the exact same thing.”

Like the beginning of any long movement, the low-wage worker movement began with workers’ recognition that they weren’t alone. For many, this is still the best part of participating in the struggle.

“I love being around my co-workers and other fast-food workers. We’re like a family,” Victor said. “And it feels great to know I’m not alone in this. I would confront my boss about the issues going on at work, and he said I was ‘complaining.’ I was a ‘whiner.’ So to have this many people saying the same thing that I’m saying — it’s an overwhelming feeling.”

Leticia Moran agreed. She has been working at Carl’s Jr. for six years and also participated in the strike on Thursday. She said her favorite part about being in the movement is that, “We see that other people are with us.”

Maria Garcia, who has worked at Wendy’s for six years, loves that this unity has given workers the support they need to speak out about their work conditions. “I love doing this because it makes people notice that they need to raise their voices,” Garcia said through her daughter, who translated her words.

McDonald’s worker Karla Colato also loves that the movement provides the space to have her voice heard. But with this comes the fear of facing retaliation.

“Some of our workers are not showing up today,” Colato said. “I luckily had the day off, so I didn’t have that problem. But one of my close friends did have to work today. But she decided not to, just so she could have her voice heard.”

Moran and Victor skipped work to join the strike, losing a day’s pay. This is hard, especially for Moran, who has four children to support. Victor said she mostly feared retaliation when she first joined the movement, but that quickly faded once she realized it would be illegal for her boss to fire her for organizing. 

“I learned to not be afraid,” Victor said. “At first, I didn’t want to speak at all because I was afraid of what my boss would say. But all my fear has gone out of the window, and I realized that I do have power.... And today, at my store, half of the people came out to strike. So my boss was unable to make any money, and we were in the lobby and there were no customers. So for about an hour, he wasn’t making any money, and we had power, and he couldn’t do anything about it, and I love that feeling.”

While workers may not get fired due to labor laws — though low-wage workers, like the recent Walmart workers, sometimes are — that doesn’t always prevent a hostile working environment.

For Garcia, this is what makes being part of the movement difficult.

“The bad thing is knowing that the managers know I’m involved in this,” she said. “They started yelling at me and treating me badly.”

After someone handed Garcia a leaflet about a union while she was working, her manager made her come to her office, where she yelled until Garcia was on the verge of tears. Garcia said she’s beginning to defend herself, but it’s still a tough working environment. 

“It’s hard for me to know that they don’t like me anymore because of this,” she said.

Despite such challenges, all the workers interviewed said they would continue the push forward, no matter how long it takes, because they believe they are fighting for fairness.

For Moran and Garcia, their children are what keeps them going. Moran, who is a single mother raising four children, said, “My kids, that’s the most important thing. I want a better future for them.”

Through tears, Garcia said she hopes to help her 17-year-old daughter, who currently works alongside her at Wendy’s, afford college.

For Victor, the fight is for economic justice, and she’s planning to continue the struggle for future generations.

“I think about if I ever have kids or my younger brothers and sisters, if they were ever to get a job in fast food,” she said, “I wouldn’t want them to be treated like I’ve been treated, and I’d want them to have a living wage.” 

Alyssa Figueroa is an associate editor at AlterNet.