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Massive Nationwide Walkout By Fast-Food Workers Signals Growing Backlash Against Low-Wage Employers

The corporate mainstays of the industry have a rebellion in their kitchens and dining rooms that’s not going away.

Photo Credit: Jodie Gummow


Thousands of fast-food workers in 60 cities from coast to coast walked off their jobs Thursday in an escalating nationwide protest. Strikers are seeking raises to $15 an hour, paid sick leave and the right to unionize America’s second-biggest employer, the restaurant industry, which is predicting its 2013 profits will “reach a record high of $660.5 billion.”   

“This is not a cause, this is a movement,” said Letitia James, Working Families Party elected member of the City Council and a candidate for Public Advocate, speaking at a Union Square rally. “This is about economic justice... They [owners] would like you to believe that fast-food workers are primarily teenagers. They are not. They are primarily women with children who are struggling to make ends met. So this is about economic justice. We are here to honor the legacy of Dr. King to stand with fast-food workers who are only demanding $15 and a union.”

“We organized the strike,” said Shantelle Walker, a McDonald’s employee who walked out in New York. “We want to let America know that we need a union and we need $15 an hour.”

The corporate mainstays of the industry, from fast-food giants like McDonald’s to full-service chains such as Olive Garden and Red Lobster, have a rebellion in their kitchens and dining rooms that’s not going away. Thursday’s walkouts—which were joined by poorly paid workers at retail and drug chains—represent a new strategy of publically shaming low-wage, low-benefit employers.

“Public shaming is necessary because we have greedy corporations who care nothing about the public, they care about the public’s money,” said Charles Helms, of the Hudson Country Central Labor Council, AFL- CIO, at the Union Square rally. “So the only thing we can do is get out on the streets to let the public realize that they’re after our money. That’s all they care about.” 

“We are saying $7.25 is not enough. We want the right to unionize. People need secure jobs and good paying jobs,” said Katarina Claudio, from Make the Road New York . “We think naming and shaming has the greatest impact in terms of the industries feeling it, customers feeling it, and it creates as much visibility as we can have out here: It is most effective combined with policy changes.”

The growing movement, which timed Thursday’s protests to the 50 th anniversary of the March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. called for civil and economic rights, is turning to direct action because of frustration with the political process, where victories take too long and are often undercut by restaurant industry lobbying. Instead, shaming corporations and putting minimum wage and sick leave ballot measures directly before voters—who polls find consistently support them—is becoming the new normal.     

“Minimum wage and paid sick days are universally popular among Republicans and Democrats alike,” said Saru Jayaraman, co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), which has been working for a dozen years to change the industry’s exploitive business model and labor practices. “Legislators constantly tell us that we need to show them a groundswell of support to over some the NRA [National Restaurant Association] lobbying.

"Who are they listening to? If they aren’t listening to the people, then the people have to make it happen themselves.”

Growing Movement, Growing Clout

Thursday’s nationwide walkouts are just the most visible sign of a sophisticated and growing progressive movement made up of community activists, church groups, union organizers, economists, editorial writers and third political parties. They have focused on the restaurant industry because it historically has paid the vast majority of its 12.2 million workers minimum wage or a few dollars above, not offered benefits like paid sick days or healthcare, and overwhelmingly employs women and people of color .

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