New York City Fast-Food Workers Strike to Protest Wage Rates

Workers formed picket lines outside some New York City fast-food eateries to protest their wages and hours as part of a unionization campaign.

Fast-food workers from restaurants across New York City formed picket lines the morning of Nov. 29 to protest wages they deem too low, as well as their part-time hours.

Commuters ducking into a McDonald’s Corp. restaurant for a McCafe or a Wendy’s International Inc. restaurant for a Mornin’ Melt Panini met workers waving signs and staging what organizers called the first multi-company protest against the $200 billion fast-food industry.

The action targeted some 20 eateries, mostly in Manhattan, New York, and is part of a broader campaign to organize the industry, which is led by such corporate giants as McDonald’s, Burger King Corp., Wendy’s and KFC Corp. It was not immediately clear whether the strikes would last more than one day; the strikers do not belong to a union or other formal negotiating entity.

Spearheading the initiative is New York Communities for Change, a labor-backed organization that has had some success organizing car wash and grocery store employees in the city in recent months.

“Most of the [fast-food] workers are earning minimum wage and living in poverty,” said Jonathan Westin, organizing director for the group.

“The industry, including quick service restaurants, is one of the best paths to achieving the American dream and has provided opportunities for millions of Americans, as nearly half of all adults have worked in the industry, and more than one out of three adults got their first job experience in a restaurant,” said Scott DeFife, executive vice president for policy and government affairs for The National Restaurant Association in a statement. He added that for the New York City restaurant industry should be commended for providing jobs through a sluggish economy, and for continuing to serve customers through disastrous conditions like Superstorm Sandy.

Some city politicians backed the workers’ efforts. Bill Thompson, a presumptive candidate for mayor, said, “Many hardworking fast food employees earn less than $18,000 a year, making it nearly impossible to afford food, clothing, rent and school supplies for their children on their current wages.”

City Comptroller John Liu, who is also expected to run for mayor in 2013, issued this statement: “It’s a shame that many fast-food workers have to rely on public assistance when the corporations they work for are among the wealthiest in the nation and their CEOs earn millions. Jobs that don’t pay a fair wage contribute to the City’s widening income gap, which hurts the economy as a whole.”

The campaign, which is also supported by the major union Service Employees International Union, started this summer and is advocating for an hourly wage of $15—about $6 more than the median wage for fast-food workers in New York state. The effort also aims to have the workers join an independent, new union, the Fast Food Workers Committee, created by the strikers. The committee does not yet represent any workers.

The restaurants being struck were not notified in advance of the action. However, McDonald’s, in response to a New York Times story about the campaign, said in a statement to the newspaper, “McDonald’s values our employees and has consistently remained committed to them, so in turn they can provide quality service to our customers.”

The 10 largest fast-food chains have nearly 1,200 locations in the city. Many are owned by franchisees, who set the wages for their workers. McDonald’s alone has more than 240 restaurants. Nationally, fast-food employees work only 24 hours a week on average, and earn about $11,000 a year, according to New York Communities for Change, the successor group to Acorn.

Lisa Fickenscher writes for Crain’s New York Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.

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