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DIGNITY

Fast-food workers and a newform of labor activism.
BY WILLIAM FINNEGAN

 

A demonstration by fast-food workers last week in Manhattan. One recent study found
that fifty-two per cent of fast-food workers require some form of public assistance.

PHOTOGRAPH BY MARK PETERSON / REDUX

F

or the customers, nothing has changed in the big, busy
McDonald's on Broadway at West 181st Street, in Washington
Heights. Promotions come and go—during the World Cup, the
French-fry package was suddenly not red but decorated with
soccer-related "street art," and, if you held your phone up to the box,
it would download an Augmented Reality app that let you kick
goals with the flick of a finger. New menu items appear—recently,
the Jalapeno Double and the Bacon Clubhouse, or, a while back,
the Fruit and Maple Oatmeal. But a McDonald's is a McDonald's.
This one is open twenty-four hours. It has its regulars, including a
panel of older gentlemen who convene at a row of tables near the
main door, generally wear guayaberas, and deliberate matters large
and small in Spanish. The restaurant doesn't suffer as much staff
turnover as you might think. Mostly the same employees, mostly
women, in black uniforms and gold-trimmed black visors, toil and
serve and banter with the customers year after year. The longtime

manager, Dominga de Jesus, bustles about, wearing a bright-pink
shirt and a worried look, barking at her workers, "La lineal La
lineal "

Behind the counter, though, a great deal has changed in the past
two years. Among the thirty-five or so non-salaried employees,
fourteen, at last count, have thrown in their lot with Fast Food
Forward, the New York branch of a growing campaign to unionize
fast-food workers. Underneath the lighted images of Big Macs and
Chicken McNuggets, back between the deep fryer and the meat
freezer, the clamshell grill and the egg station, the order screens
and the endless, hospital-like beeping of timers, there have been
sharp and difficult debates about the wisdom of demanding better
pay and forming a union.

Most of the workers here make minimum wage, which is eight
dollars an hour in New York City, and receive no benefits. Rosa
Rivera, a grandmother of four who has worked at McDonald's for
fourteen years, makes eight dollars and fifty cents. Exacerbating the
problem of low pay in an expensive city, nearly everyone is
effectively part time, getting fewer than forty hours of work a week.
And none of the employees seem to know, from week to week,
when, exactly, they will work. The crew-scheduling software used
by McDonald's is reputed to be sophisticated, but to the workers it
seems mindless and opaque. The coming week's schedule is posted
on Saturday evenings. Most of those who, like Rivera, have sided
with the union movement—going out on one-day wildcat strikes,
marching in midtown protests—suspect that they have been
penalized by managers with reductions in their hours. But just-in-
time scheduling is not easy to analyze.



Arisleyda Tapia, who has been working here for eight years, and
makes eight dollars and thirty-five cents an hour, says she was fired
last year by a supervisor for participating, on her own time, in a
protest. She was reinstated three days later by cooler management
heads, but Tapia, a single mother with a five-year-old daughter, says

that she now gets only thirty hours a week. She used to average
forty. "And they don't really post the schedule anymore," she told
me. "They just give you these."

She waved a thin strip of paper in the air. It was like the stuff that
comes out of a shredder. Tapia laughed, and mimicked a manager
frantically snipping each line out of a printed schedule, for
individual distribution. "This way, it's harder for us to see what's
going on at the store. You see only your own hours."

T

apia was a nurse in Santiago de los Caballeros, the second city
of the Dominican Republic. She had two children, Scarlet and
Steven. Her husband drove a taxi. Her mother, also a nurse, raised
orchids. When Tapia's marriage fell apart, she felt her hopes for her
children dimming. It was 2003; a banking crisis had cratered the
Dominican economy. With her mother's blessing, she left her job at
a big university hospital where she had worked for twelve years and
moved, alone, to New York. She rented a shared room in Inwood, a
working-class neighborhood in upper Manhattan, for fifty dollars a
week, got a job at a McDonald's in Inwood, and then a second job,
at the 181st Street McDonald's. She made minimum wage. Still,
she was able to send most of her paychecks home. "I made more in
a week here than I did in a month as a nurse there," she said. Her
children were provided for. College remained a possibility. Her
Facebook cover photo has a woman's closed eye with long lashes
and a big tear trickling down. "That's for missing my kids," she told
me.

Tapia struggled with depression. Her immigration status was work-
authorized, letting her obtain a Social Security number, and then it
wasn't. She got scammed by a lawyer. She feared she would be
deported. Tapia makes friends easily—if you walk the streets of
Inwood with her, you will see her merrily accosted by neighbors—
but she felt isolated. The sueno americano—the reason she still gives,
half-ruefully, for emigrating—had taken on nightmarish colors. She
felt trapped in a cold, foreign, overwhelming place. She felt that
people were following her. She went for therapy at public clinics.

Tapia, who is deeply religious, found herself looking for a sign from
God. One night, in church, she got it. Her anxiety receded. She
talks about the experience in awed, fierce tones.

She took up with a man—a taxi-driver—and on New Year's Day,
2009, she gave birth to a daughter, Ashley. The relationship with
the taxi-driver did not last. Tapia was thirty-seven. She found an
apartment on Sherman Avenue, in Inwood, across from the 207th
Street Subway Yard. The apartment was small and dark, partitioned
to create more rooms, and Tapia shared it with other renters. She
and Ashley slept in a single bed in a closet-size alcove. They still
sleep there. Tapia had already bought, sight unseen, a small rental
house in Santiago; her mother manages it, and the rent helps
support Scarlet and Steven.

cTake your pick—those people are talking schools. Next to
them is real estate, and over by the stairs is money."

With an infant, Tapia had to quit one of
her jobs. Money got tighter. She and
Ashley received food stamps—a hundred
and eighty-nine dollars a month—and,
crucially, an earned-income tax-credit
refund. But day care was expensive, and
Tapia could never get enough hours at work. Wary of the courts,
she received no child support. Still, her spirits were strong. Now she
lived for Ashley, who was bright and mischievous. Friends and co-
workers deluged the child with love and toys. Somebody gave her a
little plastic cash register. She banged away on it, piping, "Welcome
to McDonald's. How may I help you?"

One of Tapia's closest friends was Dominga de Jesus, her manager.
La Dominga, as everybody calls her, is also Dominican. She lives in
the Bronx, started at the bottom herself at McDonald's, and has a
daughter slightly older than Ashley. The little girls are friends. La
Dominga was kind to Tapia in her despair. In turn, Tapia helped
Dominga when she had housing troubles. Between crises, the two
women loved to party together. Tapia was delighted for Dominga
when she went off to Hamburger University, the McDonald's
training center, in Oak Brook, Illinois, where she earned a degree
in Hamburgerology. The course there "sounded like a good party,"
Tapia told me, grinning.

In 2012, community organizers from New York Communities for
Change, a Brooklyn-based descendant of ACORN, started sniffing
around the McDonald's in Washington Heights. La Dominga—
perhaps forewarned, or simply aware of the long-standing vigilance
at McDonald's against any stirrings of union sentiment—spotted a
suspected organizer on one of her closed-circuit cameras. His name
was Alfredo Miase. He was Dominican. Tapia recalled, "She told
me, 'Don't talk to him.' "

But Tapia had recently had a run-in with another manager, who
kept her working, even though she had a fever, for hours. "Finally, I
couldn't take it," she told me. "I just couldn't stand up anymore, and
I went home. She suspended me for a week for that. She's gone
now, but she was abusive. That experience left me ready to do
something." So Tapia met with Miase, down the block, beyond the
closed-circuit cameras, skulking, scared. And she was not the only
one. "He was a very thoughtful, sympathetic guy," she said.

A small group of workers, nearly all women, started meeting with
Miase and another organizer, Marisol Vasquez, at a nearby
Chinese restaurant called Jimmy's. They discussed their problems
and what might be done. Tapia, unlike some American workers,
already had a solid grasp of what a union is. In the D.R., she had
been a member of the national nurses' union during a major dispute
with the ministry of health. That fight culminated in strikes that
caused a national furor. Doctors had also walked out. "Patients were
dying," she remembered. In the end, the government agreed to
meet with the strikers and address their demands.

The Service Employees International Union, the second-largest
union in the United States, was quietly funding the fast-food
campaign. The first public act was a one-day strike on November
29, 2012. Some two hundred workers, from around forty fast-food
outlets in New York City, gathered at dawn outside a McDonald's
on Madison Avenue in midtown, chanting, "Hey, hey, what do you
say, we demand fair pay." They had walked off jobs at Burger King,
Wendy's, Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Domino's Pizza, and
McDonald's. Their goals, they told reporters, were an industry-wide
raise to fifteen dollars an hour and the right to form a union
without retaliation. It was a day of rallies, walkouts, and a march
through Times Square. The Times called it "the biggest wave of job
actions in the history of America's fast-food industry." Tapia and
several co-workers from Washington Heights were in the thick of
it. La Dominga was shocked to see her friend's face in the crowd in
a photograph on her Facebook news feed.

T

he protests spread to the Midwest, with hundreds of fast-food
workers demonstrating in Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, and
Detroit. By the summer of 2013, workers in sixty cities across the
United States, even in the traditionally anti-union South, were
staging coordinated one-day walkouts and marches with a single
message: fifteen and a union. In December, it was more than a
hundred cities. The movement picked up political support.

President Obama renewed a long-neglected pledge to raise the
federal minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour—it should be nine
dollars, he first suggested, and then lifted his sights, in early 2014,
to $10.10. That's a modest proposal; in 1968, the minimum wage, in
current dollars, was $10.95. Even so, minimum-wage legislation has
no chance of passing in this Congress. But opinion polls show wide
public support for a hike. Some cities and states have been bidding
up their own minimum-wage laws. In June, Seattle decided to raise
its minimum wage to fifteen dollars. Fast-food workers rightly took
credit for having made plausible a minimum wage that, less than
two years ago, sounded outlandish.

The fast-food giants have seemed clumsy, and wrong-footed by the
surge of protest. Their traditional defense of miserable pay—that
most of their employees are young, part time, just working for gas
money, really—has grown threadbare. Most of their employees
today are adults—median age twenty-eight. More than a quarter
have children. Particularly since the onset of the global recession of
2009, McJobs are often the only jobs available. And seventy per
cent of fast-food workers are indeed part time, working fewer than
forty hours a week.

McDonald's has tried to acknowledge the real lives of its workforce
by providing counselling through a Web site (since taken down)
and a help line called McResource. A sample personal budget was
offered online last year. The budget was full of odd assumptions:
that employees worked two full-time jobs, for instance, and that
health insurance could be bought for twenty dollars a month. The
gesture made the corporation look painfully out of touch. The same
thing happened with a health-advice page. Workers were advised to
break food into pieces to make it go farther, sing to relieve stress,
and take at least two vacations a year, since vacations are known to
"cut heart attack risk by 50%." Swimming, one learned, is great
exercise. Fresh fruit and vegetables are good for you, McDonald's
declared. A mother of two in Chicago, who had worked at
McDonald's for ten years, called the help line and found herself
counselled to apply for food stamps and Medicaid. This was, at
least, realistic. A recent study by researchers at the University of
California-Berkeley and the University of Illinois at Urbana-
Champaign found that fifty-two per cent of fast-food workers are
on some form of public assistance.

"Look, I know you think you've got the stuff, but I'm
telling you: walk God."

Sensitive to the beating that their brands
are taking in the escalating confrontation
with employees, the fast-food giants have
been leaving the hardball response to their lobby, the National

Restaurant Association. "The other N.R.A.," as it is known, is an
enormous organization, with nearly half a million member
businesses, but its strategic thinking seems to be dominated by the
major chains. It has fought minimum-wage legislation, at every
level of government, for decades. It has fought paid-sick-leave laws,
the Affordable Care Act, worker-safety regulations, restrictions on
the marketing of junk food to children, menu-labelling
requirements, and a variety of public-health measures, such as limits
on sugar, sodium, and trans fats. Its press releases now deride the
demands of fast-food workers as "nothing more than big labor's
attempt to push their own agenda." But internal N.R.A. documents,
leaked this spring to Salon, show the group's concern about the
"reputational attacks on our industry." They say that N.R.A. agents
are "closely monitoring social media for any plans or signs of
activity," and are even tracking the movements of one activist. Scott
DeFife, the chief N.R.A. spokesman, told me that the crowds at the
protests actually consist of organizers: "There's often not one
restaurant worker to be found among the crowds of organizers."

McDonald's has rarely hesitated to act aggressively on labor issues.
In 1990, it sued a tiny group called London Greenpeace for libel,
because of leaflets the group had distributed attacking the company.
According to Eric Schlosser's book "Fast Food Nation" (2001),
McDonald's had been successfully using Britain's plaintiff-friendly
libel laws to intimidate British mass media for many years. Two
members of London Greenpeace fought back. Although they could
not afford a lawyer, the court proceedings went on for more than a
decade, revealing, among other things, the extensive use by
McDonald's of spies—some meetings of London Greenpeace
apparently had as many spies in attendance as real members. The
"McLibel trial" was, from start to finish, a public-relations fiasco.
For the second-largest private employer in the world (after
Walmart), with more than thirty-five thousand restaurants in a
hundred and nineteen countries, McDonald's can be, in the court of
public opinion, remarkably inept.

In recent months, Fast Food Forward and its many partners—Fight
for 15 (Chicago), Stand Up KC (Kansas City), STL Can't Survive
on $7.35 (St. Louis)—have been rhetorically thrashing their
corporate opponents. The Berkeley-University of Illinois study,
commissioned by Fast Food Forward, found that American fast-
food workers receive almost seven billion dollars a year in public
assistance. That's a direct taxpayer subsidy, the activists argue, for
the fast-food industry. Taxpayers are also, by that logic, grossly
overpaying the industry's top management. According to the
progressive think tank Demos, fast-food executives' compensation
packages quadrupled, in constant dollars, between 2000 and 2013.
They now take home, on average, nearly twenty-four million
dollars a year. Their front-line workers' wages have barely risen in
that time, and remain among the worst in U.S. industry. The
differential between C.E.O. and worker pay in fast food is higher
than in any other domestic economic sector—twelve hundred to
one. In construction, by comparison, the differential is ninety-three
to one.

The fast-food chains insist that if they were to pay their employees
more they would have to raise menu prices. Their wages are
"competitive." But in Denmark McDonald's workers over the age
of eighteen earn more than twenty dollars an hour—they are also
unionized—and the price of a Big Mac is only thirty-five cents
more than it is in the United States. There are regional American
fast-food chains that take the high road with their employees. The
starting wage at In-N-Out Burger, which is based in Southern
California, and has two hundred and ninety-five restaurants in
California and the Southwest, is eleven dollars. Full-time workers
receive a complete benefits package, including life insurance—and
the burgers are cheap and good.

McDonald's, throughout its history, has denied responsibility for
the labor practices of its franchisees, who own and operate nearly
ninety per cent of its more than fourteen thousand outlets in the
United States. In March, seven class-action lawsuits were filed
against the company in three states—California, Michigan, and
New York—alleging wage theft and other violations of labor law.
In late July, the general counsel of the National Labor Relations
Board ruled, in connection with another set of complaints, that
McDonald's is a "joint employer" with its franchisees. The
corporation exercises, through its standard contract, the most
elaborate possible control over virtually every aspect of its
franchisees' operations, and the pay and the treatment of workers
are very largely determined by that control. Indeed, the lawsuits
allege that the crew-scheduling software that McDonald's
franchisees are required to use leads directly to the cost-cutting
practices that amount to wage theft.

McDonald's will fight the ruling and its implementation, both on
its own behalf and on behalf of other major franchisors. The
implications of the ruling, if it is upheld, are profound. Not only will
the responsibility of corporations for millions of workers be
increased sharply but the prospects for fast-food unionization will
brighten. Shop-by-shop organizing in what the economist David
Weil calls "the fissured workplace" is a Sisyphean chore. Having the
legally chosen representatives of the industry's workforce sit down
with the leaders of McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's, all of
whom are capable of a cost-benefit analysis of their business model,
makes more sense.

I

asked Arisleyda Tapia who she thought could raise her pay.

"Bruce," she said immediately. "He's rich."

She meant Bruce Colley, the owner of the McDonald's where she
works. Colley owns twenty-nine McDonald's franchises, including
nineteen in Manhattan. He grew up in Westchester County, and
graduated from the Trinity Pawling School and Cornell. When he
joined the family business, in 1980, his father, Dean, owned more
than a hundred McDonald's franchises in the Northeast. Dean was
master of foxhounds of the Golden's Bridge (New York) Hounds.
Bruce is a polo player. His net worth is not a matter of public
record. Still, you can see where Tapia got her impression.

Colley found himself in the news when, in 2003, he was reported to
be having an affair with Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, triggering her
divorce from Andrew Cuomo. According to the Post, Kerry was
"crushed" when Bruce decided not to leave his then wife for her.
Otherwise, Colley does a good job of staying out of the papers. (He
declined to comment for this article.) In July, 2013, during a heat
wave, Sheliz Mendez, one of Colley's employees at the McDonald's
in Washington Heights, fainted in the kitchen and had to be
hospitalized. Some of her co-workers walked off the job, protesting
the lack of air-conditioning, and began chanting on the sidewalk
outside. Reporters showed up. So did Colley. CBS New York
described him as a "McDonald's spokesman." He apologized for the
inconvenience to customers and employees and said that two of the
store's three air-conditioning units were already repaired. His
workers said that they had been complaining about the heat for
months and that the units were turned on only because camera
crews had appeared. Jamne Izquierdo, who has worked at the
Washington Heights outlet for nine years, said she had never seen
the air-conditioning on before.

As my stunt double, you 11 be doing all of my press
conferences, court appearances, and family reunions."

A year later, on another hot July day, I
stopped in the store and found it stifling.

Managers were setting up big portable
fans near the counter. Colley did not want
another labor incident. I was waiting for
Tapia to finish her shift. There was a new
freestanding sign, touting the Bacon Clubhouse with a cryptic
boast: "Artisan is how this club rolls." On the workers' uniform caps,
multicolored stitching declared "FAMOUS CRISPY FUN LOVEABLE."
Was William Burroughs writing ad copy from the next world?
Having clocked out, Tapia emerged, looking drained, and eating
Fruit and Maple Oatmeal from a paper cup.

We walked south on Broadway. A rainstorm had broken the heat.
We passed through the spooky, puddled maw of the George
Washington Bridge Bus Station, its concrete arms hulking
overhead like a Soviet brutalist ruin. Tapia had sent Ashley, her
five-year-old, to visit her grandmother in the Dominican Republic.
She couldn't afford to go. It had been eleven years. She Skyped
with her kids and her mother several times a day, but it was strange,
this free time that she suddenly had. There was a national
conference of the fast-food workers' movement coming up, in
Chicago. The union was sending a couple of buses from New York.
Maybe she could go. We found a Dominican restaurant down
Broadway.

Did she really believe that Bruce Colley could unilaterally raise the
pay of all his employees to fifteen dollars an hour?

Tapia looked down. "He used to give us just one shirt," she said,
finally. "We tried to give a petition to La Dominga about people
getting their hours reduced, but she wouldn't accept it. Then Bruce
came and had a meeting with us. He came because we have a
strong union committee. He didn't go to any of his other stores. He
listened to us. Then they gave us each a box with four uniforms.
That was a real strike victory." She sighed. "But we know who our
real opponent is. It's the corporation. McDonald's."

The space between franchisees and a parent company is nowhere
more opaque than at McDonald's, where the price of admission is
exceptionally high: applicants must show at least seven hundred
and fifty thousand dollars of unborrowed money even to be
considered for a franchise, and the investment costs go up from
there. Very few franchisees fail to observe the code of omerta that
governs their relationship with the corporation. One disgruntled
franchisee in California recently broke the silence, telling the
Washington Post that McDonald's executives had advised her to
"pay your employees less" if she wanted to take home more herself.
Two former McDonald's managers recently went public with

confessions of systematic wage theft, claiming that pressure from
both franchisees and the corporation forced them to alter time
sheets and compel employees to work off the clock.

Having a union will put a stop to this type of injustice, Tapia
believes. And she was not wrong, I thought, about the importance
of tangible victories, however small. Building confidence was
crucial, even in the fissured workplace—showing doubters that
standing up for yourself need not always bring down the wrath of
the bosses on your head and could actually achieve benefits. "Some
people are too scared to say anything," she said. "They're scared to
talk to you, for instance—the media." I could confirm that. "It's not
that everybody working there supports the union. But they all want
us to keep fighting. They're afraid to fight themselves, but they
know they'll benefit when we win."


Date: 2015-01-11; view: 545


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