A Fair Wage for Fast Food?


By Tanya Silverman

Fast food workers on strike in New York City. Photos by Tanya silverman.

Yesterday afternoon, fast food employees in dozens of American cities did not attend their shifts.

In New York City, a strike of such workers summoned in Union Square. Lots of crowds of supporters joined these fast food employees, along with several well-known New York City and state politicians who appeared on stage to address them.

Numerical figures are a central focus in this cause: The minimum wage in New York is $7.25 an hour, and the fast food workers are now demanding $15.

Bill de Blasio, the NYC Democratic candidate and public advocate, walked on stage with his wife, embraced her, and announced that they occasionally do dine at fast food establishments. He then confessed that he only had found out that day that the fast food industry grosses $200 billion annually.

According to Fast Food Forward, these billions allow for CEOs of companies like McDonald’s to make millions, all while the average NYC fast food worker earns an average salary of $11,000.

Another analysis of numerical data that Fast Food Forward presents is that 60 percent of the low-wage force is actually people aged 25-64 who have families to support – contrary to the belief that most of these jobs belong to teenagers, who they say make up only 12 percent.

Christine Quinn, another Democratic mayoral candidate and city council speaker asked who in the crowd had walked into the McDonald’s on Fifth Avenue at 6:00 AM that morning with her to stand up for “$15 and a union?” Though she pledged her support for these workers, it was not well received by the audience.

John Liu, her opponent and current NYC comptroller, announced that “the wage is too damn low.” The slogan is a play on the famous The Rent is Too Damn High Party that was also displayed on many of the protest signs. Liu also spoke about how companies keeping a low minimum wage plays into the “wealth gap in New York City that is far worse than anywhere in the country.”

Liz Krueger, the New York State senator who represents the East Side of Manhattan, incredulously skewered a personal budget guide put out by McDonald’s. She admitted to the crowd that even though fast food workers cannot afford to live in her district, they do work in it, and assured them, “The East Side of Manhattan is with you.”

No matter how much support they can give and what numbers that officials can quote, it goes without saying that none of these candidates work at a fast-food restaurant or earn these miniscule wages.

Then what do the fast food employees say?

“I’m standing up for what’s mine,” says Sharon, who took the day off from Wendy’s in Harlem to attend the protest, even though he has to work for the rest of the week.

Sharon looks back on his experience when he worked for another Wendy’s in downtown Brooklyn for over 6 years, where he would stay overtime, and fill in for employees when they would not show up. Obviously a hard worker, he agrees with the call for wage increase to merit his diligence: “I cannot deal with $7.25. $15 an hour would be much better for me.”

Other employees are calling for even more.

“What brings me here is that 20 years ago, they owed us $20 an hour, not 15,” says Dawn, a Papa John’s employee. “They never gave us that because of greed.”

Dawn claims that he let Papa John’s know he was “off for the day,” and told them to “find someone else” to cover him. He says that he began his job at $5.50 an hour, and that customer tips are not guaranteed. In such conditions, it is impossible to live a decent life or take care of a family.

“I work at Wendy’s and I’ve been there for six years and 11 months, but only get paid $8.15,” says Rohanna. “We only get a 10 cent wage every six months.“

Rohanna tells BTR that she walked out of her store today with other Wendy’s staff members, which angered the management.

“But we’re out here on strike because we’re fighting for better wages. We can all come together as one and unite,” she says.

Her coworker, Justin, tells BTR that this event was his “first time striking,” and that “it’s a great experience.”

Louisa, who walked out of her shift at McDonald’s to attend the strike, says that she is pleased to see that more people showed up to protest this month, compared to the previous session she attended in July.

“I can feel the support from my coworkers, and I think that’s what’s going to win,” she says.

With employees striking, supporters agreeing, politicians promising and media reporting, it seems like the message is out there, but that an actual change would need to occur for $15/hour wage, a fast food union or any possible improvements in these workers’ jobs.

Jonathan Westin, from Fast Food Forward and New York Communities for Change, tells BTR correspondent Lauren Hawker what he poses for the future:

“I think what we need to figure out as a society and in our economy is how do we actually pay people living wages – and [how to] change the economy so that folks at the bottom can actually break into the middle class.”