Behind this chipper façade, however, the 51st Street McDonald’s is neither friendly nor wholesome, and dreams rarely come true, at least for the phalanx of underpaid workers—by and large Latino and African-American—who struggle to break the golden $7.25 an hour wage ceiling. While McDonald’s profits jumped 135 percent between 2007 and 2011, enough to earn its last CEO $8.75 million a year and its new CEO $13.8 million a year, these workers are forced to survive without benefits, sick leave or a living wage.
“You can’t be expected to survive on that little bit,” said Alterique Hall, 24, who has been working as a supervisor at McDonald’s for roughly three years. Hall earns $8.00 an hour, but his hours have been sliced over the years, and he frequently takes home as little as $60 to $100 a week. And so he often walks several hours to work from his home in Harlem because he can’t afford subway fare. At times, he’s relied on food stamps. As for his phone, it often gets cut off, because, he said, “do you fall behind on the rent or do you pay the phone bill?”
If this were a typical narrative of low-wage labor—one of the many that unspools daily across New York’s five boroughs—this is where Hall’s story would begin and end: in the blunt grammar of need and struggle. But on November 29, 2012, after months of quiet organizing, Hall and his co-workers decided to rewrite this predictable tale. As part of Fast Food Forward, a new organizing initiative, they joined some 200 workers from across the fast-food spectrum—Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Domino’s—in a one-day mass strike. Their demands: $15 an hour and the right to join a union.
“We’re fighting because we refuse to tolerate the disrespect of being underpaid,” said Hall. “I’m worth more than a minimum wage; I’m worth a living wage.”
In the annals of low-wage labor, the story of Fast Food Forward is a startling tale, not the least because the November strike was widely believed to be the largest mobilization of fast-food workers in United States history—until that record was broken in April when some 400 workers struck again. But the fast food campaign is also an important part of an emerging New York tale.
Despite the profusion of low-wage jobs, grassroots labor campaigns have been few and far-between in these parts. Here, as elsewhere, the labor movement has been under attack—from big business, small business and, not the least, the mayor, whose distaste for unions is so strong that he frequently refers to them simply as “special interests.” And here, as elsewhere, unions have struggled to adapt to the changing shape, and face, of the economy. Many simply haven’t bothered.
And yet, throughout the last few years, the ground has been shifting. Taxi workers and domestic workers were among the first to begin agitating, blending inventive union drives with legislative campaigns. And now, others have joined the fray. At carwashes and groceries, airports and fast-food joints—at some of the most feudal work sites in the city—workers have begun banding together, demanding safeguards against the freefall of the low-wage service economy.
To be sure, the proportion of workers involved in these campaigns is modest. But the efforts come at a dire moment. As the steady thrum of organized manufacturing has given way to the feeble throb of service work, more and more New Yorkers have been tossed into the grind of low-pay, low-security employment. In 2011, some 600,000 New Yorkers earned less than $10 an hour, a wage that would hardly pays the bills in a less bank-breaking city. Within this underpaid demographic, roughly 42 percent work in retail and food services, while a mix of home health aides, waiters, stock clerks, domestic workers, groundskeepers and others fills in the rest. And the Great Recession merely intensified this trend. Between July 2008 and January 2013, as the city hemorrhaged decent-paying jobs—41,000 middle-wage jobs and 19,000 high-paying ones—the number of low-wage jobs soared by 130,000.
This is the unforgiving environment in which the various new organizing efforts have emerged, a bit like water crystals on Mars: not exactly guarantees of future multi-cellular life, but certainly a sign of its possibility. Because the organizing terrain is so tough, many of these efforts have tended to be fairly non-traditional, with community groups joining together with unions to push, pressure and prod by as many means as possible: through union drives, advocacy efforts, policy pushes and law suits. In some instances, sprawling coalitions have joined forces to push significant legislative changes, like the paid sick-leave act, which will guarantee sick leave to more than a million New Yorkers—once, that is, the City Council overrides a likely mayoral veto.
“I don’t think we know yet if any one of these projects, every one of these models, will bear fruit in terms of unionization,” said Fine. But, she added, “I think that the future of labor organizing…is here, in that it’s going to be a combination of creative new models pushing the limits of what’s allowed by existing labor law and supplementing that with smart public policy at the local and state levels.”