• Fast Food Workers Prepare for Nationwide Strike

    “Fight for $15, plans on Tuesday to stage protests at restaurants in 270 cities, the most since it began organizing the demonstrations three years ago”[1]
    Note: To protect the identity of workers, I will not be using their names direct quotes from them. Since owners own multiple fast food locations, it was determined that it would not endanger workers to identify particular owners.
     
    In the lead-up to the largest action in the history of fast-food organizing, I spent some time with Minneapolis based CTUL Fast Food organizers and the worker-leaders who are tasked with engaging workers in day-to-day conversations. CTUL (Centro De Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha, in english, Center for Workers United in Struggle) has been leading fast food organizing in the Twin Cities for the last year. The central question I asked is, “Why are workers going on strike?”
     
     
    I accompanied organizers and workers on a series of actions designed to apply pressure to mangers and owners and also to galvanize the resolve of workers preparing to join the November 10th nationwide strike. We went to clusters of stores owned by the same person. At each store, organizers spread quickly, fanning out to talk to as many workers as they could. Those that are already committed to strike were further encouraged, while the rest of the shift had the opportunity to talk to organizers and learn about the Tuesday action away from the gaze of managers. In conversations with workers, the typical issues emerge: low wages, irregular schedules, no paid sick leave, and arbitrary behavior by managers. However, other more alarming stories came to my attention, including owners who exploit immigrant workers and one company with reports of payroll checks bouncing.
     
    Shahab Hyder, a prominent regional owner who owns a minimum [2] of 12 McDonald’s stores, is infamous throughout the organizing community for unambiguously exploiting immigrant workers.
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    Workers, mostly immigrant, agree to sign a contract that they believe will guarantee them 60 hours of work a week for a reported set salary of between 1,200 and 1,500 dollars every two weeks. Mr. Hyder expects workers to be available all day to pick up shifts. Employees reported instances of working a 7:00 am-4:00 pm shift and then being required to work the successive shift, ending their day in the late evening. Without much notice, it is common for shifts to last as long as 16 hours. 
    P3 Foods, owned by Mike Peterson and Curt Pedro, boast that it owns 9 Burger King restaurants. Workers have reported that in at least two Burger Kings, payroll checks are bouncing. Employees are forced to use check-cashing locations instead of banks, exposing them to predatory practices such as high interest rates and excessive fees. In order to reissue a bounced check, workers have to wait until the following pay period, another two weeks when money is already tight. They also reported sometimes getting paid every three weeks instead of two. Paychecks are commonly known to be rife with errors, such as working for 50 hours but only getting paid for 40.
    In Minneapolis, fast-food work has been making the news recently as a graphic video has surfaced displaying a customer physically assaulting a manager. The video depicts a drunk customer pulling a managers neck tie and beating him.          
     
    The drunken patron became belligerent when the cashier struggled to make change for the $100 bill that he used to pay $3 charge. What media sources overlook—and what workers at that store have indicated—is that the manager was not allowed to seek medical attention because of cumbersome McDonald’s policies. He was forced to finish his shift without so much as being able to ice his wounds.
     
    Those who challenge the right of low-wage workers to have a respectable job with better wages and benefits often describe fast-food employees as teenagers or people in transition. For the vast majority of these workers, the reality is quite different.
     
    In an economy where middle-class jobs are disappearing and the rich are getting richer, many seek fast-food employment to survive. These workers are disproportionately adult people of color who have limited employment options. Many support families. For them, this is not a summer job; rather, it is the only career option available. Many strive for additional work, and those that are able to find a second job are frustrated that managers are uncooperative in scheduling their shifts to allow them to meet their obligations. It is also rare to actually be scheduled for 40 hours, and managers sometimes won’t let them take breaks when they are scheduled for a full eight-hour shift. As with other complaints, managers threaten to fire them if they don’t oblige.
     
    Due to these low and irregular wages, many workers are homeless. One worker that passed away suddenly earlier this year, Teresa, had been homeless for over a year. She had been consistently scheduled for three shifts but had only been allowed to do 9 hours of work each week. No buses ran between where she lived and where she worked, so she was sometimes forced to hire a taxi, essentially using up all the money that she had just earned. The inconsistent scheduling and low pay also result in the inability to save enough money for a security deposit and first and last month’s rent to secure a stable dwelling. Workers are therefore forced to scramble to find a place to sleep, cycling between the generosity of friends and family and getting a hotel room for the evening.
     
    As stated earlier, the lack of sick leave has emerged as a prominent issue. The consequence of not having sick leave means that when workers go to work but are physically ill, they are often not allowed to leave—if they try, they are threatened with termination. One Taco Bell General Manager went so far touch the forehead of a worker that had just vomited, proclaiming that since the manager couldn’t feel a fever, the worker was in fact not sick. This is concerning to say the least; it appears that sick workers are involved in handling food.        
      
     
     
    The common thread among workers participating in the strike is that they feel they have no power at their workplace and thus no control over the lives. Striking workers feel that a workplace should be a partnership where they can be on equal footing with managers and owners. Hearing their stories simultaneously evokes feelings of outrage and inspiration. To hear why they are striking means being a witness to some of the most degrading parts of the current economy: the extraction of labor through low wages and humiliating working conditions to enlarge the profits of distant shareholders and individual owners. To witness and feel their determination against significant odds is indeed inspiring. In talking to the workers, I can never stop looking at their eyes, a look that belies years of pain and indignity coupled with a twinkle of mischief and resolve. It’s clear that Tuesday will send a message, and most importantly, it will be a celebration of their resolve and determination.
     
    -Filiberto Nolasco Gomez
     
    [1] http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2015/11/05/fast-food-strike/75155278/
    [2] I used publicly available records. It can sometimes be unclear since owners use separate legal entities to contain the individual store.
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