“We Are Slowly Dying”: Fast-Food Workers Launch Strike for Living Wage and Right to Unionize

Democracy Now*

fast-food-strikeHAVANA TIMES – A national strike for a living wage and the right to unionize in the fast-food and retail sectors has spread across seven cities. Hundreds of workers walked off the job Thursday in Milwaukee, and before that in Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Detroit, Flint and New York City.

“What else do we have to lose? We are already slowly dying in our day-to-day lives,” says our guest Terrance Wise, who works at both Burger King and Pizza Hut and is a member of the Stand Up Kansas City campaign. “So why not speak up, and stand up, and let the nation know that we are suffering? This is really a cry for help. This great nation should not turn its back on working-class people that need help.”

We also speak with Josh Eidelson, who covers labor issues for The Nation and is also a contributing writer for Salon.com. His latest article is “Fast Food Strikes Intensify in Seven Cities.”

AMY GOODMAN: This week, a national strike for a living wage and the right to unionize in the fast-food and retail sectors has spread across seven cities. Hundreds of workers have walked off the job yesterday in Milwaukee, before that in Chicago; in St. Louis; in Kansas City; Detroit; Flint, Michigan; as well as here in New York City.

For more, we’re joined by one of the workers, Terrance Wise, who works at both Burger King and Pizza Hut and is a member of Stand Up Kansas City. He’s joining us from KCPT, Kansas City Public Television. And here in New York, we’re joined by Josh Eidelson, who covers labor issues for The Nation and also a contributing writer at Salon.com. His latest piece for Salon is “Fast Food Strikes Intensify in Seven Cities.”

Josh, talk about this expanding, massive protest that’s taking place.

JOSH EIDELSON: So, this is by far the largest strike by fast-food workers in the history of the United States. It comes less than a year after the first big strike by fast-food workers anywhere in the United States. And it demonstrates a real escalation in this campaign. It’s a dramatic showdown between an embattled labor movement and an industry that increasingly not only is prevalent in the United States economy, but really represents where jobs are going in the United States economy. Organizers estimate that somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 workers, at least, have gone on strike this week. This is a mammoth industry, and so it’s not one that’s going to concede quickly. And so, we’re going to see this continue to escalate.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about who is organizing these protests.

JOSH EIDELSON: So the most significant player behind all of this is the Service Employees International Union. It has lots of fingerprints on this effort. It’s been working in coalition in each of these cities with local groups, progressive organizations, some of the descendents of ACORN, what I’ve called “alt-labor” groups, other kinds of non-union groups that mobilize workers, clergy. I talked to an organizer in Chicago who said, “We went out to talk to people about fare hikes and the cost of public transit, and we kept hearing back from people, ‘Well, I could afford that if I got paid more in my job.'” And so, you’ve seen this coalition effort that is going to become more common. But the key player in the funding and the strategy here is SEIU.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to some of the workers who have been out in the streets here in New York protesting outside of, you know, fast-food joints, from McDonald’s to Burger King to Wendy’s.

KAREEM STARKS: I have two kids, six and 12. Both of my boys graduated kindergarten and fifth grade at the same time this year. My general manager told me that he was going to give me some extra opportunities to make some money—extra days. He calls me in on my day off, and three days after that, every day, a different manager sends me home. At the end of the week, I only get a paycheck with 28 hours. I didn’t have enough to do anything for my son, more or less just buy balloons or take him out to a pizza shop. I couldn’t really celebrate his graduation, because I didn’t have any money.

NAQUASIA LEGRAND: They’re not going to give us what we want, and we’re going to stay in poverty. We’re going to keep on suffering. I know you’re tired of suffering. I don’t want to see the next generation suffering and suffering. I don’t want my kids suffering. I want to make sure they have a better future than I did. So, if I want that to happen, I need you guys to stand with me just as long as I’m standing with you guys to fight for this 15 and union, a better living wage in New York City, because it’s not right. So we’ve got to do something about it.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Naquasia LeGrand and Kareem Starks, two workers here in New York. Josh, can you talk about how the living wage campaign fits in with the minimum wage campaign? You know, President Obama this week speaking for support of the minimum wage, increasing the minimum wage, $7.25, but they’re not talking about this. They’re talking about doubling that.

JOSH EIDELSON: Yeah. People ask whether a $15 minimum wage or a $15 wage floor for the fast-food industry is realistic. From one angle, what the workers are demanding is a more realistic alternative to what Obama has put forward, because the president repeatedly has said that if you work full-time, you shouldn’t be in poverty. Having a $9 minimum wage would be an improvement, but it wouldn’t get us there: $9 still has people in poverty.

We have seen that having these workers out on strike has created momentum that politicians have jumped onto. The Congressional Progressive Caucus has been rallying and picketing with these workers. It’s shifted the national debate, in much the way that, organizers note, didn’t happen when labor was pushing for labor law reform a few years ago. There wasn’t the massive critical mass of workers in motion that would have created more momentum behind that effort. So, the workers are pushing for change in the workplace, but, absolutely, having these workers out, forcing attention to their struggle by being on strike, has played some role in creating more political attention to poverty in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: How does this blend with the Wal-Mart campaign? You know the OUR Walmart campaign, which you have been covering extensively, of course, which led a strike in June. We spoke with Wal-Mart worker from Louisiana who participated. This is Brandon Garrett.

BRANDON GARRETT: We’re both from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. We worked in a Baker store, Store 1102. We went on an unfair labor practice strike in early June. And when we came back from our strike, we both were fired for going on strike. But they just told us we was on—we missed a certain amount of days, which were the days that we went on strike, that that’s the reason for them firing us. But we all know, doing the unfair labor practice strike, it’s against the law for them to actually fire us. So, we kind of—we told them about it at the time of the situation, but they said they do not recognize us as strikers, so that’s why they was terminating us.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Brandon Garrett, who worked at Wal-Mart. Josh?

JOSH EIDELSON: So, OUR Walmart, as I’ve reported for The Nation, is a union-backed non-union group demanding changes in wages and working conditions at Wal-Mart. And what he’s describing is the greatest wave of alleged retaliation against workers by Wal-Mart for organizing that we’ve seen at least since 2005. There are now 60 workers who went on strike last month who have been—who have been disciplined in some way, allegedly retaliation. And it represents a major threat to that campaign. One of the things we’ve seen in the fast-food campaign and at Wal-Mart is workers attempting to defend workers who allegedly were retaliated against for collective action with more collective action. So, on Friday night, before the big strike wave started this week, we saw workers at Domino’s walk off, reportedly 90 percent of the workers on that shift, in defense of a worker who had been fired. That challenge of retaliation is the biggest challenge facing these campaigns, which are taking on industries that increasingly not only represent inequality in the United States, but represent the face of work in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Josh Eidelson, talk about the McDonald’s sample budget.

JOSH EIDELSON: So, this is a document that was put out by McDonald’s and by—together with Visa, which was a guide to workers to how to do budgeting. And it brought a lot of mockery on McDonald’s, understandably, because what it shows, unintentionally, is that you cannot survive in a dignified way, in a decent way, on the budget of a full-time job at McDonald’s. So, in this budget, someone had two different fast-food jobs and still had no money in the budget for heat, no money in the budget for clothing, $20 for health insurance. The truth is, there is no budget that McDonald’s could have created that would have worked, because the average worker in the fast-food industry makes around $9 an hour.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by Terrance Wise in Kansas City. I know there’s a big storm happening in Kansas City right now, rough weather. He works both at Burger King and Pizza Hut, this week one of the workers who went on strike as part of this nationwide push by fast-food workers to demand an increase in wages to $15 an hour, with Stand Up Kansas City. Why did you go out this week?

TERRANCE WISE: Well, I felt—over the past year or so, I’ve noticed my jobs have been on the decline. I recently lost my home last year. And we’ve been pretty much taking whatever our jobs have been handing us. It’s like a dictatorship when we go to work every day. So I feel now is the time for not only me, but all workers all across the nation, to stand up and speak out and come out of the shadows and let the public be aware of how we live our day-to-day lives, which is very poorly. And there needs to be change.

AMY GOODMAN: Terrance, talk about how you live your daily life. You work both at both Burger King and Pizza Hut. Talk about your typical week, and talk about supporting our family.

TERRANCE WISE: Well, I have three lovely daughters and an equally lovable fiancée. And I’m working two jobs at about 50, 60 hours a week, so I’m leaving in the morning—I left home this morning, and my daughters were still sleeping. When I get off tonight, they will probably be asleep again. So, it’s consecutive days where I don’t get to see my daughters. And that’s damaging to raising my family. That’s one element that’s really the hardest. And it’s just a everyday hustle. I use public transportation every day, so I have to leave early to get to work. So I’m gone 15, 17 hours a day. It’s just really hard, a struggle every day. And that—

AMY GOODMAN: How much do you make, Josh—Terrance?

TERRANCE WISE: I make $7.47 an hour at Pizza Hut and $9.30 an hour at Burger King, where I’ve been working for eight years.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, a lot of times the media characterizes fast-food workers as high school kids earning an extra buck. Tell us the reality of you and your co-workers.

TERRANCE WISE: Well, we all know that I—where I work, in both of my shops, I look around: There aren’t high schoolers. There are people with families, trying to raise families. And so the whole notion that this is for high schoolers or someone trying to buy their first car or college students trying to get a little extra spending money, that’s all nonsense. We’re raising families. We’re doing hard work. And we deserve to get a living wage for what we do.

AMY GOODMAN: What was the response of your employers to you stepping out, to you striking, at both companies?

TERRANCE WISE: Well, there’s really—I focus on my co-workers. And they were inspired and empowered, and they’re proud of all the workers across the nation for stepping up and speaking out. And what else do we have to lose, Amy? I mean, we’re already dying slowly in our day-to-day lives, so why not speak up and stand up and let the nation know that we’re suffering? And this is really a cry for help. And this great nation shouldn’t turn their back on working-class people who need help.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Josh Eidelson, what would it cost for these companies to just double the wage, like to $15 at minimum, for all of the workers? You have Wendy’s [inaudible] makes something like $4 million every couple of months, the CEO.

JOSH EIDELSON: So, the way that the companies respond is to talk about the business model for the individual franchisees and their profits. But that really obscures the situation. This is what I’ve called the “who’s the boss” problem. It’s the corporations that set the business model, not these individual franchisees that they hire to be the legal employer of the workers. When it comes to the corporations, McDonald’s has doubled its profits in a four-year period, $5.5 billion in 2011. So there is tremendous profit. There is tremendous wealth being created by these workers. But those corporations are not going to share it with those workers unless they’re forced to, and that’s why these workers are using a combination of media, political, legal pressure and strikes to try to change it.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there, but we certainly will continue to cover this story. Josh Eidelson, thank you so much, as well to our guest in Kansas City, to Terrance Wise.

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