united States

The Fast Food Struggle and the Power of the Unorganized

By Bonnie Weinstein

My very first job, in 1963, (I was seventeen-years-old at the time and, technically, underage—I lied) was as a part-time waitress at Schrafft’s on 34th Street in New York, one of the very first “fast-food” chain restaurants. I was hired as a waitress. We had to wear a kind of maids uniform—a solid black cotton, long-sleeved dress that buttoned down the front, with separate, white-starched cap (like a maids crown-type cap), a hairnet, cuffs, collar, apron, apron ribbon all of which had to be safety-pinned together, then tied into a neat bow in the back. We also had to wear black, three-inch, lace-up high heels, and black stockings with seams in the back—and we were inspected from top to bottom and front to back, including a clean-fingernail check, each time we showed up for our shift.

Since the target customers were women—mostly secretaries and stenographers “who must watch their pocketbooks,”1 our tips weren’t much. In fact, I was making 72-cents-per-hour when I first started, as there was no minimum wage for restaurant and laundry workers at the time. And the biggest tip I ever got was twenty-five cents. We had just gotten a raise of ½ cent-per-hour in November of that year. But I didn’t last much longer at that job. I was working my lunchtime shift when Kennedy was assassinated. I stupidly made a comment to a fellow worker that, “Well, he wasn’t a saint.” And, being that most of my co-workers and my supervisor were Irish Catholics and staunch Kennedy supporters, I was fired the next day. My supervisor told me I didn’t “fit in.” Anyway, that experience has left me with the deepest sympathy for all restaurant workers and especially fast-food restaurant workers who must bust their butts with a smile for starvation wages.

Inspiring new developments

Organizing workers at a restaurant has always been difficult since many are part-time workers and the jobs are considered “unskilled” for which there are plenty of applicants. (The truth is, restaurant work is grueling work and you have to be highly skilled just to keep your job.) Although there are still a few unionized restaurants, the emergence of non-union, chain and fast-food restaurants has swamped the union establishments.

Two recent struggles in fast-food restaurants in New York are promising to change this reality for millions of unorganized workers.

Hot and Crusty

One struggle for union representation began in late January 2012 at the Hot and Crusty restaurant/deli/bakery chain in New York City. That’s when Mahoma Lopez, an undocumented Hot and Crusty worker, organized to deliver a list of demands to his manager. After a courageous and inspiring struggle over several months, which you can read about in the article titled, “Wildcat Winter,”2 by Laura Gottesdiener printed in this issue, the company signed a collective-bargaining agreement with the workers.

Protests at Wendy’s, McDonalds and other fast-food chains in New York City

Shortly after this victory, on November 29th, workers from fast-food chain restaurants such as Wendy’s and McDonalds launched a new unionization campaign aimed at all New York City’s fast food workers. They are demanding $15.00-per-hour—more than twice the $7.25-per-hour minimum wage they earn now. You can read more about this ongoing struggle in the article titled, “Looking for the Revolution Outside a Wendy’s in Brooklyn,”3 by Hamilton Nolan, also printed in this issue.

There’s power in unity

What’s so important about this struggle is that it is organizing workers to act at the same time, to protest together, at different fast-food restaurants, owned by different employers! It’s the only way left for workers to advance their struggle against austerity and for their right to a happy and comfortable life.

It is significant because, as Robert Reich points out in his article titled, “Organizing McDonalds and Walmart, and Why Austerity Economics Hurts Low Wage Workers,”4 these workers can’t be outsourced to a foreign land. That gives them a little leverage!

Simply put, the unified struggle of unorganized workers—the overwhelming majority of workers throughout the world—is a powerhouse of revolutionary potential. Organized together in defense of one another their power can transform society for the good of all. We are now finally seeing a beginning of that potential.

1 Fast Food Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age

2 Waging Nonviolence, December 1, 2012

3, November 29, 2012

4 Robert Reich, November 30, 2012