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Fast Food Workers Fight for a Raise, a Union, and Dignity at First National Convention

Fast Food Workers Fight for a Raise, a Union, and Dignity at First National Convention

By Alice Speri

July 30, 2014 | 10:55 am

“More than 1,300 workers from all over the US traveled to the outskirts of Chicago over the weekend for what organizers said was the first nationwide fast food workers convention. This gathering in Elmhurst, Illinois was held on the heels of a snowballing movement that has quickly grown from a spontaneous New York City walkout in November 2012 to one of the most significant American labor organizing efforts in recent years.

They came from California and Connecticut, from Kansas City, Little Rock, and more than 50 cities across the country. Most arrived after long, grueling road journeys, some on yellow school buses, and many brought their children along.

Most of the workers were young, but others were in their 40s and 50s, “career” fast food workers, who have spent decades in the industry. They were overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, but not only. Some were part-time students, a few had college degrees, and many held two or three different fast food jobs at the same time.

All photos by Alice Speri.

They came carrying banners from regional chapters and wearing shirts saying “Can’t survive on $7.25” and “We are worth more.” And they brought two demands: pay of $15 an hour and the right to form a union.

“Look around,” Mya Hill, an organizer from Detroit, told a roaring room packed with fired-up workers on Friday night, as the two-day event kicked off. “This is what a union looks like.”

First Victories
With most of them making the $7.25 federal minimum wage or just a few dimes more, fast food employees have become one of the most outspoken groups of low-wage workers in the country. While some politicians — including President Obama — have begun debating raising the minimum wage across the board to $10.10, the fast food workers’ bolder demand for $15 has quickly become the rallying cry for a movement that is promising to spread across industries.

“It’s time to stop paying us poverty wages, people are sick of it, everyone in this room is sick of it. We can’t live like this, it’s time for a change,” Shantel Walker, 32, a Brooklyn fast food worker for more than 15 years, told VICE News. “We work for multibillion dollar people. A little dollar, two, three, is nothing to them. They throw away money every day. When someone doesn’t eat their food, they throw it away. That’s basically our money in the garbage can.”

Shantel Walker, a fast food worker from Brooklyn said: ‘It’s time to stop paying us poverty wages, people are sick of it, everyone in this room is sick of it.’

Critics have slammed the $15 an hour demand as utopian, entitled, and economically senseless. But as Americans have started to awaken to the widening inequality in the country, the call for a fair wage has begun to gather traction. “We’re all people,” Walker added. “We have rights.”

Representatives for several fast food chains, including Burger King, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s, did not respond to requests for comment from VICE News on the convention and the workers’ demands.

A spokesperson for McDonald’s did not respond to interview requests or address questions on the impact of the fast food movement and whether its executives are taking the workers’ calls into consideration, but did release a statement.

“McDonald’s and our independent owner-operators share a concern and commitment to the well-being and fair treatment of all people who work in McDonald’s restaurants. McDonald’s and our independent franchisees believe that any minimum wage increase should be implemented over time so that the impact on small and medium business owners is manageable,” spokeswoman Heidi Barker Sa Shekhem said.

“Additionally, we believe that any increase needs to be considered in a broad context, one that considers, for example, the impact of the Affordable Care Act and its definition of ‘full time’ employment, as well as the treatment, from a tax perspective, of investments made by businesses owners.”

But despite some skepticism, the fast food workers’ movement has already reaped some important victories.

In June, Seattle’s city council voted to raise the minimum wage to $15 — a move that is also being debated in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago. So far, more than 6.7 million workers have seen their wages increase since the fast food workers’ movement started.

And in a decision with potentially massive consequences, the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board ruled on Tuesday that McDonald’s is the “joint employer” for workers at its franchised stores — meaning the corporation will no longer be able to brush off workers’ complaints (and lawsuits) by putting all the blame on its franchisees. It could also be held responsible for unfair labor practices at its thousands of restaurants, including threatening to or firing workers for organizing.

“Like other fast-food franchisors, McDonald’s is trying to have it both ways when it comes to its relationship with employees working in stores bearing its name,” labor law scholar Michael Fischl said in a statement following the decision. “On the one hand, in order to protect its ‘brand,’ the Mother Ship micromanages virtually every aspect of day-to-day operations, from food preparation to customer service, and everything in between. On the other hand, in order to circumvent the rights of its employees under the National Labor Relations Act, it proclaims that it is ‘shocked, shocked’ that anyone would think it actually exerts such extensive control over its franchised stores,” Fischl continued.

“The General Counsel’s determination to treat McDonald’s as a ‘joint employer’ suggests that going forward the NLRB will be paying more attention to what franchisors are doing than to what they are saying they do.”

Predictably, the ruling outraged critics of organized labor, with Angelo Amador, vice president of labor and workforce policy for the National Restaurant Association, telling the New York Times that the decision “overturns 30 years of established law regarding the franchise model in the United States.”

Tuesday’s ruling came after the Chicago convention, but workers there were already celebrating their first big successes.

“What you are doing right now is the most important workers’ movement in America today,” congressman Keith Ellison — and co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus — told workers on Saturday. “Millions of people across the country are looking at what you’re doing here in Chicago.”

Mary Kay Henry

Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, also praised the workers. The union, which represents its members from a variety of service sectors, backed the convention and offered financial and organizational support — leading some critics to dismiss the event as an attempt to boost union membership.

“The people in this room tonight have changed our country,” Henry told Friday’s boisterous crowd. “When this movement started 21 months ago with the first strike in New York, people thought $15 an hour was a fantasy. They laughed at you. But now, because of your courage and your hard work, it will become a reality.”

Yet despite the wins, fast food employees face an uphill battle.

“It’s going to take a long time. You’re going back to your workplace after this and it’s not gonna happen overnight,” Justin Jones, a 23-year-old organizer from Orlando, told a group of workers in a breakout session. “This is gonna be a fight, it’s gonna be hard.”

“I’m pretty sure they’re gonna make it as tough on us as they can,” he told VICE News later, adding that he has already been turned away from many restaurants — including the world’s largest McDonald’s, in Orlando — for speaking with staff.

But the convention, Jones hopes, will boost workers’ morale and show them they are not in the fight alone.

“We wanted workers to come together and be motivated so when they go back to their cities they can share stories and be like, ‘Hey, this is a real big thing, they’re not playing,'” he said. “It’s a movement and it’s not going anywhere. These guys are serious, they’re for real.”

Birth of a Union
Just 21 months ago, most of the workers who packed into the convention center had no idea they could even protest cuts to their hours and late paychecks without getting fired.

Darrell Roper, 51, who works at a Burger King on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, did some research of his own after an organizer approached him outside the store two years ago. He was surprised to learn that he had a right to organize with other workers, as long as it was not on the clock.

“Most people don’t know that, that’s what it is. They’re weary because they don’t have any information,” he told VICE News, adding that he now talks to other workers — and has come under scrutiny from his managers for doing so. “What I learned gave me the heart and the audacity to want to participate, knowing that my employer can’t hold that against me.”

Darrell Roper

That sense of newly discovered empowerment was palpable across the convention hall, where many said they would have never dreamed to find themselves just months ago.

“When I first heard about it, I’m not gonna lie, I was kind of skeptical. I was thinking, ‘I’m gonna lose my job, I’m gonna get in trouble,’” Douglesha Nicholson, a 23-year-old Pizza Hut worker from Kansas City, told VICE News. But after the first strike, she was sold.

“It was a big rush of adrenaline, going out and being able to yell without the risk of being fired. Just to let you know ‘Hey, I’m here, this is what I’m demanding, this is what I want,’” Nicholsonsaid. “We’re here to educate other fast food workers who may be skeptical about it, to let them know that we have their back.”

Sitting at a table with workers from Detroit, Brooklyn, and Wisconsin, Nicholson and her partner Marcus Stove, 24, who works at Wendy’s and whatever other odd jobs he is able to find, they compared wages and managers. Nicholson and Stove have four children together — “four and a half,” he joked, as they are expecting their fifth in September — and have long searched for but have never been able to find anything better than their fast food jobs.

“I can’t feed five kids on $7.25,” Stove said. “I’m here for the $15. I’m here to get that money.”

“We all have children,” Nicholson, whose oldest son is seven and wants to be a Pizza Hut driver when he grows up, told the other workers at the table. “I’m here because we are human beings.”

Douglesha Nicholson and Marcus Stove

At other tables, workers from different cities also compared paychecks and traded stories of payments that came weeks late, frying burns, and customers throwing shakes at them through drive-through windows. For the workers, including many leaving their hometowns for the first time, it was a powerful experience.

“Especially in the South, a lot of people are not used to this, they don’t really have knowledge of what a union is, there aren’t a lot of strikes going on,” said Jones, the Orlando organizer. “Here, you are seeing strangers, from other states, races, and belief systems, who have the same issues as you, and it gives you common ground. It’s not just you, it’s other states that all have the same issues. It’s unifying. It’s pretty awesome.”

That was precisely the point of the convention, workers and organizers said: To unite workers and capitalize on the momentum of a movement that has already staged some of the most widespread strikes in recent history, turning the “Fight for $15” chant from a utopian slogan into a reality for some.

But the workers who gathered here also adopted a resolution at the end of the convention that pledged further action — including more strikes, sit-ins, and even soup kitchens outside their stores — “to make sure everyone knows their employees don’t make enough to eat,” one worker suggested.

And many of these employees want a union as much as a raise.

“Right now, people who are working in fast food, their rights are being trampled. The union is not just for job security, it’s to protect your rights,” Roper said. “Without a union, I can’t negotiate with management. It’s their way or no way.”

History of the Movement
The sometimes rowdy convention was heavy on hope and civil rights rhetoric, as workers discussed civil disobedience and watched videos of early workers’ movements. Speaker after speaker reminded those in the room that they were “making history.”

“I’m inspired by what you are doing,” Reverend William Barber II, head of the North CarolinaNAACP, told the workers at the beginning of a long sermon. “You are in a fight to change America and you need to stay in that fight.” At its national convention, last week, the civil rights group voted unanimously to endorse the Fight for $15 campaign.

In fact, this movement has already made history.

It was born almost by accident in New York City, when a couple of hundred workers — “overworked and underpaid” as some of them said — walked off their jobs in November 2012. After that, dozens of people gathered at a Brooklyn Wendy’s to support a young woman who had been fired for protesting. In a domino effect, the strikes started to follow across the country — with a massive, 150-city walk-out in May this year.

Also in May, 101 McDonald’s workers were arrested at a rally outside the company’s corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois. Many of them were at the Chicago convention, where they got a standing ovation, pledged to do it again, and asked for others to follow.

“I tell you, if every one of us in this room goes to jail for civil disobedience, these corporations are gonna have to listen to us,” one of them told the crowd.

“They’re afraid of this movement, they want to keep their workers subjected,” said Roper. “They don’t want the whole store walking out, but there’s gonna come a time when corporate is gonna have to deal with us, they’re gonna have to give in.”

The workers plan to directly take on the executives of the corporations they work for — an effort that will likely be boosted by Tuesday’s ruling.

“If a CEO gets paid 1,000 more times than the average worker, I believe they can pay you a living wage. If the industry can make billions and billions and billions, I believe they can pay you a living wage,” said Barber.

In her speech, Henry listed the total compensation of fast food CEOs — coming to around 1,200 times the minimum wage that workers make.

“I think these CEOs should come into the store, to see how the stores are actually run,” Kristina Bradley, 25, told VICE News. Bradley was fired from a Pittsburgh Chick-fil-A after joining protests, she said.

“My paycheck says $300. My monthly bus pass costs $146. My rent is $450. If I’m making $300, where is my money?” she asked. “They say there’s welfare out there, you should go get food stamps. You think we want to live off the government? Are you serious? We are working.”

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi

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Vaccine Deniers Were Just Dealt A Blow In Court

“A federal judge has ruled in favor of a New York City policy that allows schools to ban unvaccinated kids from attending classes when another child has come down with a vaccine preventable illness, the New York Times reports. The lawsuit consolidated separate challenges from three families who claimed their religious freedom was violated when their kids were banned from school for up to a month at a time during disease outbreaks…”

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June 25, 2014 · 6:42 pm

Dear Millennials, We’re Sorry

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June 9, 2014 · 6:06 pm

Hospital Charges Surge for Common Ailments, Data Shows

“…Charges for chest pain, for instance, rose 10 percent to an average of $18,505 in 2012, from $16,815 in 2011. Average hospital charges for digestive disorders climbed 8.5 percent to nearly $22,000, from $20,278 in 2011.

In 2012, hospitals charged more for every one of 98 common ailments that could be compared to the previous year. For all but seven, the increase in charges exceeded the nation’s 2 percent inflation rate for that year, according to The Times’s analysis…”

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June 3, 2014 · 7:08 pm

Free Time Is an American Dream Deferred – NYTimes.com

http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2014/03/09/rethinking-the-40-hour-work-week/free-time-is-an-american-dream-deferred

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I Do Not Want My Daughter to Be ‘Nice’

July 31, 2013, 9:31 am
By CATHERINE NEWMAN

“My 10-year-old daughter, Birdy, is not nice, not exactly. She is deeply kind, profoundly compassionate and, probably, the most ethical person I know — but she will not smile at you unless either she is genuinely glad to see you or you’re telling her a joke that has something scatological for a punch line.

This makes her different from me. Sure, I spent the first half of the ’90s wearing a thrifted suede jacket that I had accessorized with a neon-green sticker across the back, expressing a somewhat negative attitude regarding the patriarchy (let’s just say it’s unprintable here). But even then, I smiled at everyone. Because I wanted everyone to like me. Everyone!

I am a radical, card-carrying feminist, and still I put out smiles indiscriminately, hoping to please not only friends and family but also my son’s orthodontist, the barista who rolls his eyes while I fumble apologetically through my wallet, and the ex-boyfriend who cheated on me. If I had all that energy back — all the hours and neurochemicals and facial musculature I have expended in my wanton pursuit of likedness — I could propel myself to Mars and back. Or, at the very least, write the book “Mars and Back: Gendered Constraints and Wasted Smiling.”

But it is not one thing or another, of course. My mostly pleasant way might get me more freelance work. And friendliness tends to put people at ease — loved ones, neighbors, waitresses — which is a good thing. Plus, smiling probably makes me feel happier, according to all those studies about self-fulfilling emotional prophesies. I know that our sweet-hearted son, who is 13, has always had the experience of niceness being its own reward. What can I do to help? he asks. Please, take mine, he insists, and smiles, and everyone says, “Oh, aren’t you nice!” and “What a lovely young man!” (Or sometimes, because he kind of looks like a girl, “What a lovely young lady!”) But, if I can speak frankly here, you really don’t worry about boys being too nice, do you? He still has the power and privilege of masculinity on his side, so, as far as I’m concerned, the nicer the better.

Birdy is polite in a “Can you please help me find my rain boots?” and “Thank you, I’d love another deviled egg” kind of way. But when strangers talk to her, she is like, “Whatever.” She looks away, scowling. She does not smile or encourage.

I bite my tongue so that I won’t hiss at her to be nice. I tell you this confessionally. Because do I think it is a good idea for girls to engage with zealously leering men, like the creepy guy in the hardware store who is telling her how pretty she is? I do not. “Say thank you to the nice man who wolf-whistled!” “Smile at the frat boy who’s date-raping you!” I want my daughter to be tough, to say no, to waste exactly zero of her God-given energy on the sexual, emotional and psychological demands of lame men — of lame anybodies. I don’t want her to accommodate and please. I don’t want her to wear her good nature like a gemstone, her body like an ornament.

And, currently, she is not in danger. She is decisive and no-nonsense, preferring short hair and soft pants with elastic waistbands. Dresses get in her way, and don’t even get her started on jeans, the snugly revealing allure of which completely mystifies her. She’s the kind of person who donates money to the Animal Welfare Institute and attends assiduously to all the materials they send her, including their dully depressing annual reports, which she keeps in a special folder. Gender stereotypes, among other injustices, infuriate her. “This is so stupid!” she sighs at Target, about the pink rows of dolls and the blue rows of Lego. “Why don’t they just put a penis or a vagina on every toy so you can be completely sure you’re getting the right one?”

She is tender, fierce and passionate — the kind of person who can stroke our pussycat with gentle fingers while she growls at you, her eyebrows a menacing shelf, about bedtime and her plans to avoid it. Even as a 2-year-old, she had the determined wrath and gait of a murderous zombie gnome — and my husband and I grimaced at each other, afraid, over her small and darkly glowering head. She will lift knife and fork, sighing, only if I scold her about eating with all 10 fingers like a caveman, and I have mixed feelings about that.

“She’s very moral,” a friend said recently, and it was not a compliment. She is the kid who can be a pain the neck at a play date, insisting on the rigors of turn-taking, of fair-sharing, of tidying up before the guests vamoose and leave her with an afternoon of mess to deal with. That said, though, she’s got your back. She is a patron saint of babies and animals, of the excluded or teased. “That’s not right,” she’s not afraid to say. “Stop it.”

She is a beautiful kid, but she is also sure and determined in a way that is not exactly pretty. Which is fine, because God help me if that girl ends up smiling through her entire life as if she is waitressing or pole-dancing or apologizing for some vague but enormous infraction, like the very fact of her own existence.

I picture her at the prom in stripy cotton pajamas, eating potato chips with both hands. I picture her slapping a patriarch-damning sticker on her jacket. I picture her running the country, saving the world, being exactly the kind of good bad girl that she knows herself to be. And I think: You go. I think: Fly! I think: Take me with you.


 

Catherine Newman, the author of Waiting for Birdy, writes atwww.benandbirdy.blogspot.com.”

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August 8, 2013 · 9:54 pm

The Decline and Fall of the English Major

By VERLYN KLINKENBORG
Published: June 22, 2013

 

“In the past few years, I’ve taught nonfiction writing to undergraduates and graduate students at Harvard, Yale, Bard, Pomona, Sarah Lawrence and Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. Each semester I hope, and fear, that I will have nothing to teach my students because they already know how to write. And each semester I discover, again, that they don’t.

They can assemble strings of jargon and generate clots of ventriloquistic syntax. They can meta-metastasize any thematic or ideological notion they happen upon. And they get good grades for doing just that. But as for writing clearly, simply, with attention and openness to their own thoughts and emotions and the world around them — no.

That kind of writing — clear, direct, humane — and the reading on which it is based are the very root of the humanities, a set of disciplines that is ultimately an attempt to examine and comprehend the cultural, social and historical activity of our species through the medium of language.

The teaching of the humanities has fallen on hard times. So says a new report on the state of the humanities by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and so says the experience of nearly everyone who teaches at a college or university. Undergraduates will tell you that they’re under pressure — from their parents, from the burden of debt they incur, from society at large — to choose majors they believe will lead as directly as possible to good jobs. Too often, that means skipping the humanities.

In other words, there is a new and narrowing vocational emphasis in the way students and their parents think about what to study in college. As the American Academy report notes, this is the consequence of a number of things, including an overall decline in the experience of literacy, the kind of thing you absorbed, for instance, if your parents read aloud to you as a child. The result is that the number of students graduating in the humanities has fallen sharply. At Pomona College (my alma mater) this spring, 16 students graduated with an English major out of a student body of 1,560, a terribly small number.

In 1991, 165 students graduated from Yale with a B.A. in English literature. By 2012, that number was 62. In 1991, the top two majors at Yale were history and English. In 2013, they were economics and political science. At Pomona this year, they were economics and mathematics.

Parents have always worried when their children become English majors. What is an English major good for? In a way, the best answer has always been, wait and see — an answer that satisfies no one. And yet it is a real answer, one that reflects the versatility of thought and language that comes from studying literature. Former English majors turn up almost anywhere, in almost any career, and they nearly always bring with them a rich sense of the possibilities of language, literary and otherwise.

The canon — the books and writers we agree are worth studying — used to seem like a given, an unspoken consensus of sorts. But the canon has always been shifting, and it is now vastly more inclusive than it was 40 years ago. That’s a good thing. What’s less clear now is what we study the canon for and why we choose the tools we employ in doing so.

A technical narrowness, the kind of specialization and theoretical emphasis you might find in a graduate course, has crept into the undergraduate curriculum. That narrowness sometimes reflects the tight focus of a professor’s research, but it can also reflect a persistent doubt about the humanistic enterprise. It often leaves undergraduates wondering, as I know from my conversations with them, just what they’ve been studying and why.

STUDYING the humanities should be like standing among colleagues and students on the open deck of a ship moving along the endless coastline of human experience. Instead, now it feels as though people have retreated to tiny cabins in the bowels of the ship, from which they peep out on a small fragment of what may be a coastline or a fog bank or the back of a spouting whale.

There is a certain literal-mindedness in the recent shift away from the humanities. It suggests a number of things. One, the rush to make education pay off presupposes that only the most immediately applicable skills are worth acquiring (though that doesn’t explain the current popularity of political science). Two, the humanities often do a bad job of explaining why the humanities matter. And three, the humanities often do a bad job of teaching the humanities. You don’t have to choose only one of these explanations. All three apply.

What many undergraduates do not know — and what so many of their professors have been unable to tell them — is how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.

Maybe it takes some living to find out this truth. Whenever I teach older students, whether they’re undergraduates, graduate students or junior faculty, I find a vivid, pressing sense of how much they need the skill they didn’t acquire earlier in life. They don’t call that skill the humanities. They don’t call it literature. They call it writing — the ability to distribute their thinking in the kinds of sentences that have a merit, even a literary merit, of their own.

Writing well used to be a fundamental principle of the humanities, as essential as the knowledge of mathematics and statistics in the sciences. But writing well isn’t merely a utilitarian skill. It is about developing a rational grace and energy in your conversation with the world around you.

No one has found a way to put a dollar sign on this kind of literacy, and I doubt anyone ever will. But everyone who possesses it — no matter how or when it was acquired — knows that it is a rare and precious inheritance.”

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