Lasting Dignity for Fast-Food Workers (2022)

For the customers, nothing has changed in the big, busy McDonald’s on Broadway at West 181st Street, in Washington Heights. Promotions come and go—during the World Cup, the French-fry package was suddenly not red but decorated with soccer-related “street art,” and, if you held your phone up to the box, it would download an Augmented Reality app that let you kick goals with the flick of a finger. New menu items appear—recently, the Jalapeño Double and the Bacon Clubhouse, or, a while back, the Fruit and Maple Oatmeal. But a McDonald’s is a McDonald’s. This one is open twenty-four hours. It has its regulars, including a panel of older gentlemen who convene at a row of tables near the main door, generally wear guayaberas, and deliberate matters large and small in Spanish. The restaurant doesn’t suffer as much staff turnover as you might think. Mostly the same employees, mostly women, in black uniforms and gold-trimmed black visors, toil and serve and banter with the customers year after year. The longtime manager, Dominga de Jesus, bustles about, wearing a bright-pink shirt and a worried look, barking at her workers, “La linea! La linea!”

Behind the counter, though, a great deal has changed in the past two years. Among the thirty-five or so non-salaried employees, fourteen, at last count, have thrown in their lot with Fast Food Forward, the New York branch of a growing campaign to unionize fast-food workers. Underneath the lighted images of Big Macs and Chicken McNuggets, back between the deep fryer and the meat freezer, the clamshell grill and the egg station, the order screens and the endless, hospital-like beeping of timers, there have been sharp and difficult debates about the wisdom of demanding better pay and forming a union.

Most of the workers here make minimum wage, which is eight dollars an hour in New York City, and receive no benefits. Rosa Rivera, a grandmother of four who has worked at McDonald’s for fourteen years, makes eight dollars and fifty cents. Exacerbating the problem of low pay in an expensive city, nearly everyone is effectively part time, getting fewer than forty hours of work a week. And none of the employees seem to know, from week to week, when, exactly, they will work. The crew-scheduling software used by McDonald’s is reputed to be sophisticated, but to the workers it seems mindless and opaque. The coming week’s schedule is posted on Saturday evenings. Most of those who, like Rivera, have sided with the union movement—going out on one-day wildcat strikes, marching in midtown protests—suspect that they have been penalized by managers with reductions in their hours. But just-in-time scheduling is not easy to analyze.

Arisleyda Tapia, who has been working here for eight years, and makes eight dollars and thirty-five cents an hour, says she was fired last year by a supervisor for participating, on her own time, in a protest. She was reinstated three days later by cooler management heads, but Tapia, a single mother with a five-year-old daughter, says that she now gets only thirty hours a week. She used to average forty. “And they don’t really post the schedule anymore,” she told me. “They just give you these.”

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She waved a thin strip of paper in the air. It was like the stuff that comes out of a shredder. Tapia laughed, and mimicked a manager frantically snipping each line out of a printed schedule, for individual distribution. “This way, it’s harder for us to see what’s going on at the store. You see only your own hours.”

Tapia was a nurse in Santiago de los Caballeros, the second city of the Dominican Republic. She had two children, Scarlet and Steven. Her husband drove a taxi. Her mother, also a nurse, raised orchids. When Tapia’s marriage fell apart, she felt her hopes for her children dimming. It was 2003; a banking crisis had cratered the Dominican economy. With her mother’s blessing, she left her job at a big university hospital where she had worked for twelve years and moved, alone, to New York. She rented a shared room in Inwood, a working-class neighborhood in upper Manhattan, for fifty dollars a week, got a job at a McDonald’s in Inwood, and then a second job, at the 181st Street McDonald’s. She made minimum wage. Still, she was able to send most of her paychecks home. “I made more in a week here than I did in a month as a nurse there,” she said. Her children were provided for. College remained a possibility. Her Facebook cover photo has a woman’s closed eye with long lashes and a big tear trickling down. “That’s for missing my kids,” she told me.

Tapia struggled with depression. Her immigration status was work-authorized, letting her obtain a Social Security number, and then it wasn’t. She got scammed by a lawyer. She feared she would be deported. Tapia makes friends easily—if you walk the streets of Inwood with her, you will see her merrily accosted by neighbors—but she felt isolated. The sueño americano—the reason she still gives, half-ruefully, for emigrating—had taken on nightmarish colors. She felt trapped in a cold, foreign, overwhelming place. She felt that people were following her. She went for therapy at public clinics. Tapia, who is deeply religious, found herself looking for a sign from God. One night, in church, she got it. Her anxiety receded. She talks about the experience in awed, fierce tones.

She took up with a man—a taxi-driver—and on New Year’s Day, 2009, she gave birth to a daughter, Ashley. The relationship with the taxi-driver did not last. Tapia was thirty-seven. She found an apartment on Sherman Avenue, in Inwood, across from the 207th Street Subway Yard. The apartment was small and dark, partitioned to create more rooms, and Tapia shared it with other renters. She and Ashley slept in a single bed in a closet-size alcove. They still sleep there. Tapia had already bought, sight unseen, a small rental house in Santiago; her mother manages it, and the rent helps support Scarlet and Steven.

“Take your pick—those people are talking schools. Next to them is real estate, and over by the stairs is money.”

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With an infant, Tapia had to quit one of her jobs. Money got tighter. She and Ashley received food stamps—a hundred and eighty-nine dollars a month—and, crucially, an earned-income tax-credit refund. But day care was expensive, and Tapia could never get enough hours at work. Wary of the courts, she received no child support. Still, her spirits were strong. Now she lived for Ashley, who was bright and mischievous. Friends and co-workers deluged the child with love and toys. Somebody gave her a little plastic cash register. She banged away on it, piping, “Welcome to McDonald’s. How may I help you?”

One of Tapia’s closest friends was Dominga de Jesus, her manager. La Dominga, as everybody calls her, is also Dominican. She lives in the Bronx, started at the bottom herself at McDonald’s, and has a daughter slightly older than Ashley. The little girls are friends. La Dominga was kind to Tapia in her despair. In turn, Tapia helped Dominga when she had housing troubles. Between crises, the two women loved to party together. Tapia was delighted for Dominga when she went off to Hamburger University, the McDonald’s training center, in Oak Brook, Illinois, where she earned a degree in Hamburgerology. The course there “sounded like a good party,” Tapia told me, grinning.

In 2012, community organizers from New York Communities for Change, a Brooklyn-based descendant of ACORN, started sniffing around the McDonald’s in Washington Heights. La Dominga—perhaps forewarned, or simply aware of the long-standing vigilance at McDonald’s against any stirrings of union sentiment—spotted a suspected organizer on one of her closed-circuit cameras. His name was Alfredo Miase. He was Dominican. Tapia recalled, “She told me, ‘Don’t talk to him.’”

But Tapia had recently had a run-in with another manager, who kept her working, even though she had a fever, for hours. “Finally, I couldn’t take it,” she told me. “I just couldn’t stand up anymore, and I went home. She suspended me for a week for that. She’s gone now, but she was abusive. That experience left me ready to do something.” So Tapia met with Miase, down the block, beyond the closed-circuit cameras, skulking, scared. And she was not the only one. “He was a very thoughtful, sympathetic guy,” she said.

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A small group of workers, nearly all women, started meeting with Miase and another organizer, Marisol Vasquez, at a nearby Chinese restaurant called Jimmy’s. They discussed their problems and what might be done. Tapia, unlike some American workers, already had a solid grasp of what a union is. In the D.R., she had been a member of the national nurses’ union during a major dispute with the ministry of health. That fight culminated in strikes that caused a national furor. Doctors had also walked out. “Patients were dying,” she remembered. In the end, the government agreed to meet with the strikers and address their demands.

The Service Employees International Union, the second-largest union in the United States, was quietly funding the fast-food campaign. The first public act was a one-day strike on November 29, 2012. Some two hundred workers, from around forty fast-food outlets in New York City, gathered at dawn outside a McDonald’s on Madison Avenue in midtown, chanting, “Hey, hey, what do you say, we demand fair pay.” They had walked off jobs at Burger King, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Domino’s Pizza, and McDonald’s. Their goals, they told reporters, were an industry-wide raise to fifteen dollars an hour and the right to form a union without retaliation. It was a day of rallies, walkouts, and a march through Times Square. The Times called it “the biggest wave of job actions in the history of America’s fast-food industry.” Tapia and several co-workers from Washington Heights were in the thick of it. La Dominga was shocked to see her friend’s face in the crowd in a photograph on her Facebook news feed.

The protests spread to the Midwest, with hundreds of fast-food workers demonstrating in Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Detroit. By the summer of 2013, workers in sixty cities across the United States, even in the traditionally anti-union South, were staging coördinated one-day walkouts and marches with a single message: fifteen and a union. In December, it was more than a hundred cities. The movement picked up political support. President Obama renewed a long-neglected pledge to raise the federal minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour—it should be nine dollars, he first suggested, and then lifted his sights, in early 2014, to $10.10. That’s a modest proposal; in 1968, the minimum wage, in current dollars, was $10.95. Even so, minimum-wage legislation has no chance of passing in this Congress. But opinion polls show wide public support for a hike. Some cities and states have been bidding up their own minimum-wage laws. In June, Seattle decided to raise its minimum wage to fifteen dollars. Fast-food workers rightly took credit for having made plausible a minimum wage that, less than two years ago, sounded outlandish.

The fast-food giants have seemed clumsy, and wrong-footed by the surge of protest. Their traditional defense of miserable pay—that most of their employees are young, part time, just working for gas money, really—has grown threadbare. Most of their employees today are adults—median age twenty-eight. More than a quarter have children. Particularly since the onset of the global recession of 2009, McJobs are often the only jobs available. And seventy per cent of fast-food workers are indeed part time, working fewer than forty hours a week.

McDonald’s has tried to acknowledge the real lives of its workforce by providing counselling through a Web site (since taken down) and a help line called McResource. A sample personal budget was offered online last year. The budget was full of odd assumptions: that employees worked two full-time jobs, for instance, and that health insurance could be bought for twenty dollars a month. The gesture made the corporation look painfully out of touch. The same thing happened with a health-advice page. Workers were advised to break food into pieces to make it go farther, sing to relieve stress, and take at least two vacations a year, since vacations are known to “cut heart attack risk by 50%.” Swimming, one learned, is great exercise. Fresh fruit and vegetables are good for you, McDonald’s declared. A mother of two in Chicago, who had worked at McDonald’s for ten years, called the help line and found herself counselled to apply for food stamps and Medicaid. This was, at least, realistic. A recent study by researchers at the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that fifty-two per cent of fast-food workers are on some form of public assistance.

“Look, I know you think you’ve got the stuff, but I’m telling you: walk God.”

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Sensitive to the beating that their brands are taking in the escalating confrontation with employees, the fast-food giants have been leaving the hardball response to their lobby, the National Restaurant Association. “The other N.R.A.,” as it is known, is an enormous organization, with nearly half a million member businesses, but its strategic thinking seems to be dominated by the major chains. It has fought minimum-wage legislation, at every level of government, for decades. It has fought paid-sick-leave laws, the Affordable Care Act, worker-safety regulations, restrictions on the marketing of junk food to children, menu-labelling requirements, and a variety of public-health measures, such as limits on sugar, sodium, and trans fats. Its press releases now deride the demands of fast-food workers as “nothing more than big labor’s attempt to push their own agenda.” But internal N.R.A. documents, leaked this spring to Salon, show the group’s concern about the “reputational attacks on our industry.” They say that N.R.A. agents are “closely monitoring social media for any plans or signs of activity,” and are even tracking the movements of one activist. Scott DeFife, the chief N.R.A. spokesman, told me that the crowds at the protests actually consist of organizers: “There’s often not one restaurant worker to be found among the crowds of organizers.”

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McDonald’s has rarely hesitated to act aggressively on labor issues. In 1990, it sued a tiny group called London Greenpeace for libel, because of leaflets the group had distributed attacking the company. According to Eric Schlosser’s book “Fast Food Nation” (2001), McDonald’s had been successfully using Britain’s plaintiff-friendly libel laws to intimidate British mass media for many years. Two members of London Greenpeace fought back. Although they could not afford a lawyer, the court proceedings went on for more than a decade, revealing, among other things, the extensive use by McDonald’s of spies—some meetings of London Greenpeace apparently had as many spies in attendance as real members. The “McLibel trial” was, from start to finish, a public-relations fiasco. For the second-largest private employer in the world (after Walmart), with more than thirty-five thousand restaurants in a hundred and nineteen countries, McDonald’s can be, in the court of public opinion, remarkably inept.

In recent months, Fast Food Forward and its many partners—Fight for 15 (Chicago), Stand Up KC (Kansas City), STL Can’t Survive on $7.35 (St. Louis)—have been rhetorically thrashing their corporate opponents. The Berkeley-University of Illinois study, commissioned by Fast Food Forward, found that American fast-food workers receive almost seven billion dollars a year in public assistance. That’s a direct taxpayer subsidy, the activists argue, for the fast-food industry. Taxpayers are also, by that logic, grossly overpaying the industry’s top management. According to the progressive think tank Demos, fast-food executives’ compensation packages quadrupled, in constant dollars, between 2000 and 2013. They now take home, on average, nearly twenty-four million dollars a year. Their front-line workers’ wages have barely risen in that time, and remain among the worst in U.S. industry. The differential between C.E.O. and worker pay in fast food is higher than in any other domestic economic sector—twelve hundred to one. In construction, by comparison, the differential is ninety-three to one.

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