Fed Up: Women Fast-Food Workers Fight Back

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This article, celebrating the heroes of the fast-food workers movement, originally appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Ms. Click here to get a copy!

When she walked into that first meeting last summer, after a coworker urged her to attend, Nancy Salgado wasn’t sure what she would hear. Then she watched as other women in the room came forward to tell their stories, and realized that she was listening to her own. They talked about feeling trapped in their jobs, the humiliation of being bullied by managers, the struggle to make ends meet with only part-time hours, a paycheck that’s never enough to cover the bills. They shared the daily frustrations of reporting for their shifts exhausted and anxious, and always being expected to provide service with a smile.

Looking at the room full of workers from Chicago’s fast-food chains, Salgado, 27, a no-nonsense, 10-year veteran of McDonald’s, observed, “Wow, there’s a lot of McDonald’s workers with different issues, but in the end it’s the same story: We’re not getting paid enough. We’re worried about how are we gonna feed our kids tomorrow, how are we gonna pay the rent. And respect…that was one of the biggest issues.”

Their common experiences, and the stories shared in that room, sparked a kind of kinetic energy, and a similar charge was pulsing through many such worker meetings across the country. Several weeks later, on Aug. 1, Salgado walked off the job in solidarity with those workers, joining a nationwide campaign demanding better pay and working conditions in fast food. The demonstrations have now crystallized into a grassroots movement for $15-an-hour wages (more than twice the current federal minimum) and the right to form a union without retaliation—unprecedented demands from employees who are usually expected to do nothing but take orders.

Salgado, a single parent of a 7-year-old and a toddler, was initially nervous about how her boss would react. “McDonald’s is the job I depend on to bring food to my kids, to pay off my bills and rent, you know?…I was like, ‘What if they do fire me?’” But that morning, she said a “little prayer” and ventured out with several coworkers to join the series of coordinated short-term strikes at iconic chain eateries. Fast-food workers joined labor activists and retail workers in a festive march down Chicago streets, brightly clad in loud red shirts, carrying picket signs declaring “We Are Worth More” and “Valemo Más,” and bringing buoyant disruption to local stores and restaurants. Though many of the fast-food walkouts have involved just a few workers, the momentum crested into a cascade of one-day strikes on Aug. 29, hitting 60 cities, including New York, Detroit, Los Angeles and Atlanta.

Over the past several months, the phrase “Do you want fries with that?” has been drowned out by new slogans, such as “Fight for 15” and “Fast Food Forward,” viral brand names for dozens of locally organized campaigns aimed at building collective power among kitchen staff, cashiers and other low-wage food-service workers. With the backing of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), one of the country’s largest unions, as well as local community groups, fast-food-worker organizing committees have emerged in dozens of cities, using community gatherings, social media and public protests to seed an uprising in a notoriously downtrodden workforce.

No one is under the illusion that the fast-food industry will capitulate easily, especially since the mammoth size and diffuse structure of the franchise-based industry makes unionizing nearly impossible. But the protests and unauthorized strikes of the past year mark a powerful activist surge in a sector that is generally dismissed as the quintessential dead-end job.

Feminizing Fast Food

Willietta Dukes prides herself on being a familiar face at her restaurant. As a guest ambassador at a Burger King in Durham, N.C., she greets families, makes sure they’re being served properly, and though technically not a manager, helps oversee the kitchen and serving areas. Food service is something of a family tradition for her. Her mother earned a decent living as a school cafeteria worker, and she has worked in fast food most of her adult life, supporting two sons on her own. But these days, at 40, she’s struggling just to support herself on fast-food wages, sometimes turning to food stamps to get by. After recently losing her home to eviction, she has moved in with her now-grown son, who, like many others in her community, also works at a local food shop.

Dukes works about 24 hours a week, over a few part-time shifts, and is always on call to pick up extra hours. She has little choice but to take whatever hours her boss offers, even when the call comes abruptly at night just hours after she finished a day shift.

To the management, “we don’t matter,” Dukes says. “It’s about their volume, about getting their product out and covering their store. Our needs are secondary to theirs.” But underneath the prim uniforms are real people—single parents, laid-off factory workers, immigrants and college grads—all with needs and hopes that chafe against the industry’s harsh production model of churning out the cheapest food using the cheapest labor.

According to the National Employment Law Project (NELP), the median hourly wage for one of the most common fast-food jobs—frontline food preparation—is just under $9, woefully inadequate for a household with children. Subsequently, 40 percent of low-wage workers do not have health insurance. Without health insurance or paid sick leave, any medical problem can tip a family into crisis. Even everyday expenses can leave workers straining to make impossible choices about basic needs.

For Alisha Snider, a 26-year-old single mother in St. Louis, earning $7.35 an hour as a cashier at Wendy’s leaves her with a painfully limited menu of options. Sometimes she can cover some predictable expenses, like buying clothes for her kids, but only if she can put off the electricity bill for another month before getting a disconnection warning. Even then, she will have to choose which of her children to buy for; all three at once is impossible. If her wages were raised to $15 an hour, she says, “I wouldn’t have to leave one child off, or two kids off; the other ones have to wait till I get paid again.”

The insultingly low pay is exacerbated by a harsh workplace atmosphere that makes staff feel disrespected, Snider says. But despite daily frustrations with the arduous labor conditions, she says, “some people just take it, because they’re like me. They don’t have anywhere else to go.” Other jobs available in her area, she adds, pay about the same as Wendy’s.

Sonia Acuña, a 43-year-old kitchen worker in Chicago, cobbles together a living by combining shifts at two different McDonald’s branches, adding up to less than $9 an hour. She says her non-stop workday is made even longer by a bullying manager who sometimes denies bathroom breaks. Her pay supports a 5-year-old daughter—whom she typically has time to see only two hours a day—and her other children still living in Mexico, from whom she is separated indefinitely. In this industry, she says, “there’s a lot of women suffering, a lot of women making sacrifices for their families.”

With wages too low to lift them out of poverty, fast-food workers who must also navigate the welfare system face another dilemma: being both too poor and not poor enough. Dukes, for example, struggles to work enough hours at Burger King to cover basic living expenses, but the more hours she clocks, the closer she gets to the income limit for a federal food subsidy. “If I make extra money, they’re gonna cut back …There’s always a catch to it,” she says.

Seeing the paradox facing women among the working poor drove Martin Rafanan to become a community organizer for the St. Louis fast-food worker campaign, St. Louis Can’t Survive on $7.35, or STL 735 ($7.35 is the local minimum wage). In his previous job running a local women’s homeless shelter, he observed that a large portion of his clients worked at least part-time, many in fast-food jobs, yet their income was so inadequate they simply couldn’t afford to move out of the shelter. The low wage kept them homeless. “It’s heartbreaking,” Rafanan says of women dealing with homelessness. “Seven dollars and thirty-five cents an hour is just not enough to help a person with the basic necessities of life and to… address the needs of their children as well.”

On top of paying their workers too little, fast-food employers often rob them of what little they have. According to a report by the Fast Food Forward campaign, more than 8 in 10 workers surveyed said their employer had committed wage theft at least once, commonly by forcing them to work through breaks or shorting them on overtime.

Running Faster, Never Catching Up

Fast-food corporations’ marketing campaigns tout the opportunities they provide for employees to “work their way up” to managerial positions. Communities of color eat more often at fast-food restaurants such as Burger King and McDonald’s, and those companies feature diversity recruitment initiatives ostensibly aimed at bringing women and people of color into management.

In reality, only about 2 percent of fast-food employees are actually labeled managers, and just below 10 percent are ranked as “supervisors.” Most are “frontline” workers, largely women, who might toil for years in lower-ranked food-preparation positions, with an hourly median wage of about $9. Even those who move up to frontline supervisory positions typically earn only about $13 an hour. Gender stratification pervades all levels of the industry, with women concentrated in the lower-ranked occupations and men outnumbering women in frontline supervisor and managerial positions.

“The fast-food industry is an incredibly flat industry,” says NELP attorney Tsedeye Gebreselassie. For the typical lowest-paid workers, she explains, “there’s no opportunity for advancement because there’s no job at the top.”

The social divides of the fast-food sector encapsulate deep social inequities that reflect the “feminization of poverty” in the post-industrial economy. Some of the gender segmentation in the workforce, such as women’s prevalence in food service and domestic work, reflects stereotypes about “women’s work.” But even within a single workplace, women tend to get stuck in lower positions while men dominate managerial jobs, reinforcing barriers to advancement in segregated fields. These inequalities may actually have intensified during the current so-called economic recovery; recent data suggest that real wages are declining, especially in service jobs, and that despite some overall job growth, precarious, low-wage jobs are on the rise, even as stable positions with decent pay decline.

Being a woman in the food business is a source of pride and pain for Dukes. As she sees it, experience as a mother makes her better with customers—“We know how to nurture!”—and guests have complemented her on how good she is with kids. Her bosses are less appreciative. “That’s what really makes me mad, because they don’t pay me for what I’m worth,” she says. She sees the fight for decent jobs as a fight for working-poor women. “We’re the ones on the front lines; we’re the ones on the back lines. But the men sit in the office. They do the paperwork. They run around in their big cars to get their bonuses.”

Looking back on what she’s brought to her workplace all these years, she says, “I think we deserve more as women and as mothers and as workers.”

Raising the Floor

Jonathan Westin, the director of New York City’s Fast Food Forward campaign, says the $200 billion-a-year fast-food industry has no excuses not to grant workers’ basic demands. “They have everything within their power… to afford better wages for workers, to treat people with respect and to lift people out of poverty,” he says. “They make billions and billions of dollars every year in profits, off the backs of workers, and they can figure out a way to pay their workers more.”

One way to make corporations pay is by raising the federal minimum wage, currently $7.25 an hour. (For tipped restaurant workers—like servers, who, unsurprisingly, are mostly women—the minimum wage is an absurdly low $2.13). Some states and cities have enacted higher local minimums, and California is set to claim the highest state minimum in 2016, when the hourly minimum will be $10. But neither state nor federal base wages are anywhere near enough to sustain a typical household. As a result, a large portion of fast-food workers rely on public assistance such as food stamps and welfare payments—essentially shifting the social cost of corporate profits onto taxpayers. Due to inflation and congressional inaction (the last vote to raise the minimum wage was back in 2007), the purchasing power of a minimum-wage worker’s paycheck today is 33 percent lower than what the same job provided in 1968.

Reflecting general patterns of inequality, a minimum-wage hike would especially benefit women. But the National Restaurant Association, representing brands like McDonald’s, Jamba Juice, Subway and Panera, sees workers’ gains as a drain on profits. The industry lobbies fiercely against local, state and national minimum-wage legislation, claiming the pay boost would cause job losses and hurt businesses. Meanwhile, the CEO of McDonald’s raked in about $13.8 million in fiscal 2012, an estimated 737 times what the average fast-food worker earned.

Another, perhaps more direct, route to transforming the industry would be pressuring individual corporations to raise wages and allow unionization. While the $15 wage demand goes well beyond the federal minimum, it highlights the concept of a living wage—an income that covers a household’s basic needs, like food and housing. Campaigns to improve overall job quality for low-income workers often center on a living-wage demand. And some cities have enacted living-wage ordinances to ensure that government contractors pay decent wages.

Spurring private fast-food companies to raise wages so dramatically would likely require massive worker mobilization, which points to the need for unions and collective bargaining. But in fast food, where workers have long lacked any organized labor representation, unionizing one restaurant, much less the whole sector, remains a Herculean task. Advocates are wary that employers may retaliate against workers who organize, and the certification process for unionization votes is notoriously difficult under existing labor laws that favor corporations over unions.

Despite the dwindling membership of traditional unions, growing desperation could make fast food ripe for a labor uprising. Sylvia Allegretto, a labor economist at the University of California, Berkeley, says that, as more workers fall into precarious, poverty-wage jobs, their frustration is fueling mass mobilization. “They’re starting to understand [that] on their own, they have no power. It’s only collectively that they can have power,” she says. Labor advocates note that unionization particularly helps margin- alized workers. Unions, which typically enable collective bargaining over pay and working conditions, are linked to higher earnings and critical job benefits that women and people of color often lack, such as health care and paid sick leave.

The fast-food movement is now feeling around for its next steps. There has been intense debate among labor activists about whether the campaigns should seek a more centralized agenda in alignment with SEIU, or drive toward workplace-based advocacy. Whatever road the workers take, the movement has already broadened horizons for low-wage labor organizing, and its media splash has put the face of today’s low-wage worker—one that’s less white, more female and struggling harder than ever—into the foreground of public consciousness.

In fact, although the structural oppression of low-wage workers is in many ways a women’s problem, labor activism is itself becoming “feminized.” Over the past year, while fast-food women were rising up, their peers at Walmart organized against gender discrimination, in addition to participating in one-day strike actions in several cities. At the same time, domestic workers were campaigning—successfully!— for reforms to extend federal labor protections to housekeepers, nannies and care workers; 15 states—recently joined by California—already provide such protections as minimum wage and overtime pay.

These women’s courage reprises a rich legacy of women in labor: The “mill girls” of Lowell, Mass., led one of the nation’s first major strikes in the 19th century, and the immigrant women of New York’s garment factories increased participation in industrial unions in the early 20th century.

As they open a new labor battlefront in fast food, campaigners so far have reported no major incidents of workers being penalized for their protests. But stories of subtle repercussions have surfaced. Dukes began publicly organizing her coworkers and led a walkout in August (her son, a McDonald’s worker, marched with her), and since then, she says, her boss has seemed quicker to write her up for disciplinary violations. But Dukes is undeterred. “I didn’t come this far to stop now,” she says, adding that in her current circumstances, “I don’t feel like I have anything else to lose…I lost my home. What else can they really take from me?”

In Chicago, Salgado says the management has not only refrained from retaliating against strikers, but has actually started treating staff with more respect. Yet the real reward she says she’s gained from the movement is a fresh sense of solidarity with other mothers like her. “We bond together,” she says, “because we come united. … One of the strongest things I’ve learned in this organization is that being united as a family gives you a lot of strength to move forward.”


Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times and associate editor at CultureStrike. She is also a coproducer of the Asia Pacific Forum radio show and studies history at the City University of New York Graduate Center.