Originally published for Complex on Oct 20, 2020.
In 2012, 200 fast food workers went on strike outside of a McDonald’s on 40th and Madison in Manhattan, demanding fair wages and a union.
In the almost eight years since, much has changed—the flagship Times Square location shuttered in June of 2020, and what was once dismissed as a fringe idea is now a popular national platform, for both Democratic and Republican voters. Seven states (and the District of Columbia), along with 15 cities and counties, passed legislation to gradually increase the wage to $15 an hour—resulting in $78 billion in raises for more than 24 million workers—and the Raise the Wage Act was successfully passed in the House.
“If we would have quit back when they called us crazy, Illinois wouldn’t be at $15,” says Adriana Alvarez, a McDonald’s worker in Chicago and leader in the Fight for $15 movement. “Florida wouldn’t have the 15 on the ballot.”
The worker-led movement has expanded exponentially, with the Democratic Party embracing it as part of its official platform in 2016. Despite these groundbreaking successes, there is still a long runway to nationwide adoption of living wages and benefits for fast food and service workers, even with the COVID-19 pandemic laying bare the frailties of their lives as essential workers—disproportionate numbers of whom come from Black and brown communities.
Even with the earnest commercials by corporations such as McDonald’s—the world’s second-largest private employer—positioning themselves as paragons of ethics and safety, their workforces have continually voiced the opposite throughout this time of crisis, having to strike across the country for paid sick leave and adequate PPE. Notably, in the Bay Area, a wildcat strike at a McDonald’s location in May went on for over a month—the longest strike in the movement so far—when a COVID-19 cluster left dozens across the region sick, including an employee’s 10-month-old baby. The store came under legal injunction after managers were exposed for instructing employees to wear coffee filters and doggie diapers as masks.
“They’re going to say, ‘In this economy, we can’t have a $15 minimum wage; we need to promote job creation.’” – Maurice Mitchell
“Even before we were all wearing masks, they weren’t providing soap, hand sanitizer, gloves, any of the basic things that we knew that we needed at the top of the pandemic,” says Allynn Umel, National Organizing Director for Fight for $15 and A Union. “Every improvement that needs to be made, they have to beg and fight for, and changes are only happening in stores as workers are demanding those kinds of protections.”
While McDonald’s is the largest fast food employer contending with a history of dissatisfied employees, it certainly isn’t the only one. As Salon reported, an estimated 400 workers from 70 stores staged a large strike outside of a New York City Wendy’s and Burger King in 2013. The same year, approximately 2,200 workers went on strike in all of the cities where fast food workers had previously gone on strike, with the addition of Flint, Michigan, and Kansas City, Missouri.
Considering the significant sociopolitical momentum behind the Fight for $15 movement, it would stand to reason that elected officials would represent the interests of their constituents. Yet that hasn’t been the case on the federal level: presently, with a Republican majority, the Raise the Wage Act is stagnant in the Senate.
“The Senate as a body is not very democratic,” explains Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party, adding that “most people in the political class occupy space that comprises a particular community, but they represent organized capital.” The ways that corporate political influence materializes are varied and ornate, from campaign financing to deep coffers for legislative lobbying, but these acts can effectively grind discussions to a halt.
Taking McDonald’s as an example, the corporation has not only actively lobbied the Trump administration for exemptions for paid sick leave during this period of upheaval, but also remains on the board of the National Restaurant Association, which has been a major contributor to the Save Florida Jobs PAC, a group opposing the measure on the Florida ballot to raise the wage floor—despite having publicly committed to no longer impeding wage hikes.
Alvarez, who is also a mother, led a wildcat strike at her McDonald’s location in Cicero, Illinois, to demand paid sick leave. “We were supposed to do a friendly protest, walk in, hand in our demands—and the manager decided to ignore us, act like we weren’t there, and call the cops” she says, explaining what prompted the picketing. “Two or three weeks later, they came up with a system of making it easier for us to claim sick days.”
“Even before we were all wearing masks, they weren’t providing soap, hand sanitizer, gloves, any of the basic things that we knew that we needed at the top of the pandemic.” – Allynn Umel
McDonald’s corporate interference in labor organizing extends to the National Labor Relations Board, where it has been enmeshed in an extended battle with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) over Joint Employer rules. The McDonald’s chain refused to be acknowledged as a joint-employer with franchise owners, ultimately reversing joint employer status, enabling the franchiser to evade accountability for employees in their locations nationwide. It should be noted that conflicts of interest were raised around Trump-appointed board chair John Ring and board member William Emanuel’s previous work for a law firm that represented McDonald’s—Emanuel declined to recuse himself from the case upon the workers’ request.
The company’s insistence that the franchisee-franchiser relationship is not a joint employer certainly flies in the face of its cohesive community branding. Most recently, it has been rolling out global product partnerships with superstars Travis Scott and J. Balvin, which certainly points to a corporation that has domain over the behavior of its franchises. Furthermore, the launches seem to have been timed while McDonald’s is embroiled in a bevy of high-profile legal battles for discrimination, from the executive level down to the restaurant workers, with two having been filed by the SEIU and members of the Fight for $15 movement.
While the problems presented may seem black and white, tackling them is not straightforward, at least not electorally. Part of the problem is surmounting the political premise that crises like our current pandemic call for austerity that harms the working class the most. “They’re going to say, ‘In this economy, we can’t have a $15 minimum wage; we need to promote job creation,’ so we just need to create whatever jobs that are substandard,” Mitchell says. “We need to invest in strategies that get money into everyday people’s pockets and raising the wage floor does exactly that.”
Cory Alpert, founding partner and managing director at South & West, an agency that consults on campaigns such as those of Pete Buttigieg and Steve Benjamin, concurs, explaining that “emotionally, that always sounds right to people, that increasing the minimum wage at McDonald’s to $15 an hour means that they won’t be able to hire as many people. But so far, the evidence that I’ve seen shows that money actually gets put back in the economy, and the economy actually grows stronger.” In fact, throughout this crisis, and while lobbying for the aforementioned exemptions, McDonald’s has paid out $1.25 billion a quarter in dividends, to the tune of $5.04 billion for the 2020 fiscal year—almost $300 million higher than in 2019.
“Power concedes nothing without a demand,” Alpert says, referencing Frederick Douglass. “Money, at least in our society, is power. The crux of a lot of pushback is that people who are wealthy don’t want to share economic stability. They emotionally, if not also economically, benefit from having historically underserved communities continue to remain underserved, under-resourced, and under-financed.”
On the municipal level, significant obstacles remain. “Cities and city councils in some states have huge amounts of influence; in some states, they have two hands tied behind their back by the state legislature,” explains Alpert, pointing to South Carolina and Indiana as examples of the latter. “Even where you have a fairly progressive city like Columbia, where if a measure was put to the city council or in a citywide public vote, it would likely pass—probably a 55% victory—the state legislature here is solidly Republican,” he adds, saying that until the “Home Rule law is amended to allow cities to have more flexibility in that regard, that just isn’t going to change.”
“All essential workers—from fast-food to health care to child care —deserve at least $15/hour to make ends meet and the right to come together in a union.” – Mary Kay Henry
Outside of electioneering, the pandemic does present new wrinkles with organizing and direct action work. “The people who care the most about the Fight for $15 fight or who would be most directly impacted were going under-accessed because people aren’t knocking doors in the same way that they were able to in previous years,” says Camonghne Felix, vice president of strategic communications at Blue State, a digital strategy and technology agency that specializes in advocacy and constituency development. Alvarez has pivoted to more online campaigns, but has admitted that it has a different yield. “You can’t visually see crowds of people, which to this day still gives me chills. But we have to adapt. We’re not going to stop because, oh, no, it’s a pandemic,” she jokes. “McDonald’s wishes we would stop. But we’re not going to. It’s whatever it takes.”
“For too long, corporations like McDonald’s have put profits over people, putting workers at risk and paying poverty wages while working families struggle to get by,” says SEIU president Mary Kay Henry. “The COVID-19 crisis has made clear to everyone what working people have long known: all essential workers—from fast food to health care to child care—deserve at least $15/hour to make ends meet and the right to come together in a union.”
Alvarez plans to continue the fight and asks people to remain in solidarity with essential workers as they amplify the voices around their cause both on the streets and digitally, not just for fair wages but full union protections, adhering to the ethos of more people, more power.
“We’ve been knowing that we’re essential. We really didn’t need people to label us as essential,” she points out. “We’re doing a lot more than just what they call flipping burgers.”