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Attention Big Mac Customers: NYC Workers Demand $15 Wage and Union Rights

Over 400 food workers at more than 50 fast food locations in New York City went on a surprise strike Thursday demanding higher wages and the ability to unionize without retaliation. Wages of $15 an hour are being sought.

This is the second action of its kind by fast food workers in the city, but this effort appears to feature much larger numbers and may cause store closures. KFC worker Joe Barrera gave Salon a pre-strike interview:

“Obviously, it will piss off our bosses even more than before,” “we’ve had our complaints, but no one actually spoke out about it … I guess people were finally tired of the disrespect, under-compensation, being overworked, not having steady schedules and times, not having enough hours – basically, being played around with.” Workers from Burger King, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Domino’s, Papa John’s, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut are also expected to join the strike.

Barrera told Salon that after seven years in the industry he still earns the minimum wage of $7.25. He hoped a victory would allow him to live a more normal life. He eventually hopes to attend college.

“Maybe I could afford to have a girlfriend, take her out on a date …” he added. “All of that money goes right now to just surviving.”

Workers are being assisted in their organizing by Fast Food Forward, a campaign created by New York Communities for Change. Workers’ desire to organize has been met with retaliation and even termination. In late November, New York workers staged their first strike, but now many workers who were afraid to take action at the time appear willing to join. Stephen Warner, a McDonald’s employee, said that he will be on the picket line:

It gave me hope for a better future … I was very surprised.” He’ll be out on the picket lines himself this time, he said, “hopefully to set an example for the rest of the people in fast food, so that they know that change is possible.”

Tabitha Verges, a minimum-wage worker at a Burger King in Harlem, was unaware of the first strike prior to it happening. She told the New York Times that her wages have not increased past minimum wage since accepting her job over four years ago:

They always give me the same excuse — that they’re not making enough money.”

Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change, said the success of the first strike is leading many others like Verges and Barrera to join the picket lines.

“What happened in November was a very big thing in terms of seeing whether workers were ready and able to go out and strike and take risks in a way that has not happened in the fast-food industry before.  A lot of people have been emboldened by what happened last time.”

The date of the strike was selected to coincide with the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. King was in Memphis to help support low-paid sanitation workers who were on strike. Rev. Cheri Kroon, associate minister of the Flatbush Reform Church in Brooklyn and a strike supporter, said that fast food workers fighting for better standards is a continuation of Dr. King’s dream.

My community in Flatbush is filled with fast-food workers who have been suffering due to low wages, no sick days and unsafe working conditions.”  

The general public often views fast food workers as teenagers working their first job. Increasingly, though, adults trying to support their families on the minimum wage are making up the fast food workforce. Verges suggests $15 an hour is not too high of an asking price:

“I’m behind on paying my cable and Con Ed bills,” said Ms. Verges, whose Burger King is at 141st Street and Broadway. “I don’t think $15 an hour is asking too much. I do it all. I do three or four jobs. I take orders, I make the orders. I work the cash register. I say, ‘Have a good day.’ I do the inventory. I take out the trash. I get down and scrub the floor. I don’t think $7.25 is nearly enough.”

For updates throughout the day follow the always-on labor journalist Josh Eidelson on Twitter — @josheidelson

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