August 20, 2014
By Barbara Kestenbaum
As a retired union member, I was thrilled by the National Labor Relations Board’s decision to hold the McDonald’s corporation jointly liable for the choices made by its franchisees as to workers’ rights. These include the right to demand better pay and working conditions, and—most importantly—the guaranteed right to unionize without intimidation from an employer.
This decision can change the dynamics for fast-food workers across the United States. For the first time, a fast-food corporate giant is made answerable for labor and wage violations by its individually owned and operated restaurants. No longer can McDonald’s hide behind a corporate shield, falsely claiming that their franchisees make all the employment decisions. Craig Becker, AFL-CIO’s general counsel, pointed to how important this is:
“The upstream companies—whether McDonald’s or the brand in the garment industry—may have to begin thinking not only of how big the hamburger or what the ‘golden arches’ looks like, but how workers are being treated and whether their rights are respected.”
Where it Began
In November 2012, an uprising began in New York City as over a hundred fast-food workers, backed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and other unions, church leaders, and community organizations, courageously walked off the job. It was the beginning of five one-day strikes that gained momentum as thousands of fast-food workers demanded a minimum wage of $15 per hour and the right to unionize. I was proud to be among the protestors at these demonstrations. On May 15 of this year, workers took to the streets again, striking fast-food restaurants in 130 cities across the United States and in twenty foreign cities. The strikers had a monumental impact on McDonald’s, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and other fast-food establishments as they closed down their restaurants or slowed their businesses almost to a standstill.
In 1970, in a series of lectures, Eli Siegel, founder of the education Aesthetic Realism, gave careful evidence showing that an economy based on profit, on the seeing of a person in terms of how much money can be extracted from their labor, could no longer succeed. These days, despite massive efforts by government officials and others to tout an “economic recovery,” including an upsurge in employment, the jobs being created mainly pay miserably low, unlivable wages. For millions of worried, struggling Americans the economy has not recovered.
What Workers Are Demanding
In an article titled “Wage Pressure” in Newsday (8/3/14), Julia Vasquez of Port Washington, NY represents the more than forty percent of workers over 25 years old who work at fast-food restaurants. She is the single mother of a two-year-old daughter, living with her own mother and paying $600 a month rent. Ms. Vasquez works forty hours a week standing on her feet behind the counter. Her paltry take-home pay is about $300 a week. She has to depend on food stamps, and has no sick time, vacations, or other benefits. Said Ms. Vasquez:
“I don’t have the luxury of taking a vacation. My daughter needs her clothes, her shoes. It’s a very tight budget. It’s very hard to manage, to provide for my daughter and pay the rent.”
Ellen Reiss, the Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, describes what needs to be seen as workers are demanding justice:
“Should Americans be able to make good wages, express themselves at their jobs, feel really useful to their fellow citizens, by eliminating profits to people who didn’t work for them?…People will see that having industry be based on somebody’s making profit from others’ work was completely unnecessary, un-American to begin with.”
As a result of the strikes, McDonald’s retaliated by firing workers or cutting their hours, imposing even greater hardships. But fast-food workers fought back. Employees filed claims with the NLRB citing labor law violations, including charges that they were punished for pro-union activities, and forty-three of the claims were found to have merit. I very much agree with what Ellen Reiss explains about the power of unions:
“Because of the failing of the profit system, most of the once mighty American industrial base is no more. Ours has become largely a service economy. Well, now service workers are beginning to get the idea—which is true—that our economy cannot function without them; therefore, they should be able to set the terms on which they work….The purpose of the Fast Food Forward movement is to show the very tangible, dollars-and-cents power of the workers over the persons who are robbing them: employers, stockholders. And as soon as people working see that they have power, a great deal can happen.”
The historic ruling by the NLRB shows that this is happening, and it’s a big victory for ethics.
Today many American workers are demanding an economy that is just to every man, woman, and child, and I am proud to stand with them. I believe that future generations will be thankful to Aesthetic Realism, as I am, for seeing what working people want and deserve—for the profits they earn to come to them.