Strike Back/Walk Back: Fast Food Workers’ 1-2 Punch

May 12, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco

Fast Food workers striking in NYC.

Fast Food workers striking in NYC.

New York, NY – On May 15, fast food workers in cities across the United States, as well as around the world, will walk off their jobs to protest unlivable wages and intimidation at billion dollar burger joints including Burger King, McDonald’s, KFC and Wendy’s. But the most powerful actions in the campaign to raise to the minimum wage to $15 an hour, could actually occur a day after the strike – when supporters “walk-back” workers to their job sites. 

“Walk-backs are very powerful actions,” says Reverend Martin Rasanan, community director for St. Louis’ fast food workers campaign. “A worker goes on strike for 24 hours, they deliver their strike notice – but then they have to go back to their job. And that’s a very difficult thing to do with management breathing down your neck.” 

Supportive members of the clergy, community activists, labor leaders and others are already planning to follow up May 15’s massive one-day strike by “walking back” striking fast food workers in a further show of solidarity meant to protect employees from potential managerial reprisals. As well educate the public about the plight of low-wage workers and embolden other workers to join the cause. 

This latest fast food workers strike follows on the heels of a series of similar actions staged last year. During that time, “walk-backs” have emerged as vital components of the one-day fast food protests. 

Bill de Blasio and wife Chirlane at fast food workers rally.

Bill de Blasio and wife Chirlane at fast food workers rally.

“We will go into the stores with [workers],” Rev. Rasanan says. “We will ask for a manager to come forward, then we will essentially dramatize the whole process. Saying, number one, that we know these workers, we stand with them, and we believe they have the right to ask for better wages, better benefits, and the right to work on forming a union without any form of retaliation. We’ll have this conversation with a manager in the middle of a restaurant while customers and the rest of the workers are watching.”

In St. Louis, whole congregations have turned out in force on behalf of employees, and compelled managers to change the way they treat striking workers. 

“It works,” Rev. Rasanan says. “We’ve had situations where we’ve gotten managers removed. Corporations don’t want this. This is tarnishing their image.”

Reverend Cheri Kroon of the Dutch Reformed Church in Brooklyn, says that the day after a strike is critical for fast food workers.  

Rev. Cheri Kroon.

Rev. Cheri Kroon.

"Even though these strikes are legal one-day strikes, the workers are still in danger of losing their jobs," Rev. Kroon says. "Those of us who are standing with the workers in this struggle have found that the best support we can offer after a strike is to walk them back into the workplace.  If possible, we have an elected official and a clergy member accompany the worker.  We introduce ourselves to the manager, tell them that the worker took a legal one-day strike, that they are ready to return to work – and that we are counting on the management to welcome them back without any punitive actions or a hostile work environment. The message we aim to communicate is that these workers are not alone and they are not disposable."

The National Restaurant Association – the largest foodservice trade association in the world – did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but recent published reports indicate that the fast food workers campaign is causing the $660 billion industry concern. 

“McDonald’s [and the rest of the industry] can change,” Rev. Rasanan says. “For god’s sakes, they pay this kind of money elsewhere where they have to. They’re not ideologically opposed to paying a better salary here – they just don’t have to.” 

Indeed, Louise Marie Rantzau, a McDonald’s worker from Denmark, says that she already earns $15 an hour in her country. 

Fast food workers rally last year in Brooklyn.

Fast food workers rally last year in Brooklyn.

"In Denmark, McDonald's pays me $21 an hour and respects our union, so I was surprised when I heard workers in the U.S. had to fight so hard for just $15 and better rights. Fast food companies need to treat the people who make and serve their food with the same respect everywhere. Workers in Denmark are committed to supporting the workers’s cause until that happens.”

Too many fast food workers in the U.S. still struggle to keep a roof over their heads while trying to survive on minimum wage earnings that net them between $7 and $8 an hour. 

Some don’t succeed. As LaborPress reported earlier, there are fast food employees working full-time here in New York City – ground zero for fast food strikes – that have been forced into homeless shelters. 

“The public voice will have an impact on the industry,” Rev. Rasanan says. “We have to be the kind of people who stand with workers and protect them if they’re retaliated against, or if they are terminated. To make sure that management understands there will be a price to pay.”

The May 15 fast food strike will also be Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first opportunity as NYC’s chief executive to make good on the pledge he made to fast food workers last August when he said, “If I have the honor of being mayor of New York City, I will have the honor of standing with you at rallies like this until you get the justice you deserve.” 

May 9, 2014

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