Cecilia Rodriguez has lived in Richmond for 24 years. Over the past seven, she has worked for $8 an hour at a McDonald’s on Macdonald Avenue to support her three children, all of whom are currently in college.
In the house near Richmond High School that she and her children live in, the tile floors are spotless and the rooms furnished with polished and upholstered furniture. Rodriguez’s tall teenaged son crosses the living room into the adjoining kitchen and Rodriguez nods towards him, beaming.
With her daughter, Yadira, translating from Spanish, Rodriguez describes the challenges she has faced working at McDonald’s: unexpected changes to her work schedule; repeated calls from management at 4 a.m. on her days off, asking her to report to last-minute shifts; cut hours that reduce her paycheck. Rodriguez tears up as she describes how managers have screamed orders at her and snapped their fingers instead of using her name.
“She was intimidated to go to work every day,” Yadira says. “Sometimes she would come home crying because they would just treat her very badly, and make her do the work that no one wanted to do.”
But for the past year and a half, Rodriguez has been a part of an ever-growing national fast food workers’ movement demanding $15 an hour and the right to unionize. Rodriguez joined the movement the day a Service Employees International Union (SEIU) organizer came into her McDonald’s franchise in Aug. 2013 and told her about the fast food workers’ strikes happening across the country.
Since that time, the verbal harassment at work and the 4 a.m. phone calls have stopped, Rodriguez says. She also got a raise for the first time in seven years, from $8 to $9 an hour. Yadira laughs when she realizes her mother knows the exact date she got the raise: July 1, 2014.
“Oh yes,” Rodriguez agrees in English. “I remember.”
Rodriguez says nearly every one of her 40-some coworkers at her McDonald’s location is now part of the movement. She says her managers have threatened her job, but she isn’t about to back down.
“I want my hours. I want to get paid for what I work for,” Rodriguez says. “I feel proud and I couldn’t be any happier fighting, because I do it for my family, and because I do it for the people who are working with me.”
A coordinated national movement
On the morning of December 4, about 200 fast food workers and supporters took over a Taco Bell at 73rd Avenue in Oakland, chanting, “What do we want? Security! When do we want it? Now!”
Blanca Alvarez, who works at the Taco Bell on 73rd, said she has been robbed on the job 12 times over the past decade. Along with a $15 hourly wage and a union, the workers spoke to a need for basic on-the-job protection.
That afternoon, following a rally at the Fruitvale BART station, hundreds of workers marched down International Blvd. and packed themselves into a McDonald’s at East 12th Street and 25th Avenue. Standing on tables and holding signs, they chanted to the startled workers behind the counter, “Walk out! Walk out!” Two of the workers agreed and joined the strike, eliciting loud cheers and hugs.
Richmond workers were also part of the strike, among them Cecilia Rodriguez’s daughter Yadira, who herself worked at a McDonald’s for a year; Carolina Lopez, who earns $9 an hour at a Burger King on Cutting Blvd. and is her family’s sole income-earner; and Andrew Milian, who works at a Burger King to support his and his girlfriend’s infant daughter.
The strike was one of more than 190 coordinated fast food worker strikes that happened nationwide that day, and was the latest action in what is widely regarded by labor experts as one of the most effective labor movements in recent history.
It is a movement that has achieved concrete political victories over the past two years and reignited the conversation about the public cost of poverty wages.
“I think this is the most successful labor movement we’ve seen in a long, long time,” said Ken Jacobs, Chair of the UC Berkeley Labor Center. “In some cities, [the workers] have already succeeded, more so than anyone anticipated when they started.”
Jacobs attributes the movement’s success partly to fast food workers’ extraordinary commitment to their cause. “They’re really willing to go out on strike on multiple occasions, and they’re willing to take the risk to put themselves forward,” he said. “And the fast food workers’ stories are extremely compelling.”
Fast food workers first began striking in New York City in Nov. 2012. The movement has since spread not only to cities across the country, but also into other labor sectors. Home care aides, airport workers, convenience store workers, Walmart employees and other low-wage workers have since all joined the rally behind a $15 wage.
National organizing group Fast Food Forward, which is financially supported by the SEIU, now claims low-wage workers’ strikes in more than 150 cities and 33 countries on six continents.
The workers’ demands have landed with an impact. Federally, the minimum wage has remained stuck at $7.25 an hour since July 2009, but in the time since the first fast food strike in 2012, 14 states have raised their minimum wages. By the new year, 29 states and the District of Columbia will have minimum wages higher than $7.25.
Earlier this year, the Richmond City Council passed what was then the highest minimum wage in the country, slated to rise to $12.30 by 2017. In November, San Francisco passed a measure that will gradually increase the minimum wage to $15 over the next few years, joining Seattle as the only two U.S. cities to have approved $15. Berkeley has raised its minimum wage to $12.53 and Oakland to $12.25.
McDonald’s, one of the workers’ main targets in their fight for $15, said in a statement this month that the company supports “paying our valued employees fair wages aligned with a competitive marketplace.”
The fast food workers’ demand for $15 has had a momentous political impact on minimum wages in the U.S., according to Jacobs.
“Without that demand, it is unlikely we would have seen $15 an hour in Seattle or San Francisco,” Jacobs said. “It really captured people’s imaginations, effectively demonstrated the problem with our low-wage economy, pointed to some possible solutions, and mobilized people – and in doing so, it has really changed the debate about minimum wage.”
The public cost of low wages
More than half – 52 percent – of the families of non-managerial fast food workers are enrolled in at least one public assistance program like food subsidies or Medicaid, according to a report co-authored by Jacobs.
Those public assistance programs for fast food workers cost taxpayers nearly $7 billion per year, meaning that the cost of fast food workers’ low wages ultimately fall on the public rather than on the fast food corporations that employ them. The UC Berkeley Labor Center calls this taxpayer-paid burden “the public cost of low-wage jobs in America.”
Analyzing figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Labor Center reports that the median hourly wage for non-managerial fast food workers is $8.69 an hour, and that the median number of work hours per week is 30. That amounts to an annual income of a little over $13,500 before taxes and, in the majority of cases, does not include health insurance.
The fight for higher wages is fraught with arguments on both sides of the issue. President Obama has come out in favor of a $10.10 federal minimum wage – the wage that, after adjusting for inflation, would be level with the buying power of the minimum wage in the 1960s, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). The EPI reported last year that raising the minimum wage to $10.10 would lift about 1.7 million workers above poverty-wage level.
But the Congressional Budget Office estimated this year that a $10.10 minimum wage could also result in the loss of 500,000 jobs by 2016 as companies move to replace workers with more cost-effective technology.
The “Fight for $15,” an hourly wage more than twice the current federal minimum wage, thus raises a demand far beyond any minimum wage that has been suggested at a federal level. Cecilia Rodriguez said $15 was determined to be what fast food workers in high-cost cities like San Francisco and New York City need in order to survive. But the workers’ cornerstone demand may actually have been decided upon with little strategy in mind; Fortune magazine reported this month that Kendall Fells, organizing director of Fast Food Forward, said New York City fast food workers settled on $15 just two months before their first strike, based on the thinking that $10 wasn’t enough but $20 wasn’t achievable.
“It wasn’t some Upshot or 538 analysis,” Fells is quoted as saying. “They wanted a wage that would allow them to afford to eat and get a roof over their heads.”
Along with $15 an hour, the right to unionize without retaliation is central to the workers’ demands.
“We’re not scared [to organize] because we know our rights,” said Chris Higgenbotham, an organizer with the group East Bay Fast Food Workers, of himself and 12 coworkers who joined the December 4 strike. Higgenbotham said he makes $9.75 an hour and has worked at a McDonald’s in Oakland for five years. He has been involved in the fight for $15 and a union since East Bay Fast Food Workers formed a year and a half ago.
But one of the challenges of organizing workers is that not all of them know they have a right to organize or form a union, said Marilu Aguilar, development coordinator of a day laborers’ nonprofit called the Oakland Workers’ Collective. Undocumented workers are particularly vulnerable to corporations’ threats of retaliation.
“There’s an attitude of fear among workers because they’re easily replaceable and their job is their livelihood,” said Aguilar. “We need the corporations to listen to their demands, take into account their stories and care for their needs, and beyond that, to create tangible solutions.”
Movement organizers say the right to unionize would provide security and collective bargaining power to workers who otherwise have very little protection against workplace abuse and wage theft.
An “unfair portrait of America’s restaurants”
But the National Restaurant Association has argued that it is unions, and not fast food corporations, who are the bullies.
“National labor groups and their allies have spent millions of dollars on a coordinated campaign to paint an inaccurate and unfair portrait of America’s restaurants,” the association said in a statement released this month. “Organizers have admitted that a $15 level was arbitrarily decided and that they are well aware of the industry’s narrow profit margins.”
McDonald’s has long contended that “approximately 90 percent” of its U.S. restaurants are independently owned franchises whose owners set their own wages and policies.
And fast food corporations and trade groups have repeatedly asserted that fast food jobs’ wages are low because they offer entry-level income for part-time students, families’ second wage-earners, or youngsters just starting out in the workforce.
But contrary to those assertions, 68 percent of fast food workers are the main earners in their families and more than a quarter of fast food workers have children, according to the UC Berkeley Labor Center. The National Employment Law Project reports that the average age of today’s fast food worker is 29.
An industry that was never meant to provide permanent income is now, thanks to economic forces, increasingly populated by long-term workers trying to support families.
Sylvia Allegretto, a research economist at the UC Berkeley Labor Center, thinks most people consider it a “decent trade-off” to pay a very slight increase in prices for better living conditions for workers. She adds there are many “mechanisms of adjustment” to offset potential price increases, like the fact that a higher minimum wage would decrease turnover and make workers highly motivated to keep their jobs.
“Corporations are paying the lowest share of the tax burden ever on record, at a time when corporate profits are at an all-time high,” Allegretto said. “They’re making more money than ever, they’re paying into the public good less than ever, at a time when they’re paying their workers less than ever. It’s almost a double-whammy. The workers who aren’t able to make ends meet have to go somewhere to help make ends meet, and those are the public subsidies – and who pays for them is taxpayers.”
As the fast food workers’ fight enters its third year, momentum seems to be on its side. Earlier this month, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that McDonald’s wields enough power over business operations to, in fact, be considered a joint employer with its franchisees.
The Board also found that the company violated employees’ rights in 86 separate cases by retaliating against workers who sought better pay and who engaged in legally-protected organizing activities. In March, the Board will conduct hearings to determine disciplinary action.
The decisions constitute a huge victory for fast food workers, organizers say.
McDonald’s said in a statement that the company “will contest the joint employer allegation as well as the unfair labor practice charges,” calling the Board’s decision an “overreach.”
But mirroring McDonald’s vow to fight the Board’s decision, Cecilia Rodriguez is clear about how long she will continue to fight for $15 and a union.
“Hasta fin,” she says.
Until the end.