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PORTSIDE  December 2012, Week 2

PORTSIDE December 2012, Week 2

Subject:

Retail Rebellion: Fast-Food Workers, Inspired by Walmart Strikers

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Sat, 8 Dec 2012 11:29:27 -0500

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The Retail Rebellion: Fast-Food Workers, Inspired
by Walmart Strikers, Demand Higher Wages

By Liz Goodwin
Yahoo! News
December 7, 2012

http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/lookout/retail-rebellion-fast-food-workers-inspired-walmart-strikers-205925413.html


Last month, workers at hundreds of Walmart
locations nationwide staged protests-many on
Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the
year-demanding the retail giant pay higher wages.

Walmart downplayed the rare show of rebellion,
saying it only involved a fraction of its 1.6 million
U.S. employees. But the protests, which garnered a
slew of media attention, both shed light on a
pressing issue and represented one of the most
significant labor actions against the big box store in
its history.

The protests also inspired another group of low-
wage workers to stage their own. Last week, about
200 fast-food workers in New York City walked out
of their workplaces-chains affected included Burger
King and McDonald's-to demand a "living wage" of
$15 an hour and an end to the practice of keeping
workers on part-time hours to avoid them getting
benefits or overtime. The employees also want to
form a union for the city's estimated 50,000 fast-
food workers to negotiate over pay and benefits.

One protester was fired, but reinstated after
community leaders, including New York City
councilmembers, convinced the management at the
Fulton Mall Wendy's in Brooklyn to take her back.

Jonathan Westin, organizing director of the non-
profit New York Communities for Change and one of
the organizers of the latest protests, said the Black
Friday strikes at Walmart inspired the fast-food
protesters to put aside their fears of losing their
jobs. "Workers saw that you could step out and be
courageous and take on your bosses," Westin said.
The group had been talking to fast-food workers
since the summer about working conditions and
unionizing, but last week was the first major
demonstration.

Most fast-food employees, he noted, work part-time
and are paid minimum wage ($7.25/hour), so don't
make enough money to support their families.
"Many have to rely on public assistance," Westin
said. "The taxpayers are fronting the bill for what
these multi-billion corporations are refusing to pay
in wages and benefits."

The Walmart and fast-food protests are remarkable
because low-wage employees are often the most
vulnerable and easily replaced in the workforce, and
so rarely publicly complain about working
conditions. Angela Cornell, director of the Labor Law
Clinic at Cornell University Law School, said it's
unusual to see such workers striking, especially
when the unemployment rate is still high.

"These workers are under an enormous amount of
financial strain right now," Cornell said. "Wages
have been stagnant . while everything else is going
up for them. It's been going on for so long now that
... they're willing to take the risk because the
situation is increasingly intolerable."

Their frustration might also be bubbling up from
longer-term economic changes in the country. The
U.S. workforce's average salary used to rise at
almost exactly the same rate as its productivity,
which meant the more we produced, the better we
were paid. That link began to break in the 1980s,
and now, though U.S. workers are more productive
than ever, wages have been stagnant for years. A
study from the National Employment Law Project
points out that the minimum wage is worth 30
percent less than in 1968. Meanwhile, corporate
profits are at record highs.

"They are long overdue for improvements in wages,"
Cornell said. The issue has become more pressing
since the recession, as nearly 60 percent of all jobs
created since 2008 have paid hourly wages of
$13.83 or less.

The economic argument for these low wages is that
people like cheap hamburgers, pizza and other fast
food, and that higher wages would mean higher
prices that could put franchises-most
independently owned-out of business. And,
because the jobs require minimal education, owners
don't need to pay more to fill the jobs.

But at a crowded rally organized by unions and
community groups in New York's busy Times Square
on Thursday, mayoral hopefuls Bill de Blasio, New
York City public advocate, and Bill Thompson
repudiated that line of thinking. They threw their
support behind the effort for higher wages for fast-
food workers and other low-income New Yorkers,
saying such employees should unionize and
demand a "living wage." De Blasio said New York
has become like "a tale of two cities," with the city's
poor workers increasingly living far apart from
Manhattan's elite, unable to live in the city where
they work in essential jobs.

"You can't raise a family on minimum wage," Pamela
Flood, a Burger King worker with three children,
said on stage at the rally. "With food and diapers,
my pay check is gone after two days. We need a
change."

Many labor experts, however, see an uphill battle to
forming a fast-food workers union. These employees
are not only regarded as replaceable, but the
franchises are operated by a patchwork of owners
and employee turnover is high.

"It's very difficult to do," said Professor Gary
Chaisen, a labor expert at Clark University. "They're
extremely vulnerable. They're hesitant to join
unions because they're worried about losing their
jobs."

That fear is rational, since U.S. law allows managers
to fire employees if their work stoppages affect the
company's bottom line. But it is also illegal for
employers to discourage workers from seeking to
unionize by threatening them with consequences.

Monica Bielski Boris, a labor expert and assistant
professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-
Champaign, said perhaps fast-food workers would
have better luck organizing into a nontraditional
union, like the "hiring hall" model used in the
construction industry. Businesses looking to hire
must go to the hiring hall to find workers, and
negotiate certain wages and benefits in advance.

Felicito Tapia, a deli worker at a Hot and Crusty on
14th Street who attended the rally, said he
attempted to form a union at his store last spring,
mainly to get paid sick days and a higher wage for
employees. "With $7.25, you can't do anything. That
salary is nothing," Tapia said, while holding a sign
demanding $15/hour wages for fast-food workers.

Tapia has worked at different Hot and Crusty
locations for 10 years, but has never been able to
take off a holiday, including Christmas, which is
something he would want to negotiate if he ever
successfully unionizes.

Tapia's unionizing efforts failed, but workers at
another Hot and Crusty bakery on the Upper East
Side succeeded after temporarily shutting down
their store in protest. The workers there signed a
union contract at the end of October that guarantees
them paid sick days and holidays-a benefit the
vast majority of food workers in New York City do
not have. But it might just be a start.

___________________________________________

Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.

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