In the midst of calls to support striking Target and Wal-Mart employees as Black Friday expanded to take over Thanksgiving, a few hundred workers at fast food chain stores in New York City planned their own strike for November 29, with leadership from Fast Food Forward. For businesses built on keeping costs low by paying laborers as little as possible, this was a historic protest for living wages in a non-unionized industry.
Ever since the popularity of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed more than ten years ago, the difficulty of supporting a family (or even a single person) on minimum wage jobs has been more than evident. Ehrenreich wrote compellingly of her first person experience taking some of the lowest paid occupations in the U.S., including waitress and Walmart salesperson—and of how she often couldn’t eat and pay her rent from these jobs.
This still holds true for fast food workers, most of whom make minimum wage—just $7.25 per hour in New York City (equivalent to about $11,000 per year). As a point of comparison, according to MIT, the living wage for the same area for one adult with no children is actually $12.75 per hour, a 43 percent difference.
In addition to low wages, fast food workers also have few benefits compared to professional workers—no paid sick or vacation leave and an active attempt to keep them at part time, which, in turn, often means they can’t access medical benefits or have to pay more for them then full time colleagues. In fact, as the National Employment Law Project reported, fast food chains like McDonald’s and Yum! Brands’ Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell are some of the largest employers of low-wage workers with the fewest benefits; and yet they are reaping huge and growing profits in the midst of the recession.
Yet, even as McDonald’s actively works to improve its environmental sustainability and offer healthier menu options, there's little focus on their website or in the press on working conditions. Yum! Brands trails behind McDonald’s on environmental sustainability and health focus—and neither the parent companies nor individual franchisees have publicly reacted to accusations of poor working conditions and low wages brought by strikers.
Nevertheless, Fast Food Forward continues to push for change. They organized a protest in Times Square on Thursday December 6, and a Twitter Rally on December 5. If you’d like to join the fight, like them on Facebook and sign the petition. And, maybe think twice before stopping in at your favorite fast food restaurant.
Shivani is Principal at Friday Consulting, where she works with food and technology startups on strategy, finance, and business planning. She is also a founding consultant at AchieveMission. Shivani holds a BA from Stanford University, and an MBA from Presidio Graduate School. Follow her on twitter @shivaniganguly.