Last Thursday, fast-food workers reminded New York City and the country at large that minimum wage isn’t going to cut it.
Across the nation, fast-food workers walked off their jobs and rallied in favor of a living wage along with benefits like health insurance. In Manhattan, workers gathered at Foley Square then marched down to Zuccotti Park to demonstrate how serious they were about their fight for better wages in the economy’s new normal.
The rally at Foley Square was organized by the New Day New York Coalition, which is a new coalition made up of community groups, faith-based organizations, labor unions and Occupy Wall Street veterans that is collectively focused on the issue of economic justice. The coalition includes 32BJ SEIU, Communications Workers of America, Restaurant Opportunities Center of NY, Walmart Free NYC, Community Voices Heard, New York Communities for Change, Center for Popular Democracy, Strong Economy for All Coalition and United NY.
Fast-food workers may have had the headlines, but the signs held by protesters showed that that they weren’t the only workforce on the minds of attendees. Lit up signs that resembled the children’s toy Lite-Brite displayed words like “Women,” “Workers,” “Teachers” and “All of Us.” And for those who didn’t notice that, 32BJ SEIU President Hector Figueroa reminded them when he spoke at Foley Square.
“Are you ready to fight with the airport workers? Are you ready to fight with the car washers? Are you ready to fight with the fast-food workers? Are you ready to fight with the teachers?” Figueroa asked the crowd, receiving a resounding yes every time.
“This is about workers who are looking to make it in this city,” continued Figueroa. “We need a new day. The time has come. We need to change the rules that have been imposed on us. It is a shame when we talk about a recovery, and yet 50 percent of working people are eligible for food stamps.”
SEIU President Mary Kay Henry spoke as well and said that despite fast-food protests going on around the nation, all eyes were on New York.
“I come on behalf of the workers all across this country who count on the workers of New York to show this nation that it is possible–when workers join hands together and have the courage to walk out or bargain–that we can lift wages in this nation again and create the next American middle class,” said Henry.
Fast food is a $200 billion a year industry, but many of its service workers earn just above minimum wage at the most and usually have to rely on public assistance programs for things like basic health care for their families. In the United States, the median wage for cooks, cashiers and crew members at fast-food restaurants is $8.94 an hour. In the five boroughs, there are 55,000 fast-food workers, and most of them reportedly earn the state’s $7.25 an hour minimum wage. According to a wage calculator created by Dr. Amy K. Glasmeier at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an adult with one child needs to make $24.69 an hour working full-time in New York City to afford the basics.
While the protests have gotten the attention of management and corporations, political figures have showed solidarity as well. New York City Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito and Public Advocate-elect Letitia James were present at the rally and gave words of encouragement to those in attendance. New York City Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio wasn’t present but released a statement earlier in the day showing support as well.
“I am proud to stand strong with the working men and women in the Fast Food Forward movement in New York City and across this country,” said de Blasio. “We all know that while the fast-food industry rakes in billions every year, it refuses to pay its workers enough to provide for themselves or their families. I stand fully behind the fast-food workers in our city and across the nation who are on strike today in their effort to organize for a livable wage and fair benefits.”
De Blasio wasn’t the only public figure standing with fast-food workers around the country. Food critic Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” “In Defense of Food” and “Cooked,” wrote a letter to MoveOn.org members urging them to stand with fast-food workers as well.
“Those of us working in the food movement often speak of our economy’s unhealthy reliance on ‘cheap food,’” Pollan wrote. “But cheap food only seems cheap because the real costs of its production are hidden from us: the exploitation of food and farm workers, the brutalization of animals and the undermining of the health of the soil, the water and the atmosphere.”
Pollan also wrote that in order to produce food sustainably and sell it at an honest price, workers have to be paid a living wage so they can afford to buy it.
“As a society, we’ve trapped ourselves in a kind of reverse Fordism,” Pollan continued. “Instead of paying workers well enough so that they can afford good, honestly-priced products—as Henry Ford endeavored to do so that his workers might afford to buy his cars—we pay them so little that the only food they can afford is junk food destructive of their health and the environment’s.”