Meet the New Union Members: Fast Food Workers and Car Washers

In the past two months, fast food workers have gone on strike and rallied for higher wages in at least six major cities including New York, Detroit, St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Seattle. The fast food industry, which is one of the largest employers of low wage earners in the country, employed more than 2.9 million food prep and serving workers as of 2010, with an average hourly wage of $9.18 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In their recent profile of the condition of fast food workers in the New York area, the New York Times introduced us to Shenita Simon who works as a shift manager at KFC for just 50 cents above minimum wage. When she works overtime, they send her two checks at regular pay as if she's two different employees instead of paying her overtime. When she scalded her hands with boiling oil while on the job, she received only $58 a week in compensation from the company and was constantly hounded by her manager about when she would be returning to work. They also recounted the story of a Mexican immigrant who, though a trained architect, now works for $5 an hour delivering pizza to send money home to his daughters in Mexico. He even delivered pizzas through Hurricane Sandy, stating, “They told us to ride bent over, so the pizzas wouldn’t get wet.”

At the same time, the industry is one of the least unionized in the country since their work is generally considered “unskilled,” meaning anyone could, in theory, do the work, and many fast food workers are transitory, that is, they do not intend to make a career out of their work with the store. To make matters worse for fast food employees, the industry has earned a reputation for fighting many efforts to improve the situation of its workers. As the New York Times notes, “Papa John’s chief executive, John Schnatter, makes $2 million per year and lives on a faux medieval estate outside Louisville, Ky. He spoke recently of trying to subvert Obamacare’s provisions by cutting the hours of all of his workers to less than 30 hours. YUM! Brands, which owns KFC and Taco Bell and whose chief executive makes $11.3 million per year, helped lead the battle against paid sick days.”

In recent months, however, with the help of Fast Food Forward, a community organizing coalition, fast food workers are changing their tactics and publically protesting conditions without necessarily resorting directly to unionization. The goal instead is to embarrass the corporations behind fast food chains into providing a living wage.

The question remains, however, how successful this tactic will be and if it works, what it will mean for the future of corporate negotiations with traditionally unskilled labor forces. As Gawker points out, these PR-centered campaigns are not always successful, especially with large chain stores, which is why unionization efforts at Starbucks, Target, and Wal-Mart have been successfully blocked in most cases. But, if successful, it could mean at long last the lowest earners finally have a tool they can leverage to force negotiations with their employers.   

Events in D.C. this week may provide some additional insight into the prospects for such a tactic, however. In an effort to improve the similarly disadvantaged conditions of employees at big box retailers like Target and Wal-Mart, members of the D.C. City Council proposed a “living wage” bill that would require large retailers to pay their employees no less than $12.50 an hour. Wal-Mart responded by threatening to pull out of at least 3 planned stores in the city. In a dramatic response to the ultimatum, however, lawmakers approved the legislation by a vote of 8-5, council member Vincent B. Orange, saying that the city did “not need to kowtow to threats,” according to the Washington Post, “We’re at a point where we don’t need retailers. Retailers need us.”

And despite long odds, the striking fast food workers seem to be in the fight for the long haul. As the New York Times notes, these workers “bob along the poverty line in an impossibly expensive city. What’s to lose?” And, when asked if she was concerned about angering her employer, KFC worker, Shenita Simon, shook her head, saying, “I have no lies to tell. This is just my life.”