The Wages of Dignity

Published on The Brooklin Rail, by Eleanor J- Bader, July 15, 2013.

… Shaheen, for example, has received only one wage increase in five years, moving from $7.25 to $7.75 an hour. Meanwhile, George, 22, has worked full-time at a Burger King on Fifth Avenue in Bay Ridge for three years. “I still make $7.25,” he scowls. “I ask for more money every day I work. This morning the boss told me that I’ll get a raise when I die. It makes me feel low not to be able to support myself and move out of mommy and daddy’s house. I’m already old and I’ve gotta stay with them because I can’t afford to get a place of my own.”  

Beyond just better wages, the workers at the forefront of the FFF campaign are demanding to be treated with greater respect and dignity.

Fastfoodcrimewave, a Tumblr page, adds a litany of other work-related complaints to those voiced by George and Shaheen. Some examples: “I don’t get overtime”; “I don’t get paid for time spent counting the register”; “I have to pay if the register is short”; “I have to buy my own uniform.” And these are not isolated grumblings. According to an investigation promoted by FFF and released in April 2013, 84 percent of New York City fast food workers in the five boroughs have experienced wage theft, an intentional violation of state labor laws so egregious that Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is presently looking into the matter. His corroboration could have major implications for more than 50,000 New York City fast food workers—and produce a ripple effect for the approximately three million laborers who toil in the industry throughout the 50 states.

Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change, understands that the campaign is fighting a mighty adversary with incredibly deep pockets. How deep, you ask? reported in July 2012 that the top 15 chains in the U.S. raked in a combined $115 billion in nationwidewide sales in 2011 … //

… Management has also put the issue of pay rates and benefits squarely on the shoulders of individual franchise owners—as if they are to blame for worker disquiet. “We’ve sat down with a few different franchise owners to advocate on behalf of employees,” Westin adds. “The common refrain is that there is nothing they can do because they’re struggling to get by and feel squeezed. They tell us that their profit margin is small because everything they do is controlled from the top, from how much sauce to put on a Big Mac to what toilet paper to buy. They say that the corporation has all the power.”

FFF organizer Naquasia, who is 22 years old and a two-year employee of KFC, doesn’t buy it. Despite cobbling together full-time hours by working two part-time KFC jobs, she still relies on food stamps, something she doubts any franchise owner has ever had to do. “I worry about my health,” she says. “Most of my co-workers can’t afford nutritious, home-cooked food. All we can afford is the dollar menu at McDonald’s. We get one KFC meal during our shift and each day we tell one another that we have to stop eating it, but we can’t. I know I’m blessed to have a job, but the managers act like they’re doing good by us and they’re not. I’ve worked off the clock and have worked more than 40 hours without overtime. I’ve had to put five dollars back into the register when I’ve come up short. That’s my MetroCard money, so it hurts.”

Naquasia’s fury is contagious; so is her fire. The FFF campaign is about power, she says. “I go out once or twice a week, as a volunteer, and talk to other workers about the campaign. It’s a worker-to-worker thing. When people hear our passion they get on board. We show them that we’re willing to stand up for our rights and have each other’s backs. They see that joining FFF is the right thing to do. Day-by-day, more people are opening their eyes to the injustice of their jobs.”

That injustice has prompted George to attend several FFF meetings. While Shaheen’s school schedule has made attendance impossible, she is quick to note that her lack of participation does not reflect a lack of interest. In fact, both workers agree that earning $15 an hour would be life-changing. While they feel that winning such a large increase is unlikely, they also know that power rarely surrenders of its own accord. Not surprisingly, they are considering joining the next, as-yet-unscheduled, FFF action.
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