The Makings of a Fast-Food-Worker Movement

Low-wage restaurant workers take their fight to the center of organized labor.
(Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Apr 17, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jamilah King is a TakePart staff writer covering the intersection of race/ethnicity, poverty, gender, and sexuality.

Even though Roderick Livingston works at Taco Bell and McDonald’s, he still goes hungry. For much of the last two years, Livingston, 27, has struggled to make ends meet in St. Petersburg, Florida. First he got a job at Taco Bell, where he worked the grill, cleaned the floors, and took customers’ orders at the register. But three months ago, when his manager refused to give him more than 25 regular weekly hours, he took up a second job at McDonald’s, doing the same work for roughly the same pay: $8.05 an hour.

He had an apartment with friends, but the lease ran out. Child-support payments for his two sons were taken out of his paycheck. So Livingston hasn’t been able to save enough money to pay the first month’s rent and deposit that many landlords require. He started couch surfing. But after especially long hours that saw him leaving work in the wee hours of the morning, he took to sleeping in his 1987 gray Cadillac. Once he even slept in Taco Bell’s parking lot because he didn’t feel safe pulling his car over at 4 a.m. to sleep in a nearby road.

“My managers know my situation,” he told TakePart. “If I would’ve had somewhere to go rest my head, I would’ve called someone to pick me up or caught a ride from a coworker. But I have nowhere to rest my head, and I work hard,” he said, later adding, “It’s nothing I can do but keep working and keep trying.”

For Livingston, “trying” has meant joining with thousands of other fast-food workers to demand better pay and benefits. In just a few short years, their fight has moved to the center of the conversation about American labor. There are more than 3 million fast-food workers in the United States—and many of them buck conventional ideas about who’s flipping our burgers and making our french fries. Sixty-eight percent are not in school and are single or married adults with or without children, according to a study by the Labor Center at the University of California, Berkeley. More than half are enrolled in one or more public assistance programs. Americans are spending more than $153 billion each year to subsidize McDonald’s and Walmart’s low-wage workers, according to an analysis by Ken Jacobs, chair of Berkeley’s Labor Center.

The movement peaked this week as thousands of workers rallied nationwide to raise their pay to $15 an hour. Keeshan Harley, a member of Make the Road New York, a nonprofit that focuses on justice issues, told USA Today why that was important. “In New York City, its kind of impossible to work on $8 an hour when you have $1,900 to $2,000 rents,” he said. “So we need $15 an hour. Thats the bare minimum. That is just moving toward sustainability in the city.”

The rise of the fast-food-worker movement directly correlates to America’s economic recovery. A 2014 analysis by the National Employment Law Project found that low-wage positions account for the majority of jobs generated in the three years after the 2008 recession. With more Americans relying on low-wage jobs to make a living, there’s been a deeper discussion about what that living should look like, according to advocates. The pitch is simple: Fast-food workers deserve more pay, and taxpayers shouldn’t be burdened with picking up the slack when corporations refuse to pay their workers enough to live.

Fast-food companies contend that paying their workers $15 an hour is unreasonable. McDonald’s recently announced that it would raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour for some employees in its company-owned restaurants in the United States.

Critics point out that the vast majority of McDonald’s workers would not benefit from the raises because their workplaces are not company-owned but instead owned by independent business owners, known as franchisees. What’s more, that raise still isn't a living wage for many workers.

Though the campaign is new, its roots are old. The organization that’s been rallying workers nationwide—Fight for $15—is funded by the Service Employees International Union, one of America’s two biggest labor unions. That’s given ammunition to antilabor critics who oppose the group’s goals.

The movement has galvanized workers like Livingston, who joined the protests on April 15. In his native Georgia drawl that’s grown hoarse from picket-line protests, he reiterated his commitment. “I just want to see things change, and I want to be valued as an employee, because we’re the ones making these companies money,” he said. “I’ll support this because I see so many people involved and fighting for what they believe in.”