Thursday’s strike by New York fast food workers was the biggest in the industry’s history, but an organizer involved in the campaign says it was just a preview of what’s to come.
“What we hope [the strike] accomplishes in the future is that it galvanizes more workers,” said Jonathan Westin, organizing director for New York Communities for Change (NYCC). “Folks in the fast food industry are coming out, and maybe folks in other parts of the country will do the same.”
The initial strike, in which over 200 fast food workers participated, was intended as the kickoff of a much longer campaign. Now that workers have demonstrated that they can publicly strike without being fired as a result, Westin predicted that other workers would join in the next action.
The fast food organizing campaign is atypical in a number of ways, even for a low-wage service sector battle. Labor unions have rarely tried to organize American fast food workers, and the group doing most of the organizing right now is not a union. Instead, NYCC is a community organization, meaning that its primary campaign building block is the neighborhood instead of the workplace.
“We don’t go at these fights as if this is a union fight,” said Westin. “We believe that workers should be unionized, but this is a community issue.” For groups like NYCC, the question is not just how workers are treated by their employers, but how worker mistreatment affects entire neighborhoods.
“The biggest employer in our neighborhoods and of our members is the fast food industry,” said Westin. “We started talking to some of the workers [in our neighborhoods’ fast food restaurants], and then over the summer we really started doing an intense organizing drive.” That meant dedicating 40 of NYCC’s organizers to rallying workers and building the momentum for a long-term campaign.
The fast food organizing campaign is not NYCC’s first attempt to unionize an industry. For three years, the group has been partnering with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) to organize grocery stores around New York City. More recently, NYCC and RWDSU also teamed up to unionize city car washes.
If the fast food campaign is successful, however, workers at those corporations would not be joining the retail union. Instead, fast food workers are demanding recognition of a brand new union called the Fast Food Workers Committee. Though RWDSU might not be leading the drive this time around, Westin said that the campaign had significant backing from labor, other community groups, clergy, and even elected officials.
“We had not only our members out there; we had clergy out there, we had elected officials out there, maybe a dozen community organizations, and a half-dozen unions,” said Westin. “We’re not going to fight this on our own. We’re going to engage an entire community of people and build on that.”
NYCC’s pluralist, community-based approach to organizing mirrors the social unionism model associated most closely with Unite Here, a union representing hospitality workers. In the past election, Unite Here worked with immigrant justice groups and other organizations in Arizona to build what they hope will be a durable power base for future social justice campaigns. Similarly, NYCC has enlisted the help of the SEIU-backed UnitedNY, the Working Families Party, and Democratic city councilman Jumaane Williams.
Westin said that all of those groups turned out in force when one of the strikers was threatened with a retaliatory firing by her manager. The day after the strike, an employee of a Brooklyn Wendy’s tried to return to work and was told by the store’s manager that she no longer had a job there. In response, said Westin, “Councilman Jumaane Williams, Dan Cantor from the Working Families Party, Camille Rivera from UnitedNY, and some other spokesmen from the community came out and said we need to talk to this manager and find out why this worker was fired.”
Picketers converged on the store, and eventually the manager rescinded his threat to fire the worker. “At the end of all of this, I think the manager decided that the best option for him was, instead of having hundreds more protesters come, he could just give this woman her job back,” said Westin. He claimed that no other workers involved in the strike had been fired by their managers, and that the lack of negative consequences would empower other fast food employees to join the movement.
Wendy’s employees “were very inspired by what happened,” said Westin. “They were giving us thumbs up on our way out of the store. These are people who weren’t necessarily ready to go on strike yesterday, but maybe they’ll do it the next time.”