Empowering Poor and Working-Class People

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

The movement in New York City to organize low-wage fast food employees, and to bring public attention to issues impacting their lives, marks an inflection point in the broader campaign to improve conditions for the poor and working poor. It’s an innovative, startlingly effective model to support advocacy for low-wage workers nationwide.

Fast Food Justice, a non-profit trade organization, has helped broaden the conversation in New York City regarding wages and many other issues concerning support for people of color, immigrants and the working poor. These issues include affordable housing, immigration reform, better police-community relations and improvements to New York’s subway system.

It represents a huge step in the slow, steady drumbeat of progress in New York City in recent years on behalf of the poor. That includes increasing the state minimum wage, the “Fair Workweek” law (which bans work schedules made day-by-day or week-by-week), citywide paid sick days and statewide paid family leave, Mayor de Blasio’s campaign for more affordable housing and `Fair Fares’ - the campaign for half-priced MetroCards for the lowest income city residents.

Taken together, these steps send a clear message to New York City’s workforce – the very backbone of our great city – that we are fighting for their rights and dignity.

Last year legislation passed by the New York City Council and signed by Mayor de Blasio created workplace protections for fast-food workers. The law requires two weeks advance notice of work schedules and extra pay if work schedules are changed on less than two weeks notice and for worktime having less than 11 hours between shifts. In addition, the law requires fast food employers to give existing workers the opportunity to work open shifts before hiring new workers. Importantly, it also allows fast food employees to contribute to a nonprofit through payroll deduction. The donations provide Fast Food Justice a dependable funding source for the group’s advocacy.

The law, the first of its type, has drawn national attention because it could be expanded to other trades, such as doormen, rideshare drivers, nursing home workers and the like. Credit belongs to “The Fight for $15,” a group that campaigned to increase the minimum wage and bring the plight of low-wage workers to the public’s attention, and 32BJ-SEIU (Service Employees International Union).

Organizing Low-wage Workers in the Era of Trump

Fast Food Justice’s leaders say they hope to get 5,000 workers to contribute by the end of this year, and 10,000 by the end of 2020 (New York City has about 65,000 fast-food workers). Contributions from 5,000 workers would mean revenue of more than $800,000 a year. That would be a significant war chest to promote policies that counter the cruelty spewing from our nation’s capital that seems aimed at hurting poor working-class people.

Indeed, Fast Food Justice’s efforts represent a small, but important rebuke of President Donald Trump and his war on the poor. In fact, the whole movement is connected to the rise of the modern conservatism which brought with it mean-spirited cuts in the social safety net, attacks on labor unions and regressive tax policies that have increased income inequities.

Fast-food employees, like just about every other low-wage worker group, desperately need an advocate. For instance, there was a time when fast-food workers were dominated by teenagers and students. Today, 75 percent of these workers are in their 20’s or older and a third of them have children, according to the University of Minnesota and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Sadly, 52 percent of all American fast-food workers qualify for some form of public assistance according to a 2015 study by the University of California-Berkeley Labor Center.

The emergence of Fast Food Justice, backed by 32BJ-SEIU and others, comes at a time when organized labor has had little else to celebrate. The Tea Party wave of 2010 brought anti-union, misnamed “right-to-work” laws to the industrial Midwest. Overall, union membership nationally has declined 2.9 million, or about 10 percent, since 1983, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And there’s no reason to believe the opposition to organized labor will magically melt away. For instance, the Restaurant Law Center — the legal arm of the National Restaurant Association — has filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to overturn the fast food law.

Ironically, the fate of fast food workers is ultimately hostage to a paradox: On one hand, this great nation promotes low-wage work as the pathway for hardworking Americans to get better jobs, higher incomes and ultimately better lives. But under President Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress we’re witnessing a pernicious assault on government programs that help the poor while the nation’s wealthiest individuals and corporate America reap the benefits of large tax cuts.

Fast Food Justice along with other groups are fighting back against these attacks on poor families and low-wage workers. For more information contact them at 347-565-4593 or email info@fastfoodjustice.org

Issues Covered

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