“The goal is to work to live, and not to live to work,” public advocate Tish James said during an indoor rally today in support of Fast Food Justice, a new group that’s fighting for fast-food worker rights and livable wages in New York City. Dozens of restaurant employees left their jobs to show up at the rally, which city officials also attended. “This is about economic justice,” NYC’s comptroller Scott Stringer said during the rally. “This will be a model for organizations across the country.”
Fast-food workers — one of the nation’s largest groups of employees — are still legally and logistically unable to unionize, but a new New York City law went into effect late last year that finally allows them, at the very least, to organize. The law, a part of the city’s new Fair Workweek Rules, enables groups of 500 workers or more to collect pre-tax dues and use their size and resources to fight for protections, rights, and higher wages.
Fast Food Justice has assembled a list of more than 1,200 fast-food workers in the New York City region. At today’s rally, the group announced that it is the first nonprofit worker organization registered under the local law and, according to a release, was recognized by the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) last week. Members of the group pledged to donate $13.50 each month from their pre-tax pay.
“At a time when we face an affordability crisis like never before, when we know the rent is too damn high, Fast Food Justice will help everyday families get by,” comptroller Stringer said in a release, calling for “a moment to deliver real, lasting progress for working people.”
Though New York City’s minimum wage is on the rise and among the highest in the nation, workers across the country are looking to this new law as a way to offer the disparate groups in the hospitality industry a voice. The Fight for $15 movement, which has been bringing workers together across industries, demanding action from major companies and franchisors, and fighting for union rights since 2012, came out in strong support of the new law. Though it remains concerned that without real union protections, a corporation like McDonald’s may not agree to negotiations, organizers acknowledged the momentum of this first step. Workers at all levels of the industry are energized.
“It’s like if you have a boat,” says Jackson Sturkey, a member of Fast Food Justice, “you want to have life jackets, right? This is our life jacket.” Sturkey, a manager at a Five Guys restaurant in midtown Manhattan, told Eater he believed Five Guys was following the law, and likely had its employees’ best interests in mind, but that he wanted to make sure that this was the case for all fast-food workers. (Strukey said that Five Guys had not attempted any retaliatory action against him or his employees for joining Fast Food Justice.)
Earlier this month, Fast Food Justice member Shantel Walker, a Brooklyn-based Papa John’s employee for nearly 20 years, told her story to Civil Eats. A few years ago, around time the city began prosecuting Papa John’s franchisees for wage theft and other violations, Walker joined the Fight for $15 movement. Some franchisees went to jail; the one Walker worked for was fined $800,000. Though she’s fighting primarily for more equitable wages, Walker acknowledges that a wide range of inequalities and abuse is rampant in the industry.
“Discrimination happens a lot in the workplace, but customers… don’t have any idea what’s happening behind that counter,” Walker told Civil Eats. “They don’t see the retaliatory measures. They don’t see your hours getting cut and cut. They don’t see your boss talking to you like you’re worthless. That’s why I’m so vocal and adamant with what I do.”
Because it’s not a formal union, the group doesn’t plan on negotiating formal contracts with employers. Instead, they’ll use their resources to push for higher wages, and work with the city to make “affordable housing, immigration reform, better police-community relations, and improvements to New York’s subway system” a priority.
Naturally, the National Restaurant Association came out against the new law, according to the New York Times. Its legal department, the Restaurant Law Center, is suing to overturn the rule, arguing that it’s a constitutional violation of a restaurant owners’ right to free speech.
“We think this law is a way of trying to get restaurants to fund groups” that “will harass restaurants with money from the restaurants,” the Restaurant Law Center’s director Angelo Amador told the Times. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
Meanwhile, Fast Food Justice is moving forward. It hopes to sign on 5,000 workers by year’s end, and a total of 10,000 by the end of 2020. (According to the Times, there are about 65,000 fast-food workers in NYC.)
Workers like Sturkey remain hopeful. “This isn’t my only career, I’m also a musician,” he told Eater. “But there’s this old rule in camping, where you leave the campsite better than you found it. My work with Fast Food Justice is about leaving the industry better than I found it.”