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Food Workers Across the Country Join the Strike for Black Lives

From McDonald’s employees to produce farmers, workers are demanding a bigger commitment to racial justice

Members of 1 Fair Wage hold up a banner during a “Strike for Black Lives” rally on July 20, 2020 in New York City. Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

In over 100 cities around the U.S., and more around the world, workers from a number of different labor organizations and social justice groups are staging a “Strike for Black Lives.” The strike’s goals are multi-pronged, a collective action based on the climate, economic, and racial justice strikes that have gained momentum for the past several months. “This is a moment to transform our economy and democracy but until we dismantle racism and white supremacy, we cannot win economic, climate or immigration justice,” Strike for Black Lives announces on its site. And of course, food service workers are on the front lines.

Many of the strikes and actions are taking place in the food service industry. In New York, workers with the SEIU 32BJ, NYSNA, and One Fair Wage are striking outside Trump Tower. In Chicago, fast food workers, along with One Fair Wage, Rising Majority, and the Movement for Black Lives, are marching toward McDonald’s, rallying for better wages and expanded benefits. In LA and St. Louis, workers will also be rallying at a McDonald’s location. McDonald’s has become a focal point for issues like racism toward staff, and unsafe working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Companies like McDonald’s are failing Black workers and standing in the way of racial justice,” Alexis Chambers, a McDonald’s worker in Memphis, TN, said in a statement from Fight for $15. “Tweeting Black Lives Matter won’t undo racial injustice in our workplaces and doesn’t do anything about the poverty wages, lack of sick days and inadequate PPE that has left Black workers more vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The disconnect between corporations tweeting support for the Black Lives Matter movement while continuing to treat employees poorly was one of the main issues brought up in a press call about today’s strikes. Adriana Alvarez, a striking McDonald’s worker from the Chicago area, stressed the lack of PPE given to predominantly brown and Black workers, “especially as they put out statement after statement about how Black lives matter.” She also said her coworkers had to sue to get their legally mandated sick days, and pointed out how McDonald’s lobbied the Trump administration to ensure workers wouldn’t qualify for paid sick leave.

While the pandemic has wreaked havoc on all sectors of the workforce, food service workers have been in an unfortunately unique position to experience both economic hardship and racism. Black and Latinx people are more likely to work in hospitality and food production. A 2015 report from UC Berkeley showed segregation within the food service industry, as “women and workers of color are largely concentrated in the lowest paying segments and sections of the restaurant industry,” while white men are more likely to score higher-paying jobs in the fine dining sector. The food service and food production industries have seen a rampant spread of COVID-19. They are also industries where workers are both paid low wages, and are not typically granted benefits like paid sick leave.

They also face racism on the job. Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson of the Movement for Black Lives said in the call that while Black people are 13% of the national workforce, over ¼ of workplace claims are for racism against Black people. Black employees in Florida are suing McDonald’s, accusing it of fostering a “racially hostile work environment.” On the press call, Guillermo Garcia, a farm worker with UFW, noted that on top of meagre wages, he and his wife often endure racist slurs from passing cars as they pick vegetables. In an op-ed for Fortune, UFW president Teresa Romero writes that the union “upholds a legacy of solidarity with other oppressed people,” and says farm workers in California and Washington will strike for 8 minutes and 46 seconds today, the length of time a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into George Floyd’s neck, killing him.

Striking workers are demanding corporations and the government to “center communities of color and dismantle racist policies to make sure every family is healthy, safe, and secure, no matter their race, immigration status, job, or where they live.” That means raising wages, allowing workers to unionize, and providing health care, paid sick leave, and child care to all workers regardless of immigration status. They also ask that workers be given adequate PPE, and have a voice in creating a safe workplace both during and after the pandemic.

Trece Andrews, striking nursing home worker in Detroit, said that if their demands are not met, “it’ll be a full blown strike.” However, it’s unclear if workers across these industries, unions and organizations will be able to continue striking for multiple days or weeks. But the strike is a movement of solidarity across industries. “Black people are dying, Black communities are in danger, and workers of all races have had enough,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of SEIU, in a statement. “With the Strike for Black Lives, we are uniting the interconnected fights for racial and economic justice...We demand real action from corporations and elected officials to dismantle the structural racism that has held back Black communities for far too long.”

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