Global “Fight for 15” Comes Home

By Joan Collins Lambert 

Through the “Fight for 15” campaign, Metro Justice is bringing the global struggle for fast food workers to Rochester, and not a minute too soon.

            Eight months ago -- as the fast food worker movement continued to build momentum in New York and Chicago -- the Rochester Area Foundation caused a stir when it issued a report saying that Rochester is the fifth poorest city in the country. The study recommended three solutions, including “reducing the academic achievement gap,” “fostering racial understanding,” and “building awareness” to “encourage economic and community development.”

            Of course, you can publish all the reports you want, and build all the awareness and racial understanding in the world, but people won’t stop being poor until they’re paid higher wages, and they won’t get higher wages until they demand them for themselves, collectively. As Metro Justice’s Organizing Director Colin O’Malley has pointed out, it’s not that more of Rochester-area’s poor are out of work, because our unemployment level is slightly lower than the national average. People are poor because they aren’t paid enough for the work they do.

            Fast food’s biggest corporation, McDonald’s, publicly admitted it was paying poverty wages to its front-line employees last year when it published on its website some Dickensian advice on how to get by on McDonald’s wages -- advice that assumed a second job, and included applying for public assistance, turning your heat down in the winter, and taking smaller bites of food to make it last longer. (They forgot to include “Master the art of dumpster diving.”)

            Under the “Fight for 15” banner, fast food workers have kept their demands simple: $15 an hour and the right to form a union without retaliation. As the momentum has grown, so have the objections: If fast food corporations have to pay $15 an hour, they’ll have to lay people off. They’ll replace workers with robots. It will lead to inflation. Only teenagers will benefit. The price of a Big Macs and Taco Supremes will skyrocket. McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King will go out of business. All hell will break loose and the sky will fall.

Of course, for many of us in the 99%, the sky has already fallen, which is why the average age of fast food workers has risen from age 22 in 2000 to age 29.5 today. So, no -- most fast food workers aren’t teenagers. Seventy percent are age 20 or older. Almost 40 percent are 25 or older. More than 30 percent have at least some college experience, and more than 25 percent have children, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.            

            As for all those other objections, I think we can all rest assured that fast food corporations won’t go out of business any time soon, even if they do the right thing and raise their wages to $15 an hour. According to a report published by the economic think tank Demos, the fast food industry has the worst pay disparity of all our economic sectors. In 2012, Demos reports, the compensation of fast food CEOs was more than 1,200 times the earnings of the average fast food worker, which is “considerably out of line with the rest of the economy.”

            Adjusted for inflation, wages for front-line fast food workers in the United States have dropped by 36 cents an hour since 2010, while fast food corporations have made record-breaking profits in the same period.

            Meanwhile, in Europe, where labor unions are accepted as rightful participants in the economy, McDonald’s workers make considerably more than $15 an hour -- and somehow, by some magic, McDonald’s has a higher profit margin there than it does in the United States.           

            It’s misleading to characterize all fast food restaurants as mom-and-pop operations. According to the McDonald’s website, “Generally, we require a minimum of $750,000 of non-borrowed personal resources to consider you for a franchise,” and they don’t let you count the value of your home in that formula. So, yeah - if Mom and Pop have three quarters of a million dollars lying around, maybe you could call it that. (McDonald’s, by the way, has reported that most franchisees own multiple restaurants.)

The franchise model raises the question of who fast food workers should be appealing to for high pay - the international corporation, or the franchisee? While McDonald’s likes to claim they’re not really the employer, they appear to rule with a heavy hand, says Timothy Noah in an article about a wage theft lawsuit on


McDonald’s franchisees, the lawsuits say, are required to install assorted McDonald’s-supplied computer hardware and software that compiles data about sales, inventory, and labor costs. The computer calculates how many people the franchisee must hire. It’s also used to set work schedules for individual employees and keeps track not only of when each employee goes on and off the clock but even how long it takes each to fill every customer order. If a store manager goes back into the system to reduce an employee’s recorded number of hours worked, the fact of that alteration (a red flag for wage theft) will be recorded. All this information is available on a daily (and possibly hourly) basis to McDonald’s.


            I don’t know what the judge will rule in this case, but I, for one, believe that the McDonald’s Corporation and other fast food franchisers have the power to require that workers be paid $15 an hour if they really wanted to.

            As the Fight for 15 campaign continues in Rochester, it’s important to remember that $15 an hour is only half of the goal. The other is the right to form a union without retaliation, and that’s why the Fight for 15 campaign isn’t simply appealing to lawmakers to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Certainly, an increase in the minimum wage would be welcomed, but it won’t give workers any power when it comes to working conditions and workplace safety, and it won’t ensure that workers will be able to bargain collectively over wages in the years to come. Fifteen dollars an hour by itself won’t give workers a real voice in the workplace.  

            Unionization will be more difficult for fast food workers to achieve than $15 an hour, and they’ll need a lot of community support for it. Employers fear unionization more, and will fight it much harder. (Fast food executives fear unionization so much, they’ve even begun to suggest that raising the minimum wage to $10 may not be such a bad idea after all.)

            In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) this year, McDonald’s listed growing labor unrest as a potential risk for the company’s future earnings. It’s written in bureaucrat speak, but excerpts from their statements to the SEC make it clear that McDonald’s is intimidated by the organizing and public support the fast food movement has already achieved:                      

The impact of events such as boycotts or protests, labor strikes and supply chain interruptions...that can adversely affect us or the suppliers, franchisees and others that are also part of the McDonald’s System and whose performance has a material impact on our results...the impact on our margins of labor costs that we cannot offset through price increases, and the long-term trend toward higher wages and social expenses in both mature and developing markets, which may intensify with increasing public focus on matters of income inequality...


The italics are mine, because I want to call attention to the fact that McDonald’s is already conceding a “long term trend toward higher wages” as a result of the organized action by fast food workers that’s already occurred. They fear “increasing public focus on matters of income inequality.” That means they fear your support of fast food workers. My fellow Rochesterians, let’s show them their fears are justified.

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