Low-Wage Workers Rising Up in New York City

The line typically forms at the door of this Wendy's in Downtown Brooklyn during lunch hour. Not today.

The line typically forms at the door of this Wendy's in Downtown Brooklyn during lunch hour. Not today. That's because a picket line circles the Fulton Street sidewalk in front of the restaurant and organizers with New York Communities for Change (NYCC) stand by the entrance distributing leaflets, urging costumers to eat elsewhere. The previous day, on November 29, employees of McDonald's, Burger King, Yum Brands and other fast food restaurants across New York City walked off the job in the largest fast food workers strike in American history. Their demands: $15 an hour and union recognition. But after walking off the job last Thursday, the workers faced another challenge the following day -- walking back on.

Upon returning to work at Wendy's last Friday, single mother Shalonda Montgomery was told not to bother clocking in. "She was the youngest worker," said Sherry Jones with NYCC, "and she was the newest. They let everybody else go right back. But they tried to make an example out of her." When news of the firing got out, fast food workers from across the city mobilized in Montgomery's defense. The restaurant quickly became the focal point of the Fast Food Forward Campaign, which the day before had helped orchestrate the strike that saw approximately 200 workers at 27 restaurants across the city refuse to go on the job.

The fast food fight-back is part of a growing upsurge in struggle initiated by the working poor in the United States. Last month, a nationwide day of action involving laborers at hundreds of Walmarts on Black Friday left a ray of hope on the consumerist holiday for workers and their supporters. Aside from last week's fast food fight there have been a number of successful unionization drives among car wash and grocery workers in New York City recently.

"Workers have been talking with one another," said Deborah Ax of the community-based labor organization Make the Road. "There's an unprecedented level of organizing going on." Make the Road has helped spearhead a campaign among car wash workers in which strikes have won higher wages and back pay. Four car washes have voted to unionize since the organizing drive began in March. Ax said Make the Road identified workers ready to lead the car wash crusade while campaigning in immigrant and working class communities around health care and housing issues. The organization put the workers in touch with one another, and today worker councils exist at numerous car washes, coordinating through a citywide steering committee.

Their efforts have been bolstered by an agreement from the Taxi Workers Alliance and the city's limo drivers (represented by the International Association of Machinists) not to patronize targeted shops, though Ax admits there are really no "good guy" car washes. The going hourly wage is $5.50 in the car wash industry -- the tipped minimum wage -- and shifts often last up to 12 hours. Yet there are bad guys that stand out, such as car wash kingpin John Lage, who owns 23 washes and is under investigation by the state Attorney General's Office over hourly wage violations. Three of Lage's washes have voted to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, but so far he has been unwilling to sit down and discuss terms and conditions. Make the Road is pushing for the city government to follow the lead set by taxi and black-car drivers and cancel existing contracts it has with Lage.

Juan Carlos, an employee at a Lage car wash in SoHo, said that once he began organizing for a union Lage approached him personally and gave him a 50-cent raise. In the seven years prior to the union drive, whenever Carlos complained about his pay he was told that if he didn't like it he could go home -- and now, all of a sudden, a raise.

"It was his way of saying, 'Stop organizing'" said Carlos. But Carlos didn't stop organizing, and as we spoke on Thursday night a picket of roughly 300 "carwasheros" and supporters stamped to the rhythm of a brass brand in front of the SoHo car wash demanding Lage negotiate a fair contract with the newly formed union.

"I'm not fighting just for myself," he said. "I'm fighting for all of us. We're only going to win this by fighting together."

It was was in that spirit of fighting together that workers from across the city rallied in Times Square yesterday evening. Approximately 2,000 people turned up. Many were from established unions, there in support of their low wage comrades battling for collective bargaining powers. Speakers called for ending the Bush tax cuts to the wealthy and comprehensive immigration reform. Among those on the podium was City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who praised the city's fast food workers.

"They stood up in an industry that has historically never been organized," she said. "They've stood up and said that they have rights. They've faced the threat of being fired. They're going to stand together and all of us are going to have their backs." Quinn declined to comment later when asked about her opposition to legislation that would grant workers sick pay.


Beyond the podiums and speaker systems of the large labor rallies, many small struggles are quietly brewing across the city. In front of the Golden Farm market in Kensington, Brooklyn, on Tuesday evening, a handful of people stood outside urging customers not to do business with the grocer. Like the carwasheros, Golden Farm workers voted to unionize, but their boss has yet to sit down at the bargaining table.

"We're asking costumers in the community to boycott the store until the owner decides to sign a contract that will guarantee the workers basic benefits," said Lucas Sanchez with NYCC. The National Labor Relations Board certified the election results this September, and the law now compels the store's owner, Sonny Kim, to negotiate in good faith. But, says Sanchez, Kim has been stalling in hopes of discouraging workers and pressuring them into quitting. NYCC has helped organize a daily picket of the store and has been leafleting out front, not only to cut a hole in Kim's wallet, but also as a way of garnering support for the workers in the store so they know they are not alone.

Aside from union certification, the fight at Golden Farms has paid off in other ways. Through a lawsuit the workers were able to reach a settlement with Kim for back pay in the years they worked for below minimum wage. Many of the laborers at Golden Farm had been employed by Kim for five to ten years, making $4.90 an hour. "Thirteen workers in this store have had the courage, not only to stand up to the owner, but also to put their names down on a lawsuit, to organize a union election and to continue even though it's been a long process and the owner has done just about everything to get them to leave voluntarily," said Sanchez.

As part of its ongoing low-wage worker campaigns, NYCC has been approaching laborers at supermarkets, fast food joints and car washes across the city, finding out what conditions on the job are like and building relationships. They were referred to Golden Farm by workers at another nearby grocer who had won a contract and settlement.

"They told us, 'Hey, you should check out that store on Church and E. 4th,'" remembers Sanchez. "'Workers there want to fight back.'" NYCC got in touch with employees at Golden Farms and they began meeting regularly at a nearby Burger King after hours. But some workers had their doubts. "What I think pushed them over the top," Sanchez believes, "was when two guys from that other grocery store came and talked to them and said, 'Listen, we were able to do the same thing. We kept our jobs and were successful.' I think that's definitely what motivated them."


At the Wendy's on Fulton Street last Friday, the cross pollination of working-class consciousness that has helped push the Golden Farm and car wash struggle forward could be seen alive and well. By noon the Fulton Street Wendy's was shut down by a swarm of fast food workers and their supporters who briefly occupied the restaurant chanting, "I know, I saw, what you did was against the law!" The crowd then moved outside and hit the pavement, while NYC Councilman Jumaane Williams and NYCC representatives negotiated with management.

Marquis Montgomery (no relation to Shalonda) was on hand Friday. He didn't have the kind of support that Shalonda received when the ax fell on him. Marquis was working at the same Wendy's and spreading word among his coworkers of the Fast Food Forward campaign when he says he was unjustly fired.

Things would have been different, Marquis said, if he'd been in a union. "I had no rights, so nothing could protect me. If I'd been in a union I would have had a chance to defend myself." After he was let go, NYCC gave him a job organizing the strike at the very restaurant that had handed him his termination papers. Marquis helped orchestrate a walkout of the entire store last Thursday when the time came, something he's proud of since he knows what it is like inside. "I worked 33 hours a week. That's a lot of hours. And I have a child. I have to go home and be a father. When I'd come home with my check I'd have exactly $210. Maybe you can pay your water bill with that and then you buy your Metrocard and you're broke."

Marquis said the strike was "just the first punch in the fight," adding that executives with several of the franchises where employees walked off have agreed to begin a dialogue with workers seeking union representation. But if they don't want to be reasonable, he warns, "we'll have to go on strike again. We won't stop until the fight is done."

In just under an hour Councilman Williams emerged from the restaurant with some good news for the picketers. "Thanks to you guys," said Williams, "Shalonda Montgomery is now working inside."

Local deli worker Israel Miro, who joined in solidarity with the protesters on his lunch break, was elated by the news. "We're busting our asses and these corporations are making billions of dollars," Miro said, tossing the freckle-faced, redheaded mascot on Wendy's storefront the evil eye. "But when we stood together today, the lady got her job back. We accomplished something. It's so beautiful to see that when New Yorkers are in the midst of a recession we can stand together. All over the country, all over the world, this could happen."

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