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Striking for Their Lives

Two-week McDonald's strike shutdown in Oakland, California: Faith leaders, artists, and community rally as Covid-19 outbreak at McDonald's hits double digits.

 On Friday June 5th, faith leaders, community leaders, and supporters filled the parking lot of the Mcdonald’s, now closed for ten days. (Photo: Brooke Anderson/@movementphotographer)

On Friday June 5th, faith leaders, community leaders, and supporters filled the parking lot of the Mcdonald’s, now closed for ten days. (Photo: Brooke Anderson/@movementphotographer)

Faith and community leaders rallied for striking McDonald’s workers in Oakland, CA in the longest running McDonald’s shut down by a strike, amidst a wave of McDonald’s and essential worker strikes and protests across the country over health, safety and justice. The Covid outbreak amongst the Oakland McDonald’s workers and their families reached double digits this week.

On Monday, May 26th 33 McDonald's workers in Oakland, CA walked out on strike in desperation against disastrously unsafe work conditions that threatened them and their families. McDonald’s, lacking 33 of 35 of their workers, had to shut down the restaurant and has been closed ever since in the longest strike the restaurant chain has faced.

The strike began when four workers got sick from Covid 19 due to lack of any health and safety measures. A week and half later, eleven workers and seven family members have tested positive for Covid 19. All the workers are now in quarantine.

Strike Rally

On May 27, the second day of the strike, a lively strike rally took over McDonald’s parking lot, with cars honking and chants booming as signs were taped to the restaurant windows. Supporters from the community rallied, including Fight for $15 and East Bay DSA. I chalked the outlines for a giant street mural in the parking lot entrance. A dozen people took up brushes and washable tempera paint — painting in the words that read “JUSTICE 4 ESSENTIAL WORKERS.”

Workers at first May 27 strike rally,m before Covid spread and they needed to quarantine. (Photo: David Solnit)

Most of the striking workers participated, except for four workers who had symptoms and were confirmed to have Covid. Like all the workers, they had constant exposure to customers and each other, and the owners had refused to provide adequate PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), or safety practices.

Strike Rally Without Workers

Supporters discussed with the striking workers how we could rally again with all the workers either sick or in quarantine. Here’s what we came up with: the workers would both speak and  listen to the rally together by phone, their voices and demands amplified through a sound system. I worked with fellow artists Cooper Rogers and Cora Lautze to create 33 colorfully painted cardboard silhouettes, each one representing one of the workers. We put a call out for 33 community members to stand and hold them and arranged them in rows, physically distanced.

We also reached out to local faith and community leaders to come and speak out in support. They came on short notice and spoke powerfully. On Friday June 5th, faith leaders, community leaders, and supporters filled the parking lot of the Mcdonald’s, now closed for ten days. (Photo: Brooke Anderson)

We also reached out to local faith and community leaders to come and speak out in support. They came on short notice and spoke powerfully. On Friday June 5th, faith leaders, community leaders, and supporters filled the parking lot of the Mcdonald’s, now closed for ten days.

Striking McDonald’s worker Angeli Rodriguez spoke to the support rally by cell phone, her voice amplified across the McDonald’s parking lot as the 33 supporters stood in rows, each holding one of the painted images representing the striking workers.

Angeli said,

Good Morning. I work here in the McDonalds at Telegraph Ave.

I tested positive for Covid 19 while working at this location. Like all my coworkers I need to work and support my family in Honduras. We are not on strike because we don’t want to work, but because we are demanding safe working conditions.

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We deserve to work in a safe place. We must make our employer aware that the conditions in this store are facing workers to risk our lives and the lives of our families.

11 of the workers here have tested positive for Covid 19. All of these struggles could have been prevented ifMcDonalds acted immediately to improve labor conditions in the store and followed health and safety guidelines that would have allowed us to work at no risk.

No we are in our houses on quarantine, some of us because we tested positive, some of us because we were exposed. We are called essential  workers, but we haven’t been treated like it.

Big companies like McDonalds make a lot of money selling food, but they don’t eat to invest in us, their employees. We demand fair treatment and we demand they bring workers to the table and listen to us.

Until today the owner of this franchise has ignored our demands, we have been asking at least twice to meet with us. He didn’t close the store when he should have, that’s why 33 of us joined the strike.

Thirty-three of us are collectively demanding justice. We strike for our right to a union, because in the union we find greater strength.

Muchas Gracias.

Workers' Demands

Following her statement, the workers’ health and safety demands to McDonald’s were read aloud by phone and amplified, echoing against the closed restaurant walls:

  • Paid 14 day quarantine for exposed workers, including hotel costs to protect families trace impacted workers & families;
  • Close & sanitize contaminated stores sick pay for exposed workers;
  • Provide adequate protective equipment & supplies;
  • Train staff & managers on best practices for Covid-19 safety;
  • Compensate lost hours due to Covid-19 concerns;
  • Certify following best practices at this & other locations;
  • Essential worker pay;
  • One free meal per shift;
  • Less than 5 hour shifts not forced to take unpaid lunch break

Faith, Community Support

Local faith leaders from Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities took turns speaking in support of the workers.

Joanna Lawrence Shenk, First Mennonite Church of San Francisco:

Jesus and his followers understood that they were dispossessed by an exploitative economic system that squeezed every last drop of profit from them. It is immoral that McDonald’s net worth as a company is 163 billion dollars, and yet during a global pandemic its franchises cannot provide these basic needs to their employees. Only an immoral economic system can call you “essential” and treat you as disposable at the same time. I stand with the workers in calling out this immorality. I stand with the workers because the fight is not only about this McDonald’s, but about the need for equitable compensation in the Bay Area, throughout the state and across the country. I stand with the workers because they are leaders showing us a way to a different future. I stand with the workers because they embody the courage we all need to usher in this new world.

Rab'ia Keeble, Founder of Qal'bu Maryam Women’s Mosque and Social Justice Center:

I stand with the workers of McDonald’s as a person of faith and as a Muslim.

 It is unfair to expect people to work in the midst of a Covid crisis without proper protective gear. There is no reason McDonald’s cannot extend to these employees proper protective gear, sanitized workplaces, and the ability to socially distance themselves when able. These employees are in a long line of people that provide food and nourishment to our communities, from the farmworkers to McDonald’s to us. We must have a safe means of protecting those essential workers who provide their service to us. These workers have to live with less than a livable wage. McDonald’s needs to step up, protect the workers, protect the community, because if workers are becoming sick, their families will become sick and we will become sick. This chain of transmission can be interrupted if McDonald’s steps up and does the right thing. 

Si se puede! We can do this!

Rabbi David Cooper, Kehilla Community Synagogue:

This is not my first time standing in a McDonald’s parking lot. I have been at other McDonald’s for workers who were fired because they were trying to organize. I never thought I would be at a McDonald’s to demonstrate and protest the killing of workers. And that is what this is. It says in my tradition, in the Torah, “do not stand idly by while in the face of harm to your neighbor.” These are our neighbors and they are facing grievous harm and we cannot stand idly by. It says in the Talmud that there is nothing that is above and beyond the preservation of life and that’s why we have to be here today. I am really angry and this should never have happened.

Rabbi Gray Myrseth, Kehilla Community Synagogue:

We are in the middle of Covid 19 pandemic, and we are also in the middle of a pandemic of corporate greed, of institutional racism, and of white supremacy and police violence. This moment shows us how public health is in every single one of these pandemics. None of us can be well until all of us are well. None of us are safe until all of us are safe. The Jewish tradition teaches me that every single human is made in the image of the divine. It is shameful that a corporation places profits over human life. We cannot stand for it. Their demands must be listened to.

Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director, The Oakland Institute:

Gracias Sandra, Maria and Angeli, because you have clearly exposed the pandemic that faces capitalist America. In the richest nation on earth to be treated as disposable, with doggie diapers as PPE  —the message is clear. We will not have any more of this system which is based on exporting the poor, based on getting rich by making the suffering of the poor worse. That is a shame. That is disgusting. If we have to hear about vandalism and looting over the last few days, let’s tell the media what real vandalism and looting is. This is what looters look like. [pointing to McDonald’s] This is what thieves look like. Sandra, Maria and Angeli and each one of you, thank you for showing us what decency look like, what human rights struggle looks like. I am proud to stand with you.

Frédéric Mousseau, Policy Director, Oakland Institute:

I am shocked and angry to have to be standing here for basic decency and safety for workers. This company makes more that ten billion in profits every year. Where is this profit today when it’s really needed for the workers? It’s shocking that people have to go on strike. I am originally from France. In France our government ordered all the shops and restaurants and 1,500 McDonald’s restaraunts to close for several weeks until basic safety for the workers was in place. Here, where we don’t have a government that is going to take this kind of measure, the only resort is for the workers to do what you are doing and for us to be in solidarity -- take responsibility and show solidarity.

Fabian Fernandez, MD, Do No Harm Coalition:

This is a public health crisis! We have 11 confirmed cases of Covid 19 from workers. We have four confirmed cased of family members who have been sick and we know that this ripples out into our community. We stand here as healthcare workers because this in unjust. It is not adequate protection when workers are crowded in a kitchen trying to make food. It is not adequate protection when they are not provided with adequate PPE. Let me tell you as a healthcare workers, dog diapers are not PPE. Using masks for days until they break is not PPE. Refusing to sanitize and clean a store is not PPE. This is a systemic issue. We have five hundred thousand McDonald’s workers across the country fighting for paid sick leave. We know from the CDC that 20 percent of fast food workers have gone to work sick, exhibiting symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea, because they need to put food on the table, because they need to pay rent, because they need to support their families. It is a false choice to say that someone can stay home when they need this money to support their families. We stand with the demands of these workers. We want a workplace that is safe, that is clean,  where workers have adequate PPE, where they are paid as essential workers, because they ARE essential workers and they should be treated as such.

Nell Myhand, Bay Area Poor People’s Campaign:

The action these workers are taking is brave and courageous, and necessary. We send them much love and we hope their recovery will be swift and that we won’t have any deaths—but there are no promises, because we know Covid is brutal. 

The Poor Peoples Campaign is building on the radical legacy of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, who in 1968 called for the Poor People Campaign—and in the months leading up to that action he said, “Power for poor people will really mean having ability, the togetherness, the assertiveness and the aggressiveness to make the power structure of this nation say yes, when they may be desirous to say no.”

We see the striking McDonald’s strikers in that spirit. They are calling us as their community to come together and show up for them. And here we are.

Their action is protecting themselves, their families, and us too. This issue is not limited to a few people. It’s 43.5 percent of the population who are living with low and no wealth, and 73% are women and children. There is no excuse. We are calling our public and elected officials; we are demanding that the resources be made available to meet the needs for housing, for education, for healthcare, and that the demand of workers like these be met post haste.

Deirdra Moss, Office of Oakland City Council Member Dan Kalb read this statement from the Oakland City Council member representing District 1 of Oakland where the Mcdonald’s is located:

The health and safety workers at every food establishment is a fundamental right and necessity,” said Kalb. “And if this private employer--McDonald’s--or any employer is not providing a safe workplace, it is incumbent that our government agencies step in and enforce the letter and spirit of the law and of the County's Public Health Order during this COVID-19 pandemic.

“The workers here at this McDonald’s deserve a break today. This fast-food franchise must implement common sense public health and safety protocols to protect its workers and their customers. That includes paid sick leave, thorough and regular sanitization of the entire interior building, PPEs for every employee every day they are at work, and whatever else the County sees fit to require. “I have been in contact with County health officials about this and am standing in solidarity today with the workers in support of public health and safety for them and their families.

Angeli Rodriguez closed the rally with this message read aloud:

I feel so happy to see a lot of people supporting us. We have been abused from our employer and we have been suffering the consequences. Thank you so much to all of you for helping us. We have to work because we need to provide for our families and we have been risking our lives and you can see that suffering. Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart.”

The rally was closed with call and response chants by the workers listening on their phones from quarantine and amplified across the McDonald’s parking lot. They chanted,  “When we fight . . . we win!” “When we fight . . . we win!

Si Se Puede!” “Si Se Puede!

David Solnit

David Solnit

David Solnit is an arts organizer with the Climate Justice Street Mural Project and co-author of "Globalize Liberation: How to Uproot the System and Build a Better World," and co-author of "The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle."

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