As the Black Friday Walmart strike grabbed the media's attention over the last month, an army of full-time organizers were laboring quietly to launch another historic labor action.
A lead organizer claimed "hundreds" of fast food workers across New York City were walking off the job on Thursday, in what experts are calling the first multi-restaurant strike by fast food workers in the country.
"No more lies, Hold the fries," shouted a few dozen protesters outside a Burger King by Penn Station on Thursday, bundled up against a brisk New York November day - at least half of whom appeared to be organizers, as opposed to workers. "Supersize our wages," they chanted.
Short protests are popping up at over two dozen fast food restaurants across the city throughout the day, according to Jonathan Westin, the organizing director of New York Communities for Change, which has spearheaded the effort.
The action involves workers from McDonald's, YUM! Brands (which operates Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC),Wendy's, Domino's, and Papa John's, demanding better wages, union recognition, and an end to the retaliation against workers who attempt to organize. A campaign called Fast Food Forward is driving the strike, supported by various community and civil rights groups.
Unionizing fast-food restaurants has been a pipe-dream for many organizers and workers, but with the industry so vast, and turnover so high, a large-scale orchestrated strike was a fearsome challenge.
"It's a fairly high-turnover position, so there's never been a successful union effort," Domino's Pizza spokesman Tim McIntrye told The Times. "People who are doing this part time, seasonally or as they work their way through college don't find much interest in membership."
But 40 full-time campaign organizers, funded by New York Communities for Change, have been working behind the scenes in recent months. While Walmart organizers courted the media in the lead-up to their Black Friday protests, the fast food organizers have been building their ranks more stealthily. "The workers wanted to come out with a bang," Westin told AOL Jobs, adding that both the Walmart strikes and the Occupy movement had been inspirations for their action.
It's unclear how many of the workers involved in the Thursday protests are genuine strikers — folks who abandoned their scheduled shifts -- but Westin said 14 of the 17 employees scheduled to work Thursday morning at a McDonald's near Grand Central opted for the picket line instead, and that hundreds in total would be skirting work at some point that day.
Linda Archer, a 59-year-old McDonald's employee, has Thursdays off, but was joining the midday protest outside Burger King. She wasn't sure if any of her co-workers will be walking out when the strike hits her Time Square employer later in the afternoon.
"They're intimidating, especially with the Hispanics and the immigrants," she said. "They put the fear in them. 'You'll be fired. You'll have no security.'"
When Archer's manager found out that she was collecting signatures for a petition to join the campaign, she claims that he cautioned her that she could be fired. But Archer remains hopeful that with some carefully applied pressure she may win higher wages and union representation. "I know a union would protect us," she said.
McDonald's issued a statement in response to worker protests, saying the chain "values our employees and has consistently remained committed to them, so in turn they can provide quality service to our customers." It added that most of its restaurants are owned by franchisees, and offer competitive pay and benefits. The golden arches also claimed it encouraged its workers to express their concerns so that "we can continue to be an even better employer."
McDonald's pays its crew members an average wage of $7.63 an hour, according to the employer review site Glassdoor.com. At Burger King and Wendy's they earn $7.66 an hour. At Taco Bell, $7.77. That adds up to an average annual salary of $16,000, for those working 40 hours a week, every week of the year.
Fast food service is one of the lowest paid, and fastest growing, jobs in the country. In New York City, the fast food industry has grown by 55 percent since 2000, according to the New York State Department of Labor, 19 times faster than private sector employment overall. Flipping burgers is no longer just a source of part-time pocket change for teenagers, but a major employer of working families. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, two thirds of fast food workers are women, and their median age is 32 years.
Critics of the industry see the fast food sector as a pioneer of a dangerous new model of work: low-wage and part-time, which deprives workers of benefits, security, and many labor protections.
"The fast-food industry employs tens of thousands of workers in New York and pays them poverty wages," Westin told The Times. "A lot of them can't afford to get by. A lot have to rely on public assistance, and taxpayers are often footing the bill because these companies are not paying a living wage."
Workers complain that they are unable to support their families, although they're employed by some of the wealthiest companies in the world; McDonald's profits were $5.5 billion in 2011 -- 130 percent higher than they were four years before, according to a July report from the National Employment Law Project.
Raymond Lopez, a 21-year-old who says he has worked for McDonald's for two years, and earns $8.75 an hour, told Salon that his managers "make us work off the clock all of the time" and that "there is a lot of verbal abuse."
Many of the workers are hoping to unionize, which would grant them greater leverage in securing higher wages — $15 an hour is the ultimate prize, protesters say — as well as other benefits, like affordable health insurance and paid sick days. They aim to be represented by the Fast Food Workers' Committee, an independent union similar to the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago, knit together by a shared city, as Salon points out, as opposed to an single employer.
Scattered, coordinated strikes are a new strategy for fast food organizers, similar to the tack taken by Walmart organizers last week. Rather than trying to unionize individual stores, these organizers have downplayed the role of the union, and choreographed a more large-scale, grassroots effort with numerous community allies.
Historically sympathetic to labor, New York City is a sensible starting point in which to take on a national low-wage industry. The state has the highest union membership in the nation, with 24.1 percent of wage and salary workers unionized, according to 2011 Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
And city officials have aggressively kept Walmart out of the five bureaus, with Councilman Charles Barron saying last year, "We're desperate for jobs, but we're not going to take anything. We want jobs with dignity, jobs with integrity, jobs with self-respect."
But if the unions are successful at getting recognition at the speedy eateries of the Big Apple, the ripple effect could be enormous. So experts say the towering parent companies are likely to put up a fight. Jose Cerillo, a 79-year-old cleaner at a New York McDonald's told Salon that the company suspended him on Monday for signing up his co-workers for the campaign during break times.
"I was so happy," he told Salon about the moment he received a phone call from organizers. Cerillo has been working for McDonald's 16 years, and makes $7.40 an hour. "It's just not enough to live," he said.