The Fight for 15

Kyle Friend
August 24, 2015
Kyle Friend

In 1938, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act into law, establishing the United States’ first wage floor. This landmark legislation ensured that business leaders could no longer take advantage of workers while unfairly lining their pockets. This legislation ensured that workers were afforded rights that were unheard of at the time of its passing.

“No business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers,” Roosevelt said, “has any right to continue in this country.”

In one of Roosevelt’s famous “fireside chats,” he told the people of the United States to “not let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $1,000 a day…tell you…that a wage of $11 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry,” referring to the $0.25 minimum wage the law standardized and the 44-hour workweek it cemented.

And he was right. The United States continued to be a manufacturing powerhouse well into the 1960s, despite worker protections, despite legislation that aimed for a more equitable society, and despite safeguards put in place to ensure that workers are treated fairly by their employers.

With great foresight, FDR acknowledged the need to protect the rights of workers – the ordinary working people of the United States – in an economy that underwent a seemingly-endless expansion as a result of his unprecedented legislative triumphs.

Last Friday, however, the rights of workers that were fought for by perhaps the most influential person in U.S. history were trampled on, yet again, by the biggest player in the fast food industry.

Jamal Williams, before his shift at the McDonald’s he had worked at for the past five years, testified in front of the wage board – a government-orchestrated hearing of both workers in the fast food industry and business leaders to determine what the minimum wage for workers in the fast food industry should be.

Jamal told his story to a three-person board consisting of the mayor of Buffalo, the secretary-treasurer of the SEIU, and the founder of the online shopping website “Gilt,” who represented, respectively, the public interest, labor’s interests, and businesses’ interests.

Jamal, a staunch advocate for the growing national “Fight for $15” movement, told the board that he hoped to see them recommend to the Commissioner of Labor a higher wage for workers in his industry – an industry characterized by poverty wages and government assistance.

Later that day, after Jamal delivered his testimony with the support of hundreds of people with similar experiences and perspectives standing behind him, he went to work his shift that was slated to begin at 4 p.m.

At the William Street McDonald’s, however, Jamal was met by the regional manager of the store, who asked Jamal to refrain from clocking in, and met with him in a side room. In the side room, Jamal recalled, he was given an ultimatum by his manager: Either stop working with the Fight for $15 movement, or you’ll be placed on “indefinite suspension.” Within seconds, Jamal was placed on indefinite suspension.

“I don’t have to sign that,” Jamal told his manager, who handed him a piece of paper that, if signed, would mean he could keep his job without incident.

After a weekend celebration of the overwhelmingly positive turnout at the wage board hearing and the accompanying press conference and rally concluded, Jamal’s situation was brought to the forefront of the Western New York labor movement.

How could an employer essentially fire a worker for exercising his rights as a citizen of the United States? How could they take away his economic freedom because he called for a more fair, just, and equitable New York State?

They couldn’t.

After a protest was planned at the McDonald’s Jamal worked at, McDonald’s “backtracked,” as Reverend Kirk Laubenstein, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Justice, put it. They now wanted Jamal to deliver a letter to the store detailing his desires and expectations for the future of his employment at the store.

Instead of protesting – in conjunction with the Teamsters, SEIU 1199, members of clergy, and those sympathetic to Jamal – the band of about 25 activists and advocates trailed Jamal as he entered the McDonald’s and handed his letter (and a letter of support from several local elected officials) to his manager over the counter, while coworkers and diners alike looked on.

As his manager begrudgingly looked over the sea of people rallying in support of Jamal, she raised her voice.

“You all need to leave,” she told the group of people accompanying Jamal, who were preparing themselves for a prayer led by members of the clergy that stood at the center of the congregation as Jamal flanked her on the other side of the counter to her left.

“You can’t be in here,” she reiterated. “I’m calling the police.”

As the congress of people from various occupations left the store, the mood was cheerful; Jamal was, according to a labor leader at the SEIU, probably going to get his job back.

But as Jamal left the store with a disappointed look draped over his face, it became apparent that direct action would be required to ensure that Jamal had a job, albeit a job that paid lackluster wages.

As Jamal reported the strategy’s ineffectiveness to the crowd, he was asked if he’d like the group to protest on his behalf.

He was reluctant, but seemed clearly humbled that 25 people would take time out of their day to secure Jamal’s employment and livelihood going forward.

“Yes,” he said quietly. “Let’s do it.”

The group marched in unison, chanting “What’s disgusting? Union busting! What’s outrageous? Poverty wages!,” and a colorful variety of other chants that were meant to call attention to the injustice McDonald’s was facilitating.

The protest, all-in-all, lasted approximately forty-five minutes, and included a pair of laps occupying the drive thru by the protesters, myself included. McDonald’s management locked public entrances to the store to ensure that no union members would be protesting inside the store.

To diners, the protest represented a mild inconvenience – a slight hindrance of their pursuit of grease-infused burgers and high fructose corn syrup-saturated beverages.

But to Jamal, the protest represented economic freedom. The protest represented his rights and his validation as a human being – the rights he is afforded, even as a cog in the machine that is the fast food industry.

To Jamal, the protest represented hope, righteousness, and integrity.

The use of direct action is not meant to be pleasant; it is not meant to be tame. The very purpose of direct action is to make people uncomfortable, and to ensure that people question the status quo.

Without direct action, I am sorry to say, Jamal likely wouldn’t have received a call later that day to inform him that he could have his job back, with certain provisions.

Now, Jamal could go back to work – now at an 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. shift he’d never worked before (“Jamal is not a morning person,” Kim Gibson, a CEJ board member and SEIU organizer told me).

The reality of the situation is that Jamal’s relationship with his employers will never be the same. But it is their fault, not his.

His manager told him that, while not on the clock, he was not permitted to be on the premises of the store. Yesterday, Jamal waited in torrential downpour, off of McDonald’s property, to clock in to his shift.

He’s not allowed to talk to his coworkers while at work, I was told, and is supposed to focus solely on the monotonous routine a fast food job entails.

Jamal’s hours, in all likelihood, will be diminished little-by-little, until he barely has enough expendable income to take the bus to work without worrying about another expense.

Perhaps his manager will fire him in four months, for taking an extra ninety seconds on his break. Maybe he’ll be fired in three weeks because he asked for a day off on an afternoon where his manager was not in the brightest of moods.

The fact of the matter is that, because of McDonald’s betrayal of the ideals that made the United States great, Jamal will be in a constant state of stress and disillusionment while on the job.

Because of McDonald’s, Jamal doesn’t know that he’ll be able to afford his bills, because the future of his employment is now time-stamped with an overwhelming labor-management dispute lingering in the air.

Because of McDonald’s, Jamal is losing money. Jamal is losing his peace of mind.

But one thing Jamal has not lost – and will not lose – is his desire for a fair and just workplace. Jamal will not lose the campaign for a higher wage for workers in the industry that has treated him so poorly. Jamal will not lose sense of what is right and what is wrong.

Jamal’s courageousness to stand up when it was infinitely easier to sit down proves that, while greedy corporations may win a battle here and there, it’s unlikely that they’ll win the war.