Workers: Dignity and respect missing from Chipotle menu in New York
People protesting for a $15 minimum wage and a union. Credit: People Dispatch.

NEW YORK — Last Wednesday, Oct. 23, workers in the fast-food industry walked off their jobs in NYC. They were joined by a group of at least 400 allies targeting the Chipotle store on the corner of W. 13th St. and 6th Ave. in Manhattan.

Rallying in a sea of purple and yellow flags, signs, and banners lining the whole block, they filled the late autumn air with cries for justice on the job. After a number of rousing speeches from workers, labor leaders, and elected officials, they marched up to 14th St. and across Manhattan to the store on E. 14th St. and Irving Pl., where they continued to voice their demands.

It wasn’t the first of its kind. Workers with the #ServingUpJustice campaign have staged other actions, including a launch video and walk out on August 1, a September 24 walkout, and other mini-strikes throughout the city.

“Chipotle, follow the NYC Fair Workweek Laws!” many of the placards demanded last week. “More hours and higher pay!” “We deserve dignity and respect!”

With 32BJ SEIU acting as a powerful ally in this stage of the #Fightfor15 and a Union movement in New York City, Chipotle workers, McDonald’s workers, and others working in the fast-food industry are making contributions to the people of New York that go far beyond food service. They are fighting to put an end to these powerful corporations’ illegal attacks, and are a vital part of the labor movement in the U.S., which today is surging with a new level of militancy.

“My fast food co-workers and I are students putting ourselves through school, some of us are parents of school-age children, and some of us, like myself, are expecting our first child,” Brianna Augustin told those at the rally. Augustin works at Chipotle. “Today we stand up to speak the truth about our working conditions because we want a future where our children will not have to deal with the economic injustices that we are facing now.”

The #Fightfor15 and a Union movement has been a major contributing factor in the growth of the labor, anti-racist, immigrant rights, women’s equality, and youth movements — and progressive politics generally in the U.S. — ever since November 29, 2012, when workers in this city’s fast-food industry walked off their jobs, sparking a global movement demanding an end to poverty wages. It gave concrete working-class content and organization to the Occupy movement that came before when people across the political spectrum were enraged by the bank bailout in the face of rising inequality.

Black and brown families have been hit particularly hard by the structural impacts of the 2007-9 financial crash, in which Wall Street speculation on bundles of mortgages was an important factor. African-American wealth fell by more than 50 percent due to unemployment and home foreclosures, as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders pointed out during his 2016 presidential campaign.

Despite frequent boasts of a recovery by some political leaders and media corporations in the U.S., 58 percent of added jobs from 2010-12 were low-wage. 42 percent of all U.S. workers today make less than $15 per hour.

For Black workers, it is more than 50 percent, and close to 60 percent for Latinx workers. Women, who make up roughly 48 percent of the U.S. workforce, work almost 55 percent of these low-wage jobs. Nearly 38 percent of low-wage jobs are worked by Black and Latinx workers, who together make up just under 29 percent of the workforce.

The structural racism shown by U.S. employment statistics also negatively impacts Native communities, as well as Arab, Indian, and other Asian communities. Large majorities of each also form an important part of the U.S. working class, but these figures do not appear in much of the research. Some 14 percent of all US workers are immigrants (of whom 29 percent are undocumented), but immigrants work 20 percent of all low-wage jobs (and 40 percent of those workers are undocumented). Young workers are also often the target for super-exploited labor — 12 percent of low-wage workers are teens, but more than 46 percent of low-wage workers are over the age of 35, and about 28 percent have children.

Poverty-wage work continues to dominate job growth in the U.S. Unemployment and underemployment rates for young people are higher today than they were in 2000, which helps to explain why young people are taking on important roles in the labor movement.

Jahaira Garcia, a worker-organizer at a Chipotle store in Manhattan, says that 17-20-year-old workers are often the ones motivating older workers to unionize.

On April 4, 2016, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo finally signed the $15 minimum wage plan and 12 weeks paid family leave policy, which brought most workers’ wages in this city up to $15 an hour at the end of 2018. Legislation for a $15 minimum wage has been won in 26 states, and a number of other cities across the U.S. as well. Since 2012, 22 million workers across the country have won over $68 billion in raises. There is now a bill in the House of Representatives, where Democrats have a majority, that would raise the federal minimum wage — currently at $7.25 an hour — to $15 per hour by 2025.

In the 2020 elections, working people will have to remove Trump from office, give Democrats control of the Senate, and demand their representatives in Congress vote “yes” on that bill.

“I have worked at McDonald’s for over 20 years. It was not until recently that our wages approached something you could live on, because of our #FightFor15 that we won!” Rosa Rivera told those assembled at Wednesday’s rally and march.

Ever since that victory, however, fast-food corporations have retaliated with cut hours, stolen wages, last-minute schedule changes, on-call hours, and other abuses. In 2017, the NYC #Fightfor15 won an important battle, and the Fair Workweek Laws were passed in the NYC Council to stem the tide of these corporate attacks.

Now corporate arrogance is brazenly thumbing its nose at the law. Workers in 10 Chipotle stores have filed complaints against the company for disregarding the new rules.

“I am the father of a 9-year-old boy, and I have been working for Domino’s for three years,” Ray Cruz told the crowd last week. “What I want is a stable, good job. That’s why we fought for the Fair Workweek. But our employers aren’t following the law.”

This is part of a broader pattern of corporate rule. The National Employment Law Project (NELP) has found that “regularly and systematically violated” workplace protections are especially “severe and widespread” against low-wage workers. Women, immigrant workers — especially immigrant workers who are Latinx, women, and undocumented — and Black workers are all major targets. Violation rates against Black workers are three times higher than violation rates against white workers, showing the need for working-class unity to fight these crimes.

The government should put more resources toward enforcing labor laws, and unions are also needed in each workplace to hold employers accountable. Workers at more than 50 restaurants have signed union cards. “We want a voice in the fast-food workplace,” Augustin said. “New York City is investigating our complaints against more and more employers, including four Chipotles in Brooklyn, where they are trying to claw back for workers over a million dollars in compensation.”

Another worker, speaking after the march, made a powerful point. “I used to be a non-union worker, and I want to tell you the difference between non-union and being a union worker. When we didn’t have the union, our employer was taking advantage of us, like they do to you. … We decided to unite and go to a union and make a union, and after we did it, everything changed completely. I used to be paid when I was non-union $7.25. … As soon as we [got the union], we had a big raise — almost the triple of what I used to earn. Also, we have insurance; we have sick day pay; we have vacation day pay; we have holidays — including my birthday! … For the Spanish people, I just want to tell you, don’t let the employers intimidate you. That’s what they want. You can’t get weak. We are here to fight for our benefits because we are human beings. We are not a slave, and we deserve everything good for us. … When we fight, we win!”

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer declared, “It is particularly offensive to see a company like this one wrap themselves in a brand and a model of food with integrity … [when] they have abused employees with unfairly cut hours and unstable schedules.”

Bronx Borough President Reuben Diaz and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams also spoke in support of the workers at the rally, as did New York City Councilmember Ben Kallos and State Sen. Brad Hoylman. State Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou sent a representative from her office, as did the Queensborough President’s office. Assemblymember Richard Gottfried was on the picket line with Chipotle workers on Aug.1.

A contingent from the adjunct professors’ Professional Staff Congress, an affiliate of the New York State United Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers, were marching with their red signs alongside their working-class sisters and brothers, and the NY Nail Salon Workers Association were also on the scene. The city’s Central Labor Council also tweeted from the street as labor activists performed a mock confrontation with people dressed as “Taco Tycoon” and “Burrito Bandit.”

“With every struggle, with every fight, you have to have allies,” 32BJ President Kyle Bragg insisted. “And these workers aren’t standing alone. Of course, we have 32BJ! But you also have community leaders. We have elected leaders who are here to support you.”

Other allies include the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD), NELP, and Fast Food Justice — a dues-funded workers’ organization — who worked together with 32BJ on a report for the #ServingUpJustice campaign entitled “Fired on a Whim.” Among workers surveyed, the report found that 65 percent of fast-food workers who had been fired were not given any reason for it, nearly 90 percent of workers were victims of wage theft, 78 percent had been injured on the job, and 40 percent reported unwanted sexual behavior at work.

“While I’m the only person that came out from [my] store … I’m still going to fight for my co-workers,” Luisa Mendez spoke toward the end of the action. “We work really hard … and all we ask for is they give us a little bit,” she said, citing the need for paid holidays, and better treatment and accommodations. We are fighting so that the company can give us good jobs, and treat us how we deserve.”

What is a good job? Workers in the fast-food industry are saying it means higher wages, the right to unionize, sufficient hours and a consistent schedule, safe working conditions, paid holidays and vacations, better training and equipment, better management with clear and realistic expectations, transparency between management and workers, a fair process for being fired, an end to discrimination, sufficient breaks and meals, and more workers on the job. They also expect their employers to follow the law. Workers who are ready to join the struggle for a better life can go to, and make their voices heard.

As union leader Bragg pointed out, an industry functions better when workers “can focus on their job,” not “whether or not they’re going to be harassed today, or whether or not they have food on their table, and whether or not they can pay rent tomorrow.

“United, workers will never be defeated. There are more than … 80,000 jobs, and more than 6,000 fast food locations in NYC. These should be good, full-time jobs, family sustaining jobs,” he said.

“Victory’s not far away … Just like we can taste that food inside, we can taste justice … We can taste respect; we can taste dignity, and that’s what’s on the menu today.”


Cameron Orr
Cameron Orr

Cameron Orr is a musician and writer living in Jersey City, New Jersey.