Why This Minister Is Joining Fast Food Workers In Their Fight For Higher Wages

May 18 2014, 8:20am CDT | by

Martin Rafanan is not a minimum-wage fast-food worker. He has quite a different job, as a minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

But he, along with other residents of St. Louis, is supporting local fast food workers who, along with their colleagues in cities across the country, have been protesting their wages and aiming for $15-an-hour pay, more than double Missouri’s current minimum wage of $7.35 an hour.

On Thursday, after the demonstrations first reached overseas — 80 cities in 30 other countries joined 150 cities in the United States in protests — Rafanan explained how and why community members are backing up the workers in their campaign, called “Show Me $15.”

Tell me how you came to be involved in this movement to raise the fast food workers’ wages.

I’m a part of Missouri Jobs With Justice, which is a coalition of over 100 labor, community, faith and student groups and one of the strongest state-wide organizations in support of working families and economic justice.

So when the workers here in St. Louis decided to move forward with fast-food strikes — we were the third city to [have strikes for higher wages] after New York and Chicago — this was a natural for Jobs With Justice, because we are leading the charge on increasing minimum wage and the living wage in our state. This was an opportunity to directly collaborate with workers to help increase wages and improve working conditions. We were looking forward to working with the organization of workers and any strike action that would take place.

We felt like we already had a strong infrastructure to support workers, because we have a lot of people used to being in action across the state. We also have a lot of faith and community leaders willing to stand with fast food workers, and we can do some good, we believe, in providing them with some protection and support as they move their organizing process forward.

What have you been doing?

Number one, we turn out for strike actions. Today, there were over 100 community folks supporting the main or primary strike action and many more in support roles. For example, community folks have volunteered to drive vans, or to make sure we can get workers to the right places at the right time, we’ve done sign-ins, we’ve been marshalled, we’ve been organizers of various sites when there are actions, and most importantly, we have coordinated all walk-backs of workers to their jobs after a 24-hour strike.

Every worker who has been on strike in St. Louis has been walked back to their jobs by community workers. We go into a restaurant with the workers, we return them from their strike, we tell management they cannot in any way retaliate against the worker, that we are close to the worker, that we will be supporting the worker, that if we hear of anything going amiss with the workers’ hours or their treatment, we’re going to be back in force to make sure things are straightened out.

We’ve done that numerous times in restaurants across the city, where we have had workers terminated and had gone back and gotten workers re-hired.

How do you do that?

When a retaliation is noted, and we have shown and documented that this has happened — for instance, a good example is that a worker will have their hours reduced. Let’s say that on average, they had 24 hours a week, which is the standard number of hours for a fast food worker in St. Louis, but all of a sudden, they notice they’re down to 15 hours a week, or 12 hours a week. Well, we consider that retaliation. We quickly organize. We move base leaders into action against management and the corporate office and demand that the worker be returned to their regular number of hours or be treated appropriately, depending on what the situation was. And we’ve been successful in every situation.

Tell me what you did today.

Today, we went and pulled people off of work. We organized in advance that people would be on their shift, and then they leave their shift and walk out and go on strike. A lot of our workers are taking the day off. It’s a strike day, so they told their managers that they’re not coming in. But there are people during the course of the day who might want to leave their job and join the strike.

Meaning they’re joining the strike for the first time? />/>

Some of them are joining for the first time, and some of them have decided they’ll do something more dramatic and leave their jobs during a shift. But the community support is critical because they have no support. They can be fired or retaliated against at any time. It gives them the support and space they need to do their organizing.

What else does a strike look like?

We do any number of things in a strike. We have many types of actions. The standard actions today were, for example, to bring many workers and community workers into a store and take it over. So a hundred or 150 or 200 people go into a store and occupy every inch of it. When the police are called and the police come, then, if we are prepared to do civil disobedience and take arrests, we can do that. If not, the police tell us we’re trespassing, that we must leave and where we can go. So we go and continue our protest.

Today, most of our actions were to take over stores — take it over, and take it over to a point where nobody can get in or get to a register. The police come, and the police in St. Louis identify the marshall and say, if these people don’t leave in the next five minutes, we’ll arrest them. So that’s when we either take our cue and leave to where we can appropriately protest, or there may be civil disobedience. We’ve had many workers and community members also arrested — when that’s a part of our strategy or our plan. We don’t believe that’s always the best thing to be doing, but if it fits our needs, we can do that.

There are many other ways — stores are easily disrupted. Fast food restaurants make their money really during six hours of a day, so we obviously know when those times are and we can easily disrupt the profits of a store if we need to. And of course, the stores don’t want that, and neither do we. We want the stores to be successful. We’re not trying to stop business, we’re trying to tell our story. We want these businesses to be successful and we want these jobs. We just want them to pay fairly.

What’s the ratio between community supporters and strikers?

Many, many more workers — at least double — but remember, we have community leaders coming out, showing this is much more than just workers. We believe the workers are carrying the primary load, but they’re doing a piece of work that involves all of us. When they improve their wages and get a union, they improve our community dramatically.

We as clergy folk, who are engaged in building community, strengthening our congregations, working to address neighborhood needs and so forth, we see their organizing and efforts to have a voice in the workplace as critical to making our community a better place. If they succeed and get a better wage, and we believe they will do eventually, it will lift the boats of all people in our community.

The protests in St. Louis started in February 2013. Do you feel you’ve made progress in reaching your demands? 

We’ve made incredible progress: McDonald’s just stated to their shareholders publicly that the strikes are having an impact on them and that they may have to increase wages.* That’s a massive admission on their part.

Is St. Louis alone in its community support of these workers?

No, there are many places that have strong community support, but St. Louis has made it an integral part of the effort, because we believe when the community supports labor and collective bargaining, there’s a stronger opportunity for all of us to win together. There are over 100 clergy that directly support fast food workers by their presence, encouragement, financial support when necessary, writing, preaching, so the movement can grow. This is something that started out from nothing and now it’s a huge global movement.

Who are the other leaders aside from clergy? 

Labor leaders, community leaders, heads of social services, academics, people who lead neighborhoods, political organizations, and students and student leaders./>/>

How many people have you successfully helped with retaliation?

A large number. Where we’ve actually had a campaign — sometimes it takes a cell phone call and sometimes it takes an action. So I would say, where it takes an action, we’ve had tens of actions — just in my experience, ones that I’ve been involved in. I’ve been involved in at least 30. And there are many other people who have been involved in actions too.

And how do you define action? 

When something has happened in a person’s life and we need to get it back to where it was. Whether it’s their hours, they’ve started being mistreated, they’ve been terminated, whether they’re being told to work off the clock.

Let me give you an example. There’s an Arby’s not far from me — this person reported to their community supporters, which was a rabbi and the rabbi’s congregation, that their hours had been drastically reduced after a strike. The two rabbis and many members of the congregation went to the Arby’s and had a sit-down conversation about how this worker was going to be treated. Arby’s agreed to everything the rabbis told them to do.

This was with the threat of 2,000 people in their neighborhood publicly coming out and saying this organization was to be avoided if this retaliation was not ended immediately: “If you don’t change … we will come back and stop the profit of this store on many as days as possible. We represent 20 congregations in this community, and we’ll divvy up the days when we want to stand in front of your store and say no one should use your services, because you’re such a bad business. And we’ll take pictures of it and put it on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We will make sure you are a laughingstock in the community.” We’ve resolved 99% of these issues.

Is there anything else I haven’t asked you?

What I’ve explained to you is that the workers have no union. So, for most fast food workers, if the employer does anything to them, they have no redress. In a lot of ways, community supporters act like a union for them. We’re not a union, but that’s how we act. They need someone to be on their side. Organizing and collective bargaining is about organizing yourself in a structure that allows your voice to be heard and where you have an opportunity to find redress for things that are wrong, like discrimination, having wages stolen, and any number of other things that happen in the workplace. It’s not just a high wage we’re looking for, a living wage, we’re looking for a voice in the workplace, and that’s what we have to help organize, and help workers to organize.

*The sections that Rafanan seemed to be referring to, from McDonald’s 2013 Annual report, under “Risk Factors”: “The impact of campaigns by labor organizations and activists, including through the use of social media and other mobile communications and applications, to promote adverse perceptions of the quick-service industry of the IEO [informal eating out] segment of our brand, management, suppliers or franchisees, or to promote or threaten boycotts, strikes or other actions involving the industry, McDonald’s or our suppliers and franchises;  

“The impact of events such as boycotts or protests, labor strikes and supply chain interruptions (including due to lack of supply or price increases) that can adversely affect us or our suppliers, franchisees and others that are also part of the McDonald’s System and whose performance has a material impact on our results; …

“The impact on our margins of labor costs that we cannot offset through price increases, and the long-term trend toward higher wages and social expenses in both mature and developing markets, which may intensify with increasing public focus on matters of income inequality …”

 
 

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