Fight for Fifteen

Some of the people at the very bottom of capitalism are starving and dying and living their whole life in poverty. What we’re saying is this is not right. Some fundamental changes have to be made.

Transcribed from the 11 April 2015 episode of This is Hell! Radio and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:

“We are determined to continue to grow this movement until these franchises, these corporations, and this country—and as a matter of fact, this whole world—sees that we are worth more, and that we must be treated with dignity and respect.”

Alex Jerri: We don’t talk much about how much money we make, even though it is the largest factor that determines how we live our lives. It’s a number that limits our access to the world or affords us the privileges of time and possessions, but it’s usually a number that we keep to ourselves.

On Wednesday, April 15th, thousands of workers across the world are going public with their demands for a fifteen-dollar-an-hour minimum wage as part of the Fight for 15 movement. Douglas Hunter is one of those workers.

Good afternoon, Douglas.

Douglas Hunter: Good afternoon. How are you doing?

AJ: Great, thanks! Douglas is a maintenance worker at McDonald’s, and a member of Fight for 15’s national organizing committee.

Last year, you were profiled by The Guardian. A reporter talked with you about your day striking at McDonald’s locations around Chicago, and here’s how you introduced yourself:

“My name is Douglas Hunter. I’m 53 years old. I have a sixteen-year-old daughter who I’ve been raising on my own since her mother died. I work at McDonald’s in Chicago, where I make $9.25 an hour, just a dollar more per hour than I made when I first started working there nearly five years ago.”

Douglas, I spent the week before this interview thinking about whether or not I was going to ask you about how much money you make. It’s not a subject most people are comfortable speaking about. But you were honest in the beginning of that article about your current pay, and Fight for 15 is obviously very open about their demand for a fifteen-dollar-an-hour minimum wage.

So how important is it for people to be able to speak publicly and openly about how much they get paid at their jobs, especially lower wage jobs?

DH: I think it’s very important, because people won’t really know what we’re really up against and how we’re suffering out here with these low-wage jobs unless we speak out and say what’s actually going on. I think it’s very important that all of the workers, low-wage workers, begin to speak out.

AJ: Tell me about you job. What do you do at McDonald’s?

DH: I’m a maintenance man. I clean and repair machines; I clean the shake machines, the frying machines, the smoothie machines. And the store: the ceiling, the roof—I’m all over the place, because it’s my job to maintain the cleanliness and working order of the whole restaurant.

AJ: If you just stopped doing your job, if that job did not exist, what would happen to the McDonald’s that you work at?

DH: It would fall down. Because no one would be cleaning. And that would directly effect the quality of food, being served in an unclean environment. So I think my job is very important to the restaurant.

AJ: You were talking about being able to be public about some of your struggles, and I wanted to get into that. What are the conditions that you’re protesting against at McDonald’s and other low-wage jobs? What don’t customers see about the conditions behind the counters and in the kitchens of fast-food jobs?

DH: The main condition that I’m protesting about is sick days. We don’t have any sick days. We have to work sick a lot of times. When flu season is going on, we have to work, and stand over people’s food, and cook it. Or just be in the restaurant with colds and coughs and everything, and still serving people food, when some thirty percent of the workers are sick on the job.

I think that we need sick days, so that when we get sick, we can still get paid time off. Because other than that we can’t pay our rent. We can’t pay our bills if we take off two days sick.

This has to be rectified, because it directly effects the customers. When they come in and buy a sandwich that was prepared by a person that’s coughing or has a fever, it’s just not sanitary. Managers tell you, “Well, okay, wait until somebody else comes in to take your place.” In the meantime, the customers that order food are getting food from a sick worker. I don’t think that’s fair to the public.

AJ: Are you still making the same wage, $9.25 an hour?

DH: Yes.

AJ: Can you tell us a little bit about what it’s like to live on that every two weeks?

DH: Every two weeks I make approximately $350. $700 a month. My rent is $785, so I start in the hole. There’s no lights. There’s no gas. There’s no food. Mind you, I have a sixteen-year-old daughter here also, and she’s in high school. So to pay to provide clothing and all of these things, I have to do all types of odd jobs, because I’m not making enough. It’s stressful.

I’m scrapping and scraping; I borrow from Peter to pay Paul. It’s one stressful event after another. There’s very little time to relax. I find myself crying myself to sleep some nights because it’s just so hard. And when I think about McDonald’s making $6.7 billion last year, I feel like I should be a part of the family, that I shouldn’t have to stress and struggle like this every single day just to make a living.

AJ: Do you talk to coworkers about these frustrations? Does it create the same burden on everyone else that you work with?

DH: Yes, a lot of the workers are burdened. Oftentimes they come to work and they can’t even afford to buy themselves lunch, because all of their money went towards their rent or their other bills. And so they stand there all day working in this hot environment, hungry, with food smells all over the place, and they can’t eat.

But at the same time we have to have good customer service, to smile and be presentable. But sometimes it gets hard to smile when your stomach is growling. Or when you just dropped your daughter off at school and you know her stomach is growling.

It takes away from your focus on your job. Often people come to work and they’ll be cheerful in the morning, but towards the afternoon everybody seems to have an attitude, because most of them are walking around hungry, smelling this food that we can’t afford to eat.

AJ: I’ve been reading more and more stories about low-wage workers who rely on public assistance. Welfare, Medicare, Medicaid. Is McDonald’s ripping off the government by having the government subsidize their low wages?

DH: Sure they’re ripping off the government. They’re doing it through this franchise model. They set the franchise model up as a buffer zone so they don’t have to pay health care; they don’t have to pay dental; they don’t have to pay for eye exams for their workers. The taxpayers are paying for their workers’ healthcare.

Myself, I’m on county care. That’s the only way I’m able to provide my insulin—because I’m a diabetic—and the needles and the things that I need to keep my health up. The public, the taxpayers have to provide this.

And McDonald’s stands in the background boasting that they made $6.7 billion last year. That’s because they contributed not one dime to any of their workers’ healthcare. They contributed not one dime to any of their worker’s dental or eye care. They are not contributing anything to their workers, and they’re paying us the lowest wage they can possibly get away with.

AJ: Let’s talk about that franchise model for a second, because we view McDonald’s as one large corporate entity, but you are actually dealing with a sort of middleman. What is your relationship with management like? What’s it like dealing with your managers?

DH: Well, they believe that what they’re doing is helping the community, but it’s not really helping the community. This is the franchise managers I’m talking about. They believe that they are helping the community by providing us with a job, but the job isn’t providing us with a living wage. It’s really hard on our communities, because there’s no money in the communities.

And the franchisees aren’t making a lot of money now, either. I try to tell the managers these things are related: if more money is put into our pockets, we can spend more money in our communities. If we’re spending more money in our communities, they would be able to make more money.

And it effects scheduling. They may schedule you for five hours and you may only work four. They may schedule you for six hours and you may only work three. Sometimes we get in to work at six o’clock, and are told we have to wait 45 minutes before we clock in, because “labor is high.” They’re trying to keep labor “low” so that the franchise owner can make as much money as he can. It’s all about greed right now.

“McDonald’s is going to wish they had given us fifteen dollars and a union two years ago. Because what we are asking for now is a whole lot more than fifteen dollars and a union. We need some social justice in America.”

AJ: I’d like to get into the goals of Fight for 15. It’s about more than just a fifteen-dollar-an-hour minimum wage, correct?

DH: Yes. We started out two years ago in New York with 200 workers from about twenty stores that walked off the job. All we were asking for at that time was fifteen dollars and a union. Well, we’ve kind of grown up now. We need more than fifteen dollars and a union. We are more of a social justice movement now.

We have adjunct professors; we have schoolteachers, the Chicago Teachers Union; we have students all across this city and across this country standing up. We have people from Black Lives Matter protesting police brutality, the constant shooting of our young people. These people have joined the Fight for 15, so we aren’t fighting for fifteen dollars and a union anymore. We’re fighting for social justice in our communities.

There are people living and dying in poverty all over the world. This is one of the richest countries in the world, and it should not be happening here. So we’re standing up, and we’re saying that we deserve our American Dream. We can’t even afford to think about an American Dream. We don’t have time to think about the American Dream. We scrap and scrape and stress all day, every day.

Winning, to me, looks like people coming together, saying that enough is enough. So we’re coming together. We may not get everything we’re asking for on April 15th, but just coming together is a win in and of itself. We are determined to continue to grow this movement until these franchises, these corporations, and this country—and as a matter of fact, this whole world—sees that we are worth more and that we must be treated with dignity and respect.

We have a right to unionize. We have a right to collectively bargain with our employers. And so far, McDonald’s, who is leading the way, is saying that they are not going to negotiate with their workers in good faith. They are not going to allow us to come together and negotiate with them on things like job safety and health care and other vital issues in our lives.

So we feel we have to stand together. Now we want justice—not only in these corporations, but out in the streets. There’s a lot of violence in our communities that is a direct result of the starvation wages that a lot of these corporations are paying us. Until they begin to do something different, we have to stand up.

We have citizens all across this city that are standing up and determined to march with us, to say that they too want justice. And they’re not asking for fifteen dollars. What they’re asking for is the ability to walk down the street without getting robbed. To not have their child shot.

These are major issues, and they’re coming to the forefront. Fight for 15 has brought them to the forefront, much like the Montgomery bus boycott brought a lot of issues to the forefront. The civil rights movement came up out of the Montgomery bus boycott. So we are continuing to move, and we are continuing to grow, to try to better this nation and this world so that everybody can have food on their table.

President Barack Obama has a book entitled The Audacity of Hope. We have the audacity to believe that we can put food on the table of every child in this country. We have the audacity to believe that the streets can be safe, that I can walk down the street without having a gun put to my head. That the people in my community can afford to feed their children before they go to school and when they come home.

It’s much more than fifteen dollars and a union now. McDonald’s is going to wish they had given us fifteen dollars and a union two years ago. Because what we are asking for now is a whole lot more than fifteen dollars and a union. We need some social justice in America.

AJ: Have you felt retaliation because of the work that you’re doing on the organizing committee for Fight for 15?

DH: Yes, I’ve felt it. After my initial strike last year, when I got back to work—whereas before I was getting five days a week, I haven’t gotten five days a week since my initial strike. It’s been four days, three days. I still haven’t worked five days a week in a year and a half since I began striking. These are the types of retaliation—they take you off the schedule, they limit the people who participate.

And those that don’t participate: it’s not that they don’t want to. They are afraid that their hours will be cut. That they will be put on jobs they don’t want to do or that they will be targets for being terminated. If you strike, whatever comes up, you’re fired. A lot of them opt to go to work and just make as much money as they can because they have all these bills in front of them.

I have the same bills in front of me. But I’m looking past me and to people down the line that are going to work these same jobs. It used to be where these jobs were for students, but now there are people with degrees working at McDonald’s. They’re not just kids trying to buy gym shoes. They’re trying to pay rent and lights and gas and put food on the table for families. And so it’s definitely a problem with a lot of the workers. But they intimidate us at the franchise level to keep workers from getting involved.

“This capitalistic society isn’t benefiting everybody. Some of the people at the very bottom of capitalism are starving and dying and living their whole life in poverty. What we’re saying is this is not right. Some fundamental changes have to be made.”

AJ: McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook just announced that workers at 1500 corporate-owned stores will soon receive a raise, of over one dollar over the local minimum wage. Here in Illinois, house legislation would raise the minimum wage to $11 an hour by 2019, and I believe in Chicago by 2019 that minimum wage would be $13 an hour.

For you, are these offers a signal that Fight for 15 is winning, or are they attempts to cut you off before you get to your goal?

DH: I think it’s an attempt to cut us off before we get to our goal. That dollar raise came on the heels of our announcing this strike for April 15th—the very next day. But there are 496 McDonald’s in Chicago. Four of those McDonald’s are owned by the corporation, and only workers at those four stores are going to get this dollar raise, and only if they’re not already making a dollar more than the minimum wage at their store.

So it’s a big publicity stunt. They have no intentions of actually doing anything. They raised the wages for something like 2% of their workers.

There are still three or four hundred thousand workers in this city that didn’t get a raise, and who are not going to get a raise if Easterbrook has his way. He said that they would never support a raise in the wages for the franchise workers. So we’re going to continue to put pressure on them to raise the wages for all of McDonald’s workers and all of these fast-food workers that are living in poverty out here.

AJ: McDonald’s operates under a franchise model so that they can claim that wages are set locally by franchisees instead of corporate. But are you saying that McDonald’s corporate, which you’re targeting with these protests—are you saying that they have the power to enforce a minimum wage across their franchises?

DH: Yes, they have the power. I want to give you an example. Corporate comes to my store like three times a year. They have all kinds of inspections—they inspect the quality of the food, how it’s cooked. They have this elaborate computer system set up where the corporation can see every hamburger that gets sold, every bun that’s sold at every store. When anybody from the corporation comes to the store, it’s got to be much cleaner. You’ve got to do all types of work, because these are the big bosses. They’re coming in, and the food has to be hot, at the right temperature, and everybody’s got to have their shirt buttoned all the way up. The franchise owners are on pins and needles, because these are their bosses.

They are in total control. It’s definitely run by the corporation.

So what we are saying is that the corporation is in total control of what goes on and doesn’t go on in McDonald’s. Constantly, every single day. No McDonald’s in this country sells hotdogs, and that’s because the corporation tells them, “Don’t sell no hotdogs.” No McDonald’s in this country buys their food from anywhere else other than Golden State Foods, which is owned by the corporation.

Everything about this store is run by the corporation—but then when we get to the wages they say that they don’t have anything to do with the wages. But these franchisees do exactly what they tell them to do, when they tell them to do it.

What we’re saying is: if you can tell them when to start and stop selling Filet-O-Fish sandwiches two for five, then you can tell them when to pay us a living wage.

AJ: This afternoon, 400 students from the group Movimiento Estudiantil Chican@ are rallying in front of the McDonald’s at 1664 Blue Island Avenue to demand higher wages and union rights for fast-food workers. So Fight for 15 is an organization, but it’s also a cause that’s been taken up by other social justice groups. There’s been the crossover you just mentioned with Black Lives Matter. And home care workers, airport workers, adjunct professors have joined the cause. So it’s not just a movement of fast-food workers. It’s a movement addressing inequalities.

You have said that Fight for 15 is growing and diversifying. But the participants do seem to be unified against one thing, and that’s inequality. And inequality is an essential feature of a capitalist society. So is Fight for 15 an anti-capitalist movement?

DH: Yes, I would say definitely. We’re more socialist than anything, because this greed we’re up against is bred right there in capitalism. Until these companies get over some of their greed and start sharing with their workers, this is going to continue. Because this capitalistic society isn’t benefiting everybody. Some of the people at the very bottom of capitalism are starving and dying and living their whole life in poverty. What we’re saying is this is not right. Some fundamental changes have to be made.

So we began with McDonald’s, but we’re stretching out. We’re broadening, and encompassing more and more. More and more people are unsatisfied with the life that they’re living. And mind you, some of them are making decent livings, but they’re still unsatisfied with the quality of life in this country. So they’re standing up on school campuses all over the nation. They’re standing up and saying that enough is enough. We’re demanding social justice across the board.

AJ: Douglas, we have one last question for you, and it’s the Question from Hell: the question we might hate to ask, you might hate to answer, or our audience will hate the response.

Fight for 15 is working to get back to conditions similar to the 1950s and ‘60s: higher union membership and a livable wage. But both of those things have been under attack by politicians and businesses since the 1970s. So if you win a fifteen-dollar-an-hour minimum wage and a union—and I hope you do—what does the movement have to do to make sure that victory is a lasting one, and your grandchildren won’t be back out here fighting the exact same fight you are now?

DH: That’s the union. That’s us being able to unionize, to come together and to stay together. As we are coming together now, we are seeing that it is very important to stay together, that we not be bought off now with fifteen dollars and a union but that we are staying until there is social justice across America. That’s why so many people are coming to meet us. We may have at least 20,000 people up there at UIC campus on Wednesday. We’re going to have one of the biggest low-wage worker mobilizations in the history of this nation.

So we are encouraged, and we believe that a change is definitely going to come.

AJ: Douglas, thank you so much for talking with me. I really appreciate it. Good luck!

DH: Thank you very much! You have a good day. Bye, bye!

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