A must read. From the report by Greg Jaffe, posted 6 Nov 2021:
Dustin Snyder was tired of the low wages, the 60-hour workweeks and the impossible-to-please customers, and so in early September the assistant general manager at a McDonald’s here drafted a petition that laid bare months of building anger and frustration.
“We are all leaving,” his petition threatened, “and hope you find employees that want to work for $9.25 an hour.” Nearly all of his two dozen employees had signed it.
A few added their own flourishes. “We need a RAISE,” one scribbled next to her signature. “Piss off,” wrote another.
Dustin, 21, could feel his heart pounding in his chest as he fed the petition into the fax machine in the McDonald’s office, punched in the number for his bosses 80 miles away in Buffalo [New York] and hit send. Another low-wage worker rebellion in a season full of them.
A once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, a debilitating recession and trillions in government aid had caused something to shift in the world’s largest economy. Hourly wages for fast food workers rose nearly 14 percent last year, the fastest growth on record. All over America people were quitting jobs at record rates. Even in a place such as Bradford, with its shrinking population and 30 percent poverty rate, low-wage service workers sensed that they finally had a little power.
Soon after Dustin sent the petition, the phone was ringing, and the regional supervisor in Buffalo was demanding to know who was behind it. Dustin’s first instinct was to panic and plead ignorance. An hour later he called and confessed.
“I was trying to get better pay for my people,” Dustin said.
* * * * *
The discontent driving the Bradford workers and so many others had been there for years, an ever-present aspect of an economy that could be especially cruel to anyone without an education. The pandemic — the fights with customers over masks and the fears of falling sick — added to the strain. But it was the labor shortages, which extended to just about every part of the country, that caused workers’ long-suppressed anger to burst into the open.
Unlike the strikes of an earlier era, most of the walkouts included no picket lines. Rarely did the workers even make demands.
“WE ALL QUIT SORRY FOR THE INCONVENIENCE,” read the message last June on a Burger King marquee in Lincoln, Neb., where, according to the workers, the air conditioner had been broken for weeks and the temperatures in the kitchen soared past 90 degrees.
Sometimes, workers left behind notes for bosses and customers that resembled parting primal screams: “We will not work for a company that DOES NOT care!!!” employees at a Del Taco in Circleville, Ohio, wrote.
“The staff at this location has walked out because we were being treated poorly, overworked and underpaid,” read a message from the employees of a Biggby Coffee in Toledo.
Often the dashed-off notes became hits on social media, passed along by equally fed-up workers. Sometimes they would show up in a short segment on the local television news, before fading away. Definitive numbers on these small-scale walkouts do not exist. The Bureau of Labor Statistics only tracks major stoppages that involve more than 1,000 workers. But Mike Elk, a labor reporter and founder of paydayreport.com, has compiled a database of 1,600 walkouts since March 2020 that included as many as 100,000 workers.
Stephanie was now deciding whether she wanted to be one of them. Like her staff, she had come to feel “degraded” and “belittled” by her bosses and some of the customers. The franchise owner had set the Bradford McDonald’s starting wage at $9.25 an hour, while new workers at his McDonald’s less than 20 miles away in Olean, N.Y., where the minimum wage was higher, were earning $15 an hour. The low pay had made it almost impossible for Stephanie and Dustin to retain workers and keep the restaurant running.
Stephanie’s call with Dustin lasted only about a minute. She decided she could not let Dustin and their day-shift crew “do it alone.” She hung up and texted the night shift staff. “I want you all to know that everyone on the day shift just walked out and quit,” she wrote. She said she was joining the walkout — “Effective 10:51 a.m. I no longer work at McDonald’s” — and encouraged the rest of the staff to quit too.
“I believe that you all are worth more than anything they’re giving you,” she continued. “I am proud of all of you. Every single one of you. Whether you quit or not, I am proud of you.”
Then she drove to the McDonald’s where she saw cars backing up in the drive-through. Most of the workers were gathered in the parking lot, laughing and smiling. The worker who had been with the restaurant for five years was sobbing. She had been swept up in the initial excitement of the walkout but was now worried about finding a new job and paying her rent. She was terrified of losing her subsidized apartment.
“We will help you get a job that pays better,” Dustin reassured her. He and Stephanie were going to drive everyone to the Burger King, two miles away, where Stephanie knew the general manager and the pay started at $10 an hour.
Before Dustin locked the doors, he realized there was one last thing he wanted to do for his McDonald’s customers. He could not find a pen so he snatched a blue highlighter from the back office. “Due to lack of pay we all quit,” he scribbled.
In the parking lot, a half-dozen employees were waiting on him for rides to Burger King. The line of cars full of hungry and angry customers now wrapped around the building.
* * * * *
These were some of the questions that people in Bradford were fighting about in the immediate aftermath of the walkout. Less than an hour had passed before someone snapped a picture of Dustin’s sign on the drive-through speaker and posted it in a Facebook group called “B----ing Bout Bradford.”
Most of those weighing in on the McDonald’s walkout were service workers: certified nursing assistants, waitresses, security guards and store cashiers who were barely scraping by themselves. Theirs were the voices of a place whose best days seem behind it. On Bradford’s mostly empty Main Street, Art Deco, Italianate and Neo-Classical buildings loom as a reminder of an earlier era when the city was home to wealthy oil barons and hungry entrepreneurs. The Zippo factory, opened in 1932, still ships its iconic windproof lighters all over the world. But the region has been bleeding manufacturing jobs and people for years.
“Do you have the next great idea?” asked signs from the Bradford Area Alliance offering a $20,000 prize to help seed a local start-up. Set amid abandoned storefronts, the question came off as a plea.
Some speaking out on “B----ing Bout Bradford” blasted the work stoppage as an act of entitlement — another sign of America’s moral decay and waning work ethic.
“You got what you deserve when your paycheck came in,” wrote a 41-year-old father of two young boys. “Probably didn’t deserve that because it sounds like you were just there putting in time with bad attitudes instead of working to make your situation better.” Other commenters called fast food “a high school job,” whose long hours and low pay were supposed to spur young workers to strive for more. Dustin and his crew, they said, should “go back to school,” “quit making excuses,” get a second job or move to a city with higher wages and more opportunity. Or they complained about the service at the McDonald’s (“I’ve never one f---ing time got my order right! Not once!”) and derided the penmanship on Dustin’s hastily scribbled sign. (“Maybe they should be home practicing their handwriting skills.”)
The McDonald’s workers’ demands to be seen and heard had broken some unspoken rule; their anger seemed to threaten Bradford’s social order.
Others countered that big companies, such as McDonald’s, had a moral obligation to pay their employees enough to survive. “We have families and bills and can’t even get through with the pay we get,” wrote a cashier at the Bradford Dollar Tree. And they called for a higher minimum wage to match the $15 an hour that workers were making in New York.
Just like the critics, the walkout’s defenders cast the protest as a symptom of a much larger societal disease, made worse by the labor shortage and the long pandemic.
“People in the service industry are done with the disrespect,” wrote a local physician. “I don’t think it’s just about the money. … Whether it’s about flipping burgers or saving lives they crave gratitude and validation. Society has become so intolerant. So disrespectful. So judgmental. So cruel. Let’s change it.”
Soon some of the McDonald’s workers were weighing in to explain themselves and defend their colleagues. “You have NO RIGHT to talk down on those workers when they take a stand and have had enough,” wrote John Lockwood, who had worked at the restaurant for 20 years and had quit earlier that morning. “If you don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, keep your f---ing mouth shut.”
Potos by Ricky Carioti
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