Nequasia LeGrand is a 22 year old KFC worker from Brooklyn in New York. She’s also a leading striker in the movement that has spread to 160 US cities in the last 18 months.
Nequasia is part of Fightfor15, which demands a $15 (£9) an hour living wage. It is one of a number of local coalitions that is organising the strikers. The Service Employees International Union is providing technical and financial support.
Nequasia told Socialist Worker about the first time she struck in November 2012. “Seeing those 200 people out there in the cold changed me,” she said. “We were so pumped! It made me look at my job and the corporation completely differently. We thought we couldn’t have a voice—I suddenly saw we could, and I wasn’t scared no more.”
The fast food strikers—mostly young, black workers—see their fight for respect and justice as following in the footsteps of the Civil Rights movement.
That evening, Nequasia spoke at the Riverside Church in Harlem—a landmark of the Civil Rights movement. She told a crowd of around 2,000 fast food workers and their supporters, “Fifty years ago Martin Luther King Junior gave a speech on this very spot to say it’s time to break the silence.
“It’s still that time to break the silence. We all believe there is a dignity and honour in work. We should receive this, a fair living wage and the right to unionise.”
During the interview Nequasia remarked, “At the end of the day, it’s not difficult to get organised—we did it ourselves. You need help here and there, sure, but a worker talking to a worker can’t compare. The organisers know our struggle, but they don’t live our struggle.”
Nequasia had just attended the international fast food conference hosted by the International Union of Food workers (IUF)—a federation of unions.
The conference took place in the run up to the biggest fast food workers’ strike yet on 15 May. This was launched as a global day of action, organising solidarity protests in over 30 countries.
“Workers here in America took control of the campaign,” she said.
“The strike leaders in New York come together and we go round other workplaces to spread it. Organisers got our foot in the door, but we are the ones who’s gotta tear the door off the hinges.”
Nequasia spoke at the conference along with fellow strikers Jessica Davis and Kendall Fells. Nequasia and other strikers then led the march of 90 international delegates to announce the 15 May strikes and global day of action to the media outside a Manhattan McDonald’s.
Delegates included union organisers, McDonald’s workers and the Fast Food Rights campaign from Britain, led by the Bfawu union.
Nequasia told Socialist Worker the strikers got a boost from hearing of struggles around the world. “Now I’ve learned they make $21 (£12.50) in Denmark. It’s possible to win.”
While there are many similarities between disputes internationally, there are also differences. In the US the role of religious and community organisations is heightened.
Their significance comes out of the relative weakness of the US trade union movement and how it has developed in recent decades.
Here in Britain we have the prospect again of mass coordinated strikes by over a million workers over the Tories’ pay assault.
This could give confidence to workers in unorganised sectors and industries. We should not see see their struggle for unionisation as separate from those at the centre of the fightback.
‘When you’re more angry than you are scared you take action’
“Our strikes started with 200 fast food workers in about 30 stores in November 2012,” said striker Kendall Fells.
“We didn’t know whether we’d get fired, but out of 200, 199 got back in to work without a problem. The workers were walked back in after the strike by crowds from the community and clergy. As for the other worker, well, 45 minutes later she had her job back. That set the tone for what was to come.”
Kendall believes it spread so quickly because the strikes visibly changed the dynamic in the workplace. He described the situation before the strikes. “One woman here was fired because she ate a chicken nugget,” he said.
“Another mother drank water out a medium cup—you’re supposed to drink out of a really small cup—so they fired her. We’ve seen workers fired because their shirt wasn’t tucked in.
“But when workers started going on strike they started getting more hours, raises, and more respect. Workers who were scared at first now saw that the workers involved in the campaign were protected. They had the support.
“In Chicago, three days before Christmas last year, we had a store that fired all their workers. They just said, ‘This store is closed now!’ But the workers started a huge campaign, and the next thing they were back at work. They got back pay too.
“In Kansas City, the employer told a young Latina woman to leave. He actually said to her that she could keep walking right back across the border. Next thing you know, she and her co workers led a march on the mall—do you think they got fired? No. It was the manager who got fired.
“When the bully is taking your lunch money, and you start to fight, guess what? The bully stops taking your lunch money.”
One tactic used by McDonald’s bosses was to put McBudgeting ideas on their website. These were supposed to help workers live on the firm’s low wages.
The strike campaign produced an amusing video in response, that went viral.
It pointed out McBudgeting didn’t include the cost of food, heating or childcare and made ludicrous suggestions for rent costs.
It even advised workers to have a second job.
McDonald’s also shot itself in the foot by rounding the required income to survive to an annual figure that would break down as $15 an hour—exactly what the strikers are demanding.
Kendall continued, “By February, because of the campaign, the protests, and the strikes, McDonald’s said they thought it was very likely they’re going to have to end up paying their workers more money.”
I tell people, ‘We’re making history here. Once we win, you’ll benefit too’
Jessica Davis is a McDonald’s worker in Chicago. She’s 25 and a mother of two young children.
“I work for a multi-million dollar corporation and I’m living in poverty,” she explained. “I don’t want to be dependent on food stamps to take care of my family when I have a full time job. But I take home a pay cheque that won’t even cover my rent.
“When the organiser approached me he said things that I was already saying to myself in my head. But I didn’t know that I had rights and could stand up for myself at work.
“I was a single mother with children out of wedlock, so I had this idea that somehow I deserved it. But I don’t have to tolerate not getting full time hours because McDonald’s doesn’t want to pay for my healthcare.
“My first strike was one of the best days of my life. That strike started outside my store. It was really powerful because seven others walked out with me. There were 100 people there and media cameras everywhere. It was snowing, but I wasn’t cold at all. From that day on we’ve been organising.
“A lot of managers are very disrespectful and we don’t get enough hours. We kicked off the campaign with a petition. Half the employees signed to begin with. So we marched into the kitchen to demand more hours and a meeting with the manager about our issues—and some clergy joined us.
“The next day, there were swarms of managers in our store from all over Chicago, handing out water bottles and knick-knacks, and saying ‘You’re doing a great job’. We were like, ‘Well thank you, but nah’. We need to keep pushing them to address our issues in the workplace.
“When I’m trying to get people involved, I ask them ‘What will you tell your children? We’re making history here, and once we win, you’ll benefit too’. I’m gonna tell my kids, ‘I was part of that, mommy went on strike’.”
For Nequasia, 15 May was set to be her sixth strike. She explained how she came to be involved. “I’d look at my pay cheque, and was like, ‘What? Did I even work this week?!’
“I wanted to find out more about this union thing. Something hit me—if I don’t do it I will be stuck in poverty. What have I got to lose? What, $7.50 an hour? I didn’t think about losing my job, it was more powerful to think how we were standing up.
“When I went on that first strike and I seen that crowd I was like, ‘This is amazing’. It was like all the workers had realised that we’d been putting up with a lot of things, not having the hours, not having a set schedule.
“I started thinking, why do you have to make my schedule? Why are the managers running our lives and we had no say? We was all sick and tired of being sick and tired.
“This was all because the workers stood. We gotta keep making new leaders because we can all be a leader. Something will happen in the store and I’ll say loudly, where it echoes, ‘Yeah that’s why we need a union’. It helps show co-workers they don’t need their fear now.”