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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Fast-Food Workers Strike For Higher Pay

Wan Xu |
December 16, 2013 | 12:00 a.m. PST


Sonia Roldan
Sonia Roldan

Llasmin Hernandez, 20, has been working at a South Los Angeles McDonald’s for a year and three months as a cashier. She usually works two or three days a week and earns $8.30 per hour.

She met her 23-year-old partner Sonia Roldan in the workplace. Sonia now works four days weekly and makes a little bit more at $8.89 an hour, because she has worked there for 3 years. 

Both of them are full-time students at California State University at Northridge. The days they attend school, they ask for the days off at work. 

Llasmin is the only person in the house to have a job. Her to-be-60 mother with diabetes and other health problems sometimes cannot be working, or rather cleaning houses for others. Her brother is a handyman who does stuff like fixing houses. Every month the family has to pay $700 to $800 for the rent, but the most Llasmin can give to her mother is only $200.

ALSO READ: LA Fast Food Protests, As Part Of Nationwide Strike, Call For $15 Minimum Wage

Sonia’s situation is a bit better. Both her mother and stepfather work, but she still needs to help paying bills and raising two younger siblings. Currently she works in the morning shift and has to “multi-task a lot” whenever the cleaning manager asks.

“At the same time I’m taking an order, I’m washing trays, or I’m assembling happy meal bags, taking everything that is necessary, cleaning my area,” Sonia said. 

Llasmin is more of the night shift, less occupied but more responsibilities of cleaning the entire store. However, she and her co-workers sometimes even don’t have sanitizers or equipment necessary to make them work properly. 

Apart from working conditions, they were particularly incensed by the way their wage is set. According to them, individual franchisees, not the bigwigs at corporate headquarters, determine wage levels for workers. The way of doing this is to hold a monthly manager meeting. 

“The management takes things personally. That’s the reason why people have been working there for 7, 10 years plus have not received right full raise,” Sonia said, “We see them working, but maybe because they don’t get along with them, they’ll say, ‘oh no, this person doesn’t deserve it.’”

ALSO READ: Fast-food Workers Strike For Higher Pay

Neither do managers respect their 8-hour working schedule. According to Sonia, only assistant managers and store manager are guaranteed nine hours and five days a week, and they can even do over-time. Others, however, can be sent home 5 hours or less if the business is slow. 

“I know one of the assistant managers is paid $14 an hour, and she does not do much. She just shows up working and goes to the back,” Llasmin said, “We were very busy, and we got customers complaining, and she won’t come to help.”

But things are different on holidays, when the store still opens 24 hours. Managers always put someone for Christmas but have never pay them more, according to Llasmin.

“That’s ridiculous. I got lucky, I didn’t get Christmas anything this year, but I’m pretty sure some people cannot spend with their families,” she added. 

Llasmin felt upset when less caring is shown to their employees. Although the corporate provides health insurance, most of the workers cannot afford the high price for themselves. And unless workers are seriously injured, the management won’t get serious, according to Llasmin, who shared with Neon Tommy the story of an old lady working in her store.

The lady is about 60 years old and her foot was messed up for two months or so. She got a letter from the doctor, saying she needs to wear a special shoe to help her foot heal faster. But the managers said it’s against the policy and forced her to work with her swollen foot.

“Recently we both found out that she also does house-cleaning on the days she should be resting,” Sonia said, “Because she can’t afford. I’m pretty sure she can’t even save up for later on when she retires, if she’s with us.” 

Fueling the anger all the more is recent personal attacks concerning their relationship. According to the two young women, the management specially held a meeting on that and asked them to sign a statement to confirm what’s going on between them.

“They were trying to intimidate us in any way possible. Why you’re peeking our relationship when there’re other heterosexual relationships going on there?” Sonia said, “My sexuality or my personal life has nothing to do with the work, and does not affect the work anyway.” 

“It’s a totally different subject. I just feel like it’s kind of oppressing that they have to do that to us,” Llasmin added.

The management declined to be interviewed. All these are the reason why Llasmin signed up the August 29th strike when she first saw its advocacy on Facebook. She also tagged it to all her McDonald’s people. Eventually 15 people, including Sonia, from her store of 79 workers walked off the job on that day.

Organized and supported by the Service Employees International Union 721 - representing Southern California public service workers, the campaign raised a slogan of “Fight for 15”, meaning $15-an-hour minimum wage. 

“It is not the ideal wage, because it’s just a reality from an illusion, but I mean it’s a start, you got to start somewhere,” Llasmin said. 

Workers were picked up at 4 in the morning and began marching outside a South Los Angeles Burger King at 7 a.m. They then went down to the McDonald’s Llasmin works at 10, and to another two franchises in Hollywood and Santa Monica in the afternoon until 4. Stores stayed open during that time.

“We got the most people in the morning on the strike, so there were only two managers working in the morning, but they quickly mobilizing, called the other workers to come over,” Sonia said, “It might not affected them, but the next day we all came back, everyone changed the way they presume and approach us.”

ALSO READ: Raising A Family On Three Minimum Wage Jobs

However, Sonia felt sorry that most of the protests were young people.

“The elderly women and the kitchen fear to come out. If only they gather some courage to come out, I think the media would see and would interpret things differently,” she said. 

The nearly $200 billion U.S. fast-food industry has long been known as an employer of young part-timers, who just trying to make some extra money as they go through school. But now, workers are older and have responsibilities for their households.

“In reality, students are the smallest percentage that work there. People from the kitchen are the one are larger and the ones have worked there for years,” Sonia said, “I also know many single-mothers who work two, three jobs and be away from their families just to barely make the means of paying rents and paying bills.” 

Workers’ efforts seem to be rewarded recently, as Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation to raise California’s minimum wage by 25 percent, from $8 an hour to $10 an hour by 2016. But Llasmin said it’s still far from enough. 

“It’ll be better than what I’m getting paid right now, but you need to calculate how much I’m getting paid and how much hours,” she said. 

And their $15 wage goal is considered unrealistic by some people, who say fast-food workers are the youngest or least educated, and at the moment not valuable to their employers.

Sonia said she just had this argument with one person who sent her an image showing both a group of soldiers over the seas and cohort of fast-food workers fighting for this. The person asked Sonia whether workers deserve to get paid as much as those soldiers do, and Sonia replied “yes”.

“We’re all under a minority group. People in power work hard to get us fight with one another. They’re creating all those argument.” Sonia said.

Another debate is that as restaurants operate on razor-thin profit margins, any additional labor cost can lead to a lot of problems, including higher prices for consumers, and lower foot traffic and sales for franchise owners. Sonia retorted it with her observation.

“When McDonald’s spend millions of dollars a year just advertising, why can’t they raise like days a little earlier, 70 cents for the items?” Sonia said, “They’ve been doing this in the past years, and you guys are still coming purchasing. So that won’t affect McDonald’s, that would affect any industry.”

After the 29th protest, corporate supervisors visit their store more often to make sure everything stays fine. But one assistant manager has retaliated against them by taking hours away. And Llasmin and Sonia fought back. 

“Large group of people from the union came in and supported us, and we marched right inside the store during lunch hours. We did that twice already,” Sonia said, “They tried to get us out of there, because they know we’re the strong heads in this, we are the ones that get contact with the union workers and union staff.”

When this happened, Llasmin explained and most of the customers supported them. They still confessed that they’re afraid of losing jobs, however, but neither plans to leave in the short term.

“I’m more afraid to letting it just be and just having the system just run the way it has been running for the past years, and no one do anything about it,” Sonia said, “part of me doing this is for my two younger siblings, I want them to see, that were there injustices, there has to be a fight.”

“I want to stay here, so I can help these people. If I start this, I’m gonna finish it. I want to make a change for them, this gonna be definite, as long as it takes,” Llasmin said, “I don’t mind still working at McDonald’s at least one day, but at least I know how it feel still to be there, and to support the people who really have fear in them.”



Reach Wan Xu here. Follow her on Twitter.

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