In nearly a decade of working at the Burger King across from the Boston Common, Kyle King’s hourly pay has risen from $8 to $8.15. Unable to afford rent on a place of his own, the 46-year-old lives with his brother in a small Roxbury apartment. Fed up, King decided to join a one-day nationwide strike of fast food workers last August and told the Globe as much. Things at work then went from bad to worse for King.
The day after he appeared in the newspaper, King arrived at Burger King for a scheduled shift only to be told to go home; he wouldn’t be needed that day. In the weeks that followed, he saw his 20-hour schedule whittled down to fewer than nine hours per week.
About 4 miles away, Georgina Guiterrez, a prep cook at the Burger King on Washington Street in Dorchester, believes she has faced similar payback. She says the owner of that franchise called workers who chose to strike “traitors.” Guiterrez earns $8.25 an hour after four years on the job; she received a 25-cent raise in August when the owner was trying to persuade her not to strike. She did anyway, and since then has seen her hours halved from 38 to barely 20 some weeks. That has been devastating to Guiterrez, who supports her disabled mother and three nieces and nephews with her Burger King pay. (Neither the chain nor the franchisees in question responded to requests for comment.)
According to the US Department of Labor, fewer than 2 percent of food service workers are unionized. It shows. Employees like King and Guiterrez are at a major disadvantage when demanding better pay and working conditions. Average wages in the sector have stagnated at just above the federal minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, for two decades. About 13 percent of fast-food workers have employer-sponsored health benefits, compared with 59 percent of the workforce as a whole. Whether through traditional unions or some other vehicle, one of the quickest ways to improve the lot of most restaurant employees would be for them to band together.
Larger unions often have trouble making inroads into restaurants because of the small-scale nature of the business, with its mom-and-pop eateries and franchised fast-food outlets. Fortunately, less conventional advocates for workers are filling the gap.
One promising example is New York-based Restaurant Opportunities Center United, which recently expanded its efforts to Boston. The advocacy group is probably best known for a $5.25 million settlement it helped win against celebrity chef Mario Batali in 2012 after servers at several of Batali’s famed restaurants alleged their employer had violated the Fair Labor Standards Act, in part by pocketing gratuities. Beyond its workplace justice campaigns, however, ROC-United offers its 10,000 nationwide members benefits such as free job training and an affordable health plan. In Boston, this work should complement local immigrant worker centers, which already help collect unpaid wages, connect employees to enforcement agencies, and provide multilingual education on workers’ rights.
To see the impact that better organizing can have, one needn’t look much farther than Boston’s college campuses. Traditional unions have had the most success organizing food service workers at large institutions, such as hotels, hospitals, and universities. Boston’s Unite Here Local 26 has negotiated collective bargaining agreements on behalf of food workers at several local schools, including Harvard, Northeastern, Brandeis, and MIT. “What we found in non-union settings were pay rates that ranged from $9 to $11 and health benefits with premiums, co-pays, and deductibles so high the employees couldn’t afford them,” says Brian Lang, Local 26’s president.
With Local 26’s help, Lang says, pay has risen significantly, employees’ share of their health coverage has dropped to as little as $4 a week, and workers are ensured regular schedules, including set days off. As union members, they also have access to legal help, low-interest loans to buy homes, and educational initiatives such as English lessons and GED prep.
Up to now, unions have generally shied away from trying to organize fast-food workers one independently owned franchise at a time. But what if they set their sights higher? Chains like McDonald’s, KFC, and Burger King already dictate many details of franchise operations, from staff uniforms to marketing to the prices they can charge for certain menu items. If they wanted, national fast-food chains could also insist that franchisees abide by collectively bargained wage standards. The main thing preventing the chains from negotiating such agreements is the likely rise in worker salaries.
Fortunately, the National Labor Relations Board came to Kyle King’s aid. Under the Obama administration, the panel has recognized that, even though the might of labor has declined, workers’ rights still need protection. It has emphasized key parts of the National Labor Relations Act that allow for any employees to join together and seek better terms, with or without a union, says Boston labor attorney Louis Mandarini, who filed a complaint with the board on King’s behalf.
Because King was exercising his right to contact the media about inadequate working conditions, the NLRB complaint prompted the owners of the Burger King franchise where he works to settle with King. He will have his pay reinstated for the day he was sent home after the Aug. 29 strike, and Burger King has committed to upping King’s weekly hours significantly.
But it’s crucial to note who connected King to his legal representation: MassUniting, a local labor group financed in part by the Service Employees International Union. As King put it, “I wouldn’t have even known I had these rights if someone hadn’t been there to tell me.”
Correction: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly said the Massachusetts Legislature has not considered raising the state’s tipped minimum wage. State senators voted to raise the wage last November, though the House has yet to follow suit.