On August 22, 2013, a week before the first national fast food workers walkout, Saru Jayaraman wrote in the New York Daily News:
“Throughout his life, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders spoke out for racial justice and economic justice — seeing the two as inextricably bound together. When King was assassinated, he was in Memphis supporting striking sanitation workers, who were demanding a living wage, safe working conditions and an end to racial discrimination on the job. The fast-food workers staging walkouts across the United States today are the inheritors of that legacy.” 1
On the occasion of Martin Luther King Day, I have a story about this very struggle taking place in the “East Village”.
I was walking home from work last week, and I found myself walking eastwards on 7th Street. I don’t remember why I was this far west this evening — I’m usually at least on Avenue B by this point — but as I was crossing First Avenue I heard a lot of shouting from in front of the McDonald’s at 6th Street. It didn’t sound like frantic shouting, and remembering the walkout of December 5, I thought there might be something related taking place. So I walked down to see.
Outside McDonald’s, First Avenue, NYC, Jan. 14, 2014
There were about a dozen protesters outside the door of the McDonald’s. I stood back a bit, took my picture, and then asked the nearest person holding a sign if they had just walked out. I don’t know if she didn’t understand me, or just didn’t want to answer questions from someone she didn’t know, but one of their group came over and told me they were there to demand the job back of a worker who had walked out on December 5. We talked for a couple of minutes, I gave him my contact information so he could let me know of other events taking place, and I continued home.
As soon as I got home, I tweeted and emailed this photo, with a description of what was happening, to local bloggers and newspapers, those who routinely post information they receive about events taking place in the area. The only response was that one of them “favorited” the tweet, but did not retweet it. None of them reported it.
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This is the neighborhood where workers are routinely vilified, when not ignored. Before the 7-Eleven opened on Avenue A, blog commenters wrote that they had no sympathy for the people who worked there, who would soon have to clean up the messes that they intended to make inside the store. As soon as it opened, they began to accuse the workers of harassing business owners in their vicinity, as I wrote about in Class Struggle on Avenue A, and later this:
Fantasy aside, this is a neighborhood that prides itself on desecrated restroom walls!
Meanwhile, in Washington Heights, when workers at Domino’s Pizza were fired after the walkout, local residents came out to support them, and the local newspaper reported it!
Domino’s Pizza, West 181 St., NYC, Dec. 9, 2013 3
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At the same time, there seems to be no end to the reporting on the woes of Jerry Delakas, the owner/operator of a news stand at Astor Place. Over a dozen posts combined, this month alone, with appearances by CB3 representatives, City Council representatives, even the new Mayor granted him an audience! Of course, it’s all crass opportunism. It’s easy to come out in support of one individual, whose victory, if he wins, will not resonate any further. Whereas if one nameless worker’s rights are recognized and this worker is reinstated, the precedent will be set for the reinstatement of all of the workers who walked out, and walking out to protest low pay and unsafe working conditions will have the sanction of city officials. That’s not something that’s going to happen in this neighborhood!
This is the kind of story they have to be careful about covering. On the one hand, they’d like nothing more than to use low pay and arbitrary firings as a cudgel against a chain restaurant like McDonald’s, but they have to be careful not to actually advocate for workers, because the small businesses they champion engage in worse practices.
1Fast-food workers carry King’s dream
2I am endlessly haunted by a sense of saudade and sehnsucht…
3Dishing it out at Domino’s