Class Struggle on First Avenue

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.

ev-mcdonalds
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.

* * *

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:

evg-7eleven-worker-attack-20131213

Fantasy aside, this is a neighborhood that prides itself on desecrated restroom walls!


Mars Bar2

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

* * *

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

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. joe
    Jan 21, 2014 @ 17:11:33

    There are some notable differences here. The uptown Dominos fired 25 workers whereas the East Village McDonald’s fired one. It’s not unreasonable to assume the more draconian action is going to attract greater attention and condemnation. Moreover, the Dominos case appeared in the papers over a month ago and just a week and a half after the walk out. The issue was in the air, the crowds (including advocacy groups) gathered and the media — or at least the local media — appeared. It seems a bit of a stretch to suggest that this is about differing attitudes toward workers in these two neighborhoods.

    Much the same can be said about Jerry’s newsstand. The newsstand occupies a highly visible location. People who frequent the stand hear about what’s going on. The topic’s in the air, word spreads, and people gather. There’s a lot here that isn’t going on in the case of the McDonalds.

    So here’s an interesting question. Which of the above mini-campaigns (if any) is going to be successful? Will Domino’s stick to their guns and assume people will keep ordering pizza? Will the McDonald’s manager feel the pangs of conscience (or fear a larger series of demos because it is, after all, the East Village) and restore employment to the worker? Will Jerry win over city bureaucracy?

    At the end of the day I’m glad to hear that you, Citizen Quilas, helped to spread the message about the McDonald’s rally. That’s one of those things that needs to happen.

    Reply

    • shmnyc
      Jan 22, 2014 @ 13:20:17

      Joe,

      What you write in your second paragraph is one of my main points: “The topic’s in the air, word spreads, and people gather. There’s a lot here that isn’t going on in the case of the McDonalds.”

      Word doesn’t spread by itself, it is spread. As I wrote before, there was no mention, locally, of the December 5 walkout in the days leading up to it, nor afterwards, even though this was a nationwide event covered by every major news outlet, and there are such restaurants in the “East Village” where workers participated. With Delakas, it’s almost daily coverage.

      Regarding Delakas, his is not a situation of fighting “the bureaucracy”. He’s not being ground down by some nameless, faceless system. He operated his newsstand for two decades without a license and it caught up to him. When this is reported locally, they write operating illegally with quotation marks: “operating illegally”, as if it wasn’t true!

      I have no ill will towards Delakas; I don’t care if he continues to operate with or without a license. My interest is with the people who attach themselves to causes such as this.

      (I’d like to see the tax return for that place, too. I would bet anything he makes more in a year than the two of us combined. My friend A. (also from Greece) was friends with a guy who operated a souvlaki cart up by Hunter. He told me the guy made over $100,000/year! It wouldn’t surprise me if Delakas made the same.)

      Regarding 25 vs. 1: An injury to one is an injury to all!

      Reply

  2. joe
    Jan 24, 2014 @ 09:08:27

    You sent me a nice entry from evgrieve that talked about how the Jerry’s campaign progressed. From photo posted on Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York to outraged individual who saw said photo and said enough is enough to small gatherings and leafleting at the newsstand to campaign facebook page, to Rev Billy pitching in to a petition being given to Bill de Blasio at Gracie Mansion. From social media to the street and back to social media to local media to the street (and so on). That is how word circulated. As with any mobilization of this nature the issue was framed in a way to minimize the infraction and maximize the injustice — as you noted, through the strategic placement of quotations. It would have been harder to frame the issue if the vender had been busted for involvement in the local drug trade or was caught urinating out the back of his newsstand and onto the steps of the subway.
    I don’t know of a similar treatment of the Dominos’s case but given the size of the mobilization I’m sure something similar occurred. Some frame was chosen: an unjust retaliation for workers participating in a growing campaign to demand high wages for service workers (minimizing the infraction of not showing up for work). That message spread in some manner (did they use social media? phone calls? leaflets? public demos?) aided by the fact that the larger mobilization was getting coverage in the corporate media. That combination resulted in the media coverage you posted and the spread of the conversation to Quilas.
    Maybe some similar dynamic will unfold in the case of the McDonalds worker. So far we know it has gone from street gathering to social media (to Quilas). Never underestimate the importance of even the smallest of gatherings. You never know who’s passing by!

    Reply

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