Unhappy meal: Fast-food workers want unions, like their elders

A largely black fast-food workforce looks to Grandpa's factory job for inspiration

Olivia Roffle, a fast-food worker in St. Louis, distributes fliers to Papa John's customers about working conditions there.
Labor Tribune

Olivia Roffle was only a teenager when she first thought about what it would mean to be in a union. It was five years ago, and she and her mother were riding in Angela's silver Ford Focus from their home in St. Louis to visit an ailing family member in Kansas City, Mo. Angela was telling her daughter about the time in the late ’60s when a crane threw Angela's uncle Pete from the roof of the Ralston-Purina factory in St. Louis, where he worked as a carpenter. The fall crushed his hip and put him out of work for most of the rest of his life. But Pete was in the carpenters' union, and because of that, his health care was paid for, his pension left intact. It supported him and his wife for decades. "Without the union, he would have been in abject poverty," Angela says now.

"It changes sometimes depending how she tells it," Olivia says of the story, which she had heard before. But that time, on the drive, she says, "I remember thinking about how important that is — to have those things my uncle had at work. Where I work, we don't have any of that." Olivia, who’s 23 now, has worked a string of fast-food jobs since she was a teenager, most recently at Papa John's Pizza. She's gone in to work sick on many occasions herself, and seen co-workers get injured on the job; with no paid sick days or disposable income, they would sometimes arrive at work the next day in a sling.

For years, she says, she's wanted to do something to change that, so one day in May, Olivia followed in the footsteps of her relatives. Instead of going to work at Papa John's, she threw on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt and joined other workers from McDonald's, Wendy's, KFC and other chains in a daylong strike. The first of three walkouts in St. Louis and one of dozens across the country, the national fast-food workers' strikes came to a head on Aug. 29, when community groups and national unions pulled off a 60-city strike of several thousand workers. Their demand: the right to organize a union without retaliation and an increase in the median industry wage, from $9 an hour to $15.

"This kind of organizing is new to us, people my age, but we know where we come from," Olivia says. In that feeling, she's not alone. For the largely African-American fast-food workforce in St. Louis, Milwaukee, Detroit and other centers of the old industrial heartland, today’s organizing is often grounded in the stories and struggles of older relatives who, a generation or two ago, fought for access to manufacturing work and, later, to public-sector employment, which at least for a time made possible a tenuous economic stability.

Angela Roffle, who is 53, works as an instructor at St. Louis Community College and is a member of the National Education Association, a teachers' union. She explains why she tells Olivia these stories: "My parents and uncles were really the first generation of black workers who were making a living in doing these jobs," she says of industrial employment. "They fought to be in those unions … I want my kids to know their history."

Angela's mother was a union member and worked for the better part of a decade at the Bendix plant in Kansas City, helping produce automotive and aircraft brakes. When Angela was born, her mother hadn't yet finished high school, but the union job provided enough income to put her mother through college, and, later, an economic base for Angela to do the same. Now Angela helps her daughter pay for social work classes at the community college. But even with the support, Olivia's education is taking longer than she'd like. On the wages she makes at Papa John's, she can afford to go to school only part time. "It's harder to get ahead for people (Olivia's) age than it has been for generations," says Angela.

The house his granddad built

Jonathan Lamb is a 24-year-old Detroit native raising a 9-month-old baby with his girlfriend in a small one-bedroom apartment. When the couple pools their $7.50 hourly wages from the Checkers Drive-In a few miles away, they are just able to pay their $425 monthly rent plus utilities. They rely on food stamps for groceries — one in five families relying on fast-food jobs earns less than the poverty level — but those don't cover diapers and other household basics, so by the last week of the month, they rarely have any money left and have to rely on relatives for help.

"I need to support my kid, and I can't really do that on this pay," Lamb says one recent evening in a telephone call. His voice is hushed so he won't wake the baby. He's tried to get more hours at Checkers, but his manager won't give them to him, and his 20 or 30 hours per week are scheduled too unpredictably for him to get a second job. So when he saw a friend's Facebook post about a strike in May by several hundred fast-food workers, Lamb decided to get involved.

On July 29, he and his girlfriend, plus two other Checkers employees, took part in a second strike in Detroit. A month later, on the day of the nationwide strike, he manned the picket line again.

Though he says his decision to strike was primarily about his family's economic straits, Lamb might not have been so quick to take part if he had been raised in a different family. "My grandfather worked at the Ford Motor Co.," he says. "He moved from the South" — one of millions of African-Americans who fled Jim Crow and traveled north in the so-called Great Migration — "and he was one of the people on the line putting the cars together. He had a coat with ("United Auto Workers") on the back. He would wear that around all the time. It was a pride thing for him.

"My grandfather didn't have much at first," Lamb says. But with earnings from the Ford job, "he bought a house for him and my grandmother before she died. They lived there, and my grandfather still has that house."

After the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, black workers finally were able to get a leg into big industrial employment. Many of those jobs were unionized, and black workers were able to get them. It changed the landscape for that generation.

For the Lamb family and others like them, scoring a union manufacturing job meant the prospect of building a nest egg — something that would have been inconceivable even a decade or two earlier. 

Black workers' inclusion in these jobs did not come without a fight. Labor unions have a complicated racial history; white union member anxiety over competition from black workers and a dearth of legal protections against hiring discrimination created a bifurcated manufacturing sector in the early part of the last century. But "black workers demanded inclusion, and ’60s civil rights legislation created hiring protections," explains Dorian Warren, a Columbia University political scientist who studies labor and race.

"After the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, black workers finally were able to get a leg into big industrial employment, where they'd been excluded in the past," Warren says. "Many of those jobs were unionized, and black workers were able to get them. It changed the landscape for that generation."

But the gains would quickly dissipate. United Auto Workers membership has fallen by nearly 75 percent in the last 35 years, and in Detroit, factories long ago fled city limits. Now the recession has hastened Detroit's long decline, and black residents, who make up more than 80 percent of the city's population, are left with little access to the good jobs, or any jobs at all; official unemployment in Detroit remains around 18 percent.

Even as the city's economy declined, Lamb figured he, like his grandfather, would find work at one of the remaining plants, or he'd follow his postal-worker father into another sort of union job. And though auto manufacturers are hiring again, announcing thousands of new hires across the Rust Belt this year, Lamb says he doubts he'll land at General Motors or Chrysler. "I've applied and applied, but the only places that are always hiring are fast food," he says. "It's like you're locked in once you start here."

Nationally, as the economy creeps back into gear, nearly 60 percent of post-recession job growth has been in service and retail jobs, according to a 2012 report from the National Employment Law Project. Those sectors are populated disproportionately by black and Latino workers — about 40 percent — and though there’s little in the way of official data on the racial breakdown of the workforce in the fast-food industry, those who hold jobs in Detriot, St. Louis and other cities say nearly all their co-workers are young and black.

Factory decline hits hard

Milwaukee provides a stark example of the impact of manufacturing's decline on black workers. In 1970, when that city still boasted a thriving industrial sector — made up of A.O. Smith, Briggs & Stratton, Harley-Davidson and Miller Brewing, to name a few — 54.3 percent of working black men held production jobs, more than double the rate of white male employment in the sector, according to a report from the University of Wisconsin. "You can't throw a rock without finding someone in the African-American community who worked" at A.O. Smith, says Jennifer Epps, executive director of Wisconsin Jobs Now, which helped organize the fast-food strikes in the city. More than a third of those production jobs were unionized, according to the report's author, Marc Levine, and they generally paid a wage that could support a family.

But these jobs were in retreat, and by the time the recession hit, just 14 percent of black male workers held factory jobs, about the same percentage as white male workers. Coupled with rising rates of incarceration and an increase in overall unemployment, the diminishing manufacturing sector has pushed black household income down by nearly 30 percent over the last 30 years, according to Levine. In fact, the average African-American household in Milwaukee now earns 45 percent of what white households earn.

Elvis Bradley, 64, makes $5 an hour plus tips as a delivery driver for Domino's Pizza on Milwaukee’s south side. He is the oldest person working there and is surrounded by people who never really knew the old Milwaukee. From 1965 to about 1980, Bradley worked his way up at the Briggs & Stratton small-engine plant. According to United Steelworkers, at the company's peak in the early ’80s, the Briggs factories employed 11,000 Milwaukee workers.

By the time he was laid off from the job several years later, Bradley says, he was making more than $11 an hour, which translates to an hourly wage of more than $30 today, adjusted for inflation. That is four times what his young co-workers earn at Domino's. He still lives in the home he bought for himself and his family.

Reflecting on his young co-workers, Bradley says, "There's no way you can raise up your kids making these wages."

Looking back to go forward

In St. Louis, Olivia Roffle hopes she won't have to work in the fast-food industry forever. But she says, "There are people who depend on these jobs because these are the jobs that they can get, because of lack of education or because (hiring managers) … tell them they are unskilled, even if they aren't."

On a recent evening, Olivia invited a friend and fellow fast-food worker to dinner at her mother's one-bedroom apartment in St. Louis' Central West End. She spends most nights there, sleeping on the futon in Angela's living room, since she was priced out of her apartment. Olivia cooked dinner while her friend sat by the kitchen counter on a stool and her mother talked organizing. "She started reminding us about civil rights marches and sit-ins," Olivia said.

Angela told them a story about her own mother's time working at the Kansas City Bendix plant. "She was a shop steward long before black women held power in the union," she recalls. "I remember watching her out in the lot with a metal … thermos for coffee in her hand. They had a picket at the factory, and Bendix wanted to bust the union. There was a physical altercation; my mother told me to lie down on the back seat. I heard outside my mother and some of her friends talking and putting together a strategy."

Olivia loves the stories, but she says she finds some irony in their resonance: "It shows a lot about the signs of the times that we're supposed to be moving up, but we’re looking back to find a way."

"Olivia is quite a bit like my mom," Angela says. And that gives her some hope about the strikers' prospects. But she knows the workers are up against a hard fight. When fast-food companies say anything at all about the strikes, it is unequivocal opposition to a union. Papa John's, Olivia's employer, did not respond to requests for comment. But Domino's did. A spokesman said the strikes have been insignificant because of their size. "There has never been a meaningful push to unionize any of our stores," he wrote in an email, "nor do we find a need for (a union)."

But though the road may be long, Olivia doesn't care. "I'll strike again," she says, "and maybe for workers that come next it'll be different."

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