In Effort to Unionize, Fast Food Workers Walk Out

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Workers at dozens of fast food restaurants in New York City walked off the job to rally for higher wages and the right to unionize. 

The nation-wide campaign for unionizing fast food workers is being called the biggest such effort in the United States and will involve workers from McDonalds, Wendy's Taco Bell, Domino's and other fast food restaurants in New York.

Twenty-one-year-old Raymond Lopez works at a McDonald's in midtown. He says the money he makes as a shift manager isn't enough.

"Living in this city is very expensive," he said. "$7.25, $8, $8.50 is just not realistic.

Lopez, an aspiring actor, doesn't plan to make a career out of his current job. But others, like McDonald's manager Miguelina Diaz, say they need the work to help support their families. Diaz has a five-year-old and an eight-year-old.

"Supporting them is kind of hard," she said, adding that she makes $7.75 an hour.

The state Labor Department says median pay for fast-food workers in New York City is about $9 an hour.

It’s not just pay that’s at issue. Others who walked out were thinking about the benefits that could come with unionization. Saavedra Jantuah rallied outside the Burger King where she works on 34th Street, between 7th and 8th avenues.

"This is my only job, I don't get welfare or Medicaid," she said. "I need a union to help with my benefits and make sure my health is safe so I'm suitable to work," Jantuah said. After two years of working, she says she’s making $7.30 an hour.

Steven Greenhouse, a reporter with The New York Times, says the unionizing several restaurants at once is new and could help address owners concerns. “If they get 40, 50, 60, 70, in, say, midtown Manhattan unionized, then the restaurant owners can't say, well I'm being put at a disadvantage because you're unionizing me and not the guy across the street," he told WNYC’s Soterios Johnson.

The effort is being backed by a number of community and civil rights groups as well as religious leaders and the Service Employees International Union. Jonathan Westin, with New York Communities for Change, says it's the first effort of its kind, "not only going after multiple stores, but multiple stores from different chains to really change the entire industry."