April 22 2015 10:46 AM

Unions rally and organize fast-food workers looking for increased wages

Ramon Johnson splits time at his apartment and working for a San Diego Burger King.
Photos by Carly Nairn

Ramon Johnson was happy to take precious time out of the day to participate in a rally for higher wages for fast-food workers. Last week at San Diego State University, he joined the protesters wearing red shirts shouting “Si, se puede,” the yes-we-can refrain of farmworkers and those who followed labor leader Cesar Chavez.

A native San Diegan with a quick, youthful laugh and thick, dark mustache, Johnson works at a Burger King. He takes orders, works the drive-thru and cleans the dining area. He likes his job, he said, and doesn’t have any complaints, beside the inability to pay for some everyday expenses, such as gas. Because he works mostly night shifts, he has to drive his car to work, since public transportation isn’t available in the late hours after work.

Firsthand experience with the challenges of financial hardship, including paying for and maintaining a vehicle, is partly why Johnson joined the Fight for $15 cause, which aims to raise the national minimum wage to $15. Johnson reasons that if it’s difficult for him, a single man living alone with occasional financial responsibilities to his extended family, then the pressure on working families, and especially single mothers, must be extraordinary.

“It touches my heart,” he said about his coworkers with children. “It’s not bad for people to ask for $15 per hour to help our families, to lift our spirits, to meet the demands of rent.”

For Johnson, it doesn’t matter why the unions are organizing nonunion workers, just that they are, and that employees are confident in their own ability, with help from unions, to produce change.

“I thought it was something that was just going to die off and go away with the wind,” he said of the movement and unions’ support of fast-food workers. “But no, it’s going to organize people in a positive direction in life.”

During the rally, TV cameras found Johnson. But after the media and the crowds left, the protest signs were put away and the red shirts were folded, Johnson headed back to work. At 39, he’s worked in fast food, or other service-related jobs, for more than 21 years. He’s currently paid minimum wage at the Burger King where he’s worked for five years. Some of his other jobs included construction, grocery bagging, working on a garbage truck and a 16-year stint at a Carl’s Jr. He earned minimum wage at most of these jobs.

Fast-food jobs were once seen as entry-level positions with a large turnover rate. A fragile economy made many workers stay longer—at the same pay rate.

Starting in 2012, Fight for $15, a growing national labor movement, has called on fast-food workers and other low-income employees to strike out of their workplaces and demand a $15 minimum wage, and access to membership in a union.

Last Wednesday, workers in more than 200 U.S. cities rallied for an increased wage. The rally was supported by a litany of unions, including Service Employees International Union (SEIU), The Homecare Providers Union (UDW) and The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Many of the unions did the organizing, used funds from member dues, and made an effort to come out in force for a struggle that is as much the unions’ own as it is for nonunion workers like Johnson.

Johnson recalls his struggle. Though now sober, there were times he lost his job for partying a little too hard on his birthday. Or, he would lose his apartment because he wasn’t able to pay the full rent on time. For an eight-month period a few years ago, Johnson found himself homeless and staying at St. Vincent de Paul. One night, he was asked to leave when he was unable to make the bed check, due to the late-night course he was taking on sheet-metal installation. From there, he lived in his car. Then a former boss let him stay at his house.

“I fell off financially to zero dollars and zero cents, so I had to be homeless,” Johnson said. “It was really difficult, but I made it through it.”


Ramon Johnson struggles to pay his bills with
minimum wage.
Photo by Carly Nairn

Richard Barrera, the head of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, spoke at last week’s Fight for $15 rally at SDSU. He believes that fast-food workers and other low-wage earners, who are not part of a union, are still an important part of unions’ efforts to organize and make waves in the political sphere.

“[Unions] are the only voice working people have,” he told CityBeat. “We have a responsibility to look after all workers, even if they are not in unions.”

Barrera noted that union membership has declined across the nation in the past 40 years. Many of the workers organizing for Fight for $15 are currently not a part of any union—for fast-food employees who work in a franchised location, each location would have to organize and set its own collective-bargaining rights.

The Fight for $15 may be a starting point for low-income workers, but it is also an awareness campaign for other employees, most making more than minimum wage, who may want to join a union.

“We exist because the only viable long-term strategy for workers to make it in America today is to be in a union,” Barrera said. “The only way to make it to the middle class is to form and be a part of strong unions.”

Another reason unions are demonstrating alongside nonunion workers is that if they are successful, and raise the minimum wage (modeled after gradual-increase programs in cities like San Francisco and Seattle), it provides a floor for union contracts.

Jim Miller, a labor studies professor at San Diego City College, sees the fight as an integral part of union organizing, especially in San Diego, with a potential wage increase affecting 172,000 workers.

“These struggles are particularly poignant in a city like San Diego,” Miller said. “It has this sunny, fun, tourist outlook, but there is this dark underbelly. So many of the jobs are low-paying service-sector jobs. It doesn’t show up on the postcard.”

According to a University of California-Berkeley study: “The fast-food industry stands out for both its low wages and its paucity of full-time work jobs. The median hourly wage for front-line fast-food workers… is $8.69 an hour.”

A living-wage calculator developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology identified living expenses, such as transportation, healthcare and housing, and summed up what would be an expected living wage for each county in the country. San Diego County’s living wage amounts to $11.38 per hour, for one individual. That’s close to the $11.50-per-hour wage that San Diegans will vote on in 2016.

But skeptics like Lynn Reaser, chief economist at Point Loma Nazarene University, don’t believe the best solution for low-wage earners is an increase in the minimum wage.

“The Fight for $15 can only be successful if the underlying economy is sufficiently strong,” she said. “If companies are forced to accept that wage, they may cut back hours, employee positions, and move to automate their businesses even at a faster clip.”

Reaser believes that education is the only true way to increase a worker’s earning potential, and, for the most part, she sees fast-food and other service-related work as the first rung on an employment ladder, positions young and uneducated people take to start out in the workforce.

But now, with more people staying at low-income jobs longer, the unions are seizing on the moment for people like Ramon Johnson.

He currently has a one-bedroom apartment and a steady job; he says a number of government agencies and homeless-outreach services cut him a break. But even with filling in the occasional open shift, he’s working a little more than 20 hours a week at $9.75 an hour. He’s barely able to pay his bills and help out his grandmother, who needs financial assistance. Johnson is on the waitlist for Section 8 housing, and in the meantime, the Association for Community Housing Services gives him discounted rent. His apartment in southeastern San Diego is spartan. Most of the furniture in his living room—a sofa, a TV stand, a small flat-screen TV—was donated by the homeless-outreach group Downtown Impact.

“I have my antennae instead of having cable,” he said. “It gives me three or four channels at the most, but at least I get the news.”

Johnson is optimistic. Perhaps some day the local news will carry a story about higher minimum wages.