Fry Hand illustration by James Yamasaki

Two hundred fast-food workers in New York City walked off the counter in a one-day strike last November, in some cases joining picket lines on the sidewalks in front of the restaurants. They were asking employers for a wage they could live on—$15 an hour—along with the right to organize. They walked out again in April, doubling their numbers. Soon, workers in Chicago were walking out. Then Saint Louis. Then Detroit. By May 30, Seattle was the seventh city to join the wave.

Seattle's strike was extraordinarily successful: Rather than employees leaving while the restaurants remained open, at least eight—and as many as 14—restaurants had to shut down completely. Then on August 1, eight people were arrested demonstrating in front of a McDonald's downtown.

If there is a ground-game battle under way in America between the low-wage worker and the corporate fat cat, this is it. Last year, McDonald's reported $5.5 billion in profits; Burger King profited $652 million; and Taco Bell's parent company, which also owns Pizza Hut and KFC, reported a 73 percent growth in profits for a $458 million haul.

If just a fraction of those profits were used to pay better wages, workers could each make thousands of dollars more a year. But in reality, workers say their wages and hours are still too low to cover basic living expenses.

So this week, organizers are supersizing their plans: On Thursday, August 29, they're calling for a national strike of low-wage workers. Specifically, says Caroline Durocher, who was the very first striking worker locally, they are also asking "coffee workers in Seattle to walk off their jobs to demand a fair wage."

Catch that, Emerald City?

They're asking your barista to walk off the job—equating corporate coffee giants like Starbucks (which profited $2 billion last year) to fast-food behemoths like McDonald's, Burger King, and Taco Bell.

There are 33,000 fast-food workers in the Seattle region, according to federal statistics that were mined by pro-labor group Working Washington, which is helping organize the strikes with other labor-backed groups. That number grows when you factor in coffee workers. But the long-range goal is to incorporate low-wage workers from sectors outside the fast-food industry, says Working Washington spokesman Sage Wilson, "and baristas are one of them."

Horror Stories

Last week, 21-year-old barista Coulson Loptmann was fired from a downtown Starbucks where he'd worked for more than a year. The reason? He ate a sandwich that had been thrown away, he says. No, really. Like most cafes, the coffee giant gets rid of food that has expired; they donate what they can and toss the more perishable items.

Loptmann, who says he couldn't get enough hours to pay the bills and survives partly on his food stamps, explains, "I hadn't eaten all day and I was on a seven-hour shift." A coworker had just marked some breakfast sandwiches out of stock, and he figured no one would mind if he grabbed one of the plastic-wrapped sausage sandwiches out of the trash can.

But Starbucks did mind. According to Loptmann, his manager sat him down a week later and told him she'd found out about the sandwich and contacted HR, "and they consider it stealing, and it's against policy." She fired him on the spot.

Starbucks spokesman Zack Hutson says that while they can't comment on individual employees for privacy reasons, he can confirm that "it is a violation of our policy to consume marked-out products" because of food-safety issues. Could someone be fired for breaking the policy? "In general," says Hutson, "a partner would not be separated for a single, minor infraction like violating this policy. However, a partner could be separated for an infraction like this if it was the culmination of broader, ongoing performance issues."

In other words: Yes, Starbucks could fire an employee on food stamps for hunting through the trash for food. For his part, Loptmann says he didn't have any "ongoing performance issues" he can think of.

He's looking for another job.

Meanwhile, Jason Harvey, a 42-year-old who works at a local Burger King, says he plans to join the strike because he's seen colleagues become victims of wage theft, slashed hours, and an overall "lack of respect." Despite a two-year-old city law that prohibits wage theft, and dozens of wage-theft reports, the city has never prosecuted an employer for the crime.

In the 20 years he's worked in fast food, the navy veteran says salaries stagnated while the cost of living skyrocketed. "What we're making, it's not enough. Nearly everything in my life is subsidized, and I believe that the way to rectify that is by raising the minimum wage," Harvey says.

There is also 19-year-old Troy Dennison, who rides a delivery bike for Jimmy John's. He's been hit by two cars during his year on the job, yet until four months ago, he was uninsured by his employer. "Luckily, I didn't get too seriously injured," Dennison says. (In 2011, a driver killed a Jimmy John's delivery biker in the University District). Dennison is striking for the right to organize for better "hours and wages and safety," he says. "If a few people complain, well, that's just a few people [managers] can get rid of. With a union, they're forced to listen to the concerns of a mass group of people."

The Budget They Live On

Last month, the internet was agog when a "Sample Monthly Budget" that McDonald's gives its employees was uncovered. In one section, the budget shows an employee's income, and in another section, it shows the employee's expenses. The budget is supposed to show you how to afford a normal life on a fast-food worker's wages. Instead, it shows you can't actually live on those wages at all.

If you want to make the prescribed $2,060 monthly income—the amount needed to cover basic expenses—you need to raise nearly half of that from a second job, the budget says. When it comes to expenses: The budget doesn't have a line for food costs, it assumes you pay for magically affordable health care that costs only $20 a month, and there are no expenses at all for heating (they've since changed it to $50).

This budget is divorced from reality.

It also suggests that covering your bills requires working 75 hours a week, but the truth is, most fast-food workers can't get full-time hours in the first place—restaurants routinely schedule people just under the threshold for benefits (less than 30 hours per week). So even two typical fast-food jobs wouldn't total 75 hours a week.

Fast-food workers laugh at the McDonald's budget—which suggests workers save $100 month. "I'm borrowing money every month," says Ryan Parker, who works night shifts at Wendy's for about $500 a paycheck. Does he have some of that $20 health insurance? "No, but I do have a temperature of 101 right now," he tells us, having returned from an ER visit for pneumonia the day before.

Penciling out real fast-food workers' budgets is telling. The workers we talked to end up with around $15 to $20 a day to cover all their basics (clothing, meals, shampoo, medication, bus fare, and everything else). "Managing your money can be simple," chirps McDonald's website. Maybe that's true—the complicated part is deciding what basic needs go unmet each day. Medicine or dinner?

Corporate Baristas vs. Indie Baristas

One question is whether baristas will actually walk out on the job like their cohorts at Subway or Taco Bell. Another is whether baristas truly are low-wage workers. That depends on where they brew—and, more specifically, on their tips.

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Lots of independent coffee shops welcome a tipping culture (a dollar per drink is the civic custom), but not at corporate chains. At Starbucks, for example, while there is a small tip cup, the credit card slips don't include a line for gratuity.

Of the many baristas we interviewed, it seemed the only ones making a solid living wage were those working at busy, independent coffee shops. Most of them insisted on remaining anonymous. One such barista at a big-name indie cafe said tips can make up about half their income. Another employee from a high-end regional chain—who's been a barista for five months—said his wage could be as high as $17 an hour.

Not bad.

But corporate baristas are in more dire straits. Larry has worked at Starbucks for five years, he says. He makes around $600 a paycheck working 32 hours a week—close to minimum wage. Add on about two extra dollars per hour in tips—which can vary—and he's earning about $12 an hour. Larry says he lives with his parents and pays a few bills to help out. Likewise, another barista working for a midsize corporation says he makes only $15 in tips all week.

Bottom line? Working at a corporate coffee shop isn't far off from working fast food. And like with fast-food giants, the money flows up. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz's salary increased by 80 percent this year—he's now making $28.9 million annually.

What's in It for the Unions?

It would be wrong to characterize the fast-food strikes as anything but a grassroots movement. Still, the strikers aren't doing it alone. New York Communities for Change, the coalition behind the nation's first one-day fast-food walkout, receives funding and assistance from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), while Working Washington—another SEIU-funded community group—played a crucial role in organizing and promoting Seattle's extraordinarily successful May 30 strike.

So what's in it for unions in general, and SEIU in particular?

"The real prize here is $15 an hour," says SEIU Healthcare 775NW president David Rolf.

SEIU 775NW represents home health-care workers who earn between $11 and $15 an hour, and Rolf acknowledges that a $15 an hour fast-food wage would surely provide upward pressure on the wages of his union's members. But SEIU has its eyes on a much bigger picture.

"We have a state-of-the-art labor law system for the economy circa 1935," bemoans Rolf. "What labor needs now is an era of risk-taking and experimentation in search of new and better models."

Part of those new models, paradoxically, may be returning to classic strike tactics used by workers a century ago, says Bob Brock, an organizer for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. "It's not different than how people organized for the eight-hour workday," he says.

Direct action can also breathe life into demoralized workforces after the National Labor Relations Board has proven toothless, and many workers are at the mercy of employers, Brock says. For example, he represents satellite-dish installers who are sometimes paid less than it costs them to drive to job sites on their own dime, so they lose money doing their jobs. Their complaints have gone nowhere. Fast-food walkouts "give them hope, for one," he says.

Mostly, a victory by such infamously powerless workers would prove an inspiration to union and nonunion workers alike. "If these workers can show workers around the country a path to a better life based on struggle, they will become heroes," says Rolf.

Kshama Sawant Goes to McDonald's

No candidate has been a louder, more stalwart advocate for workers' rights than socialist Kshama Sawant, who is running for Seattle City Council. Sawant has been campaigning for a $15 an hour minimum wage since before it was cool, and she's marched with striking fast-food workers since May.

So naturally, we took her to McDonald's.

"No corporation is going to give in to the $15 an hour demand" without "mass mobilizations," Sawant explained as we stood in line waiting to order. "Fifteen dollars an hour is a big leap, but it is a realistic, tangible improvement of the standard of living for workers who are stuck in low-wage jobs with no way out."

Okay, sure. But more importantly, what was she having for lunch?

"I've heard the coffee is good," Sawant offered.

She was clearly not coming off as the McDonald's expert she had presented herself to be.

When we got to the counter, Sawant stepped in it even worse, attempting to order a nonexistent "veggie burger" before ending up with a veggie wrap and a mocha.

While Sawant was totally out of touch with the McDonald's menu, she turned out to be eerily in sync with their employees. While attempting to radicalize our cashier, Sawant asked how long she'd been working at McDonald's.

"Forever," our cashier sighed before echoing Sawant's prior comments in broken English: "I stuck here."

Sawant teased out the details: nine years stuck in the same part-time job, earning minimum wage on only four shifts a week.

Sawant described her veggie wrap as "quite good," and the same could be said for the coffee. But the working conditions of McDonald's employees left a bitter taste in our mouths.

What Do the Companies Say?

We tried to reach McDonald's, Burger King, Taco Bell, Subway, and Wendy's. None of them would comment. But while they were silent, Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Restaurant Association, was surprisingly candid.

Anton said that fast-food jobs were never designed to be permanent employment for family breadwinners. But as the economy has changed, manufacturing jobs that used to pay a living wage have vanished, while jobs in the growing fast-food industry were "not intended to replace lost manufacturing jobs."

When it comes to striking workers, he said, "I'm very sympathetic to people who are seeking to pursue a better life... [and] we support the right of workers to express where they're at with their lives. We understand they want better."

But he's not about to endorse their call for a $15 minimum wage. Anton said that after Washington State raised the minimum wage in 1999, the WRA saw some changes in the industry. Restaurants have three fewer employees per restaurant than the national average, he said. Anton says the average restaurant margin is only 4 percent, and the failure rate is around 50 percent every five years.

Just like in 1998, restaurateurs argue that a higher minimum wage could cause them to hire fewer workers and put some places right out of business.

What does Starbucks think of the protests? "We support the intent of various efforts to ensure that working Americans earn a decent and competitive wage," says Starbucks talking-point dispenser Hutson. At the same time, he acknowledges that raising the minimum wage would have "potential impact to businesses."

Most Local Politicians Are Ducking the Issue

If you were expecting Seattle’s elected leaders—who all make six-figure salaries—to come out gunning for a $15 an hour minimum wage, guess again. We sent a poll with three multiple choice questions to every member of the Seattle City Council, Mayor Mike McGinn, and mayoral candidate Ed Murray to ask their positions.

Only McGinn and Council Member Tim Burgess replied.

Burgess—who should be thanked for answering the questions—said by e-mail, “I’m skeptical that raising the minimum wage at the city level is an appropriate course to follow… I would much rather see the minimum wage addressed at the federal or state level.”

We can totally relate with Burgess: We’d much rather that someone in Washington, DC, write this newspaper for us while we get paid to sit on our asses in Seattle. But that’s never going to happen. And, for the record, saying you would rather the legislature or Congress take initiative on a controversial issue is also tantamount to saying you want nothing to happen.

McGinn was just slightly better. “I support increasing the minimum wage,” he said vaguely. “I would look at this at a local level after a good faith effort to pass this at a state level. I will not settle upon the amount or timing of an increase until after a vigorous public discussion that gave workers and business owners a chance to be heard.”

But at least Burgess and McGinn replied: Murray and the city council refused to comment.

What If It Doesn’t Happen?

If the nationwide low-wage worker walkout fizzles, “It would be a disappointment,” admits Rolf, “but movements aren’t made in a day.”

By way of example, Rolf points to 1955, when an African American woman was handcuffed and arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. But few people remember Claudette Colvin’s name, because it wasn’t until nine months later that Rosa Parks famously galvanized the civil rights movement in a similar incident.

So if one city fizzles out or one action flops, that sort of goes with the territory, says Rolf. “But that’s not a reason to give up hope.” recommended

The last two sections of this article are online-only; they did not appear in print.

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