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I confess. I went to a Fast Food Forward protest yesterday to support striking workers… and then I went to McDonald’s.

Sandwiched between the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and Labor Day, fast food workers in dozens of American cities participated in a one-day strike Thursday, demanding $15-an-hour, benefits and the right to unionize.

Workers in Detroit, St. Louis, San Diego and Los Angeles were joined by those in New York, Durham, N.C. and Hartford, Conn., in what activist-types call “a day of action.” Workers and organizers used social media to keep each other posted on what was happening  throughout the day. And commentators  and supporters across the web weighed in on the subject  on various platforms. (You can see some examples of that sprinkled throughout this article.) A perfunctory glance at the Web on Thursday afternoon: a search for “fast food protest” showed 161 videos posted to YouTube this week; the same search turned up hundreds of posts on Google+ from Wednesday and Thursday; and on Twitter, scores of tweets were coming in every minute with the hashtags #829strike and #fightfor15.

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I went to a Fast Food Forward protest in Manhattan’s Union Square Park to support the workers and do some reporting. There were hundreds of fast food workers, sympathy strikers and onlookers in attendance. And since it’s an election year here in New York, several candidates for public office addressed the crowd.

“This is not a cause,” said Brooklyn City Councilwoman Letitia James. “This is a movement. One day after we celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington this is about economic justice. It’s about a dream where all of us can live in the city of New York, where all of us do not have to struggle.

“They would like you to believe that all fast food workers are teenagers. They are not. They are primarily women with children who are struggling to make ends meet, so this is about economic justice. We are here today to honor the legacy of Dr. King by standing with these fast food workers.”

James is being forced out of her 35th District council seat by term limits, but she’s running for the citywide office of Public Advocate, an office currently held by Bill De Blasio, who is running for mayor. She is also a member of the council’s Progressive Caucus. Her district includes the neighborhoods of Clinton Hill and Fort Greene; and parts of Crown Heights, Prospect Heights and Bedford Stuyvesant.

De Blasio, whose progressive bone fides were recently endorsed by The Nation, also addressed the rally.

“We’re here to talk about an injustice that cannot stand,” De Blasio said. “There’s no one in this city, there’s no one in this country who can’t tell you that the fast food industry is doing very, very well. Wherever you go, they’re full, they’re thriving, but until today I didn’t know that chains like McDonald’s and Burger King are part of a $200-billion industry.

YouTube Fast Food Comments

“An industry known for trying to hold down its workers to minimum wage and not give them the benefits they deserve. This is unacceptable. This is not the kind of country or the kind of city we should have, where hard working people in an industry that is more lucrative all the time, can’t get a modicum of economic justice. And I won’t stand for it.

“If I have the honor of being mayor of New York City I will have the honor of standing with you at rallies just like this until you get the justice you deserve.”

The politicians were there to show their support, but also to court votes. The protest was really focused on workers like Tamara Green, a Burger King employee who gave a stirring address that covered the hard facts of the situation the striking workers face.

“I am one semester away from graduating from college,” Green said. “And I know college graduates who stand next to me and make a burger. They say that if you’re educated, you can get anywhere. If you’ve got this, you can go far. A lot of us graduated high school, a lot of us can enunciate, a lot of us are extremely intelligent. A lot of us are not ‘hood rats. A lot of us are not doing this for a new pair of sneakers.

“I was talking to a reporter today and he said to me ‘Well it seems like it’s about the money.’ We’ve been so long without money, that’s it’s not about the money. It’s about the respect we are due as people, as workers, as those that make these companies groove and swing.

“These companies are making their money on our shoulders. We are not only here in New York doing this. We are 50 cities strong. And I don’t think today is the last day. We’ve got to do this every day; rain, sleet, snow, feet hurt, may not have a job tomorrow; but guess what? A youngster coming up behind me, they’re going to have a job and benefits and they’ll look at their self in the mirror and say ‘I am my best me.’”

On a personal note: I’ve worked in the fast food industry, so I understand why these workers are striking. I was a teenager when I started working at Taco Bell. I had just moved out of my parents’ house and was trying to support myself – pay rent, bills and buy groceries – while going to school part-time and paying my own tuition. Technically I was a “shift manager,” which meant that I earned a little more than the bottom-rung employees I was “supervising.” In the late 1990s, Congress had recently raised the minimum wage to just above $6-an-hour and I was earning $8 and change. Eventually I left Taco Bell to manage an Einstein Bros. bagel shop. I got a bump in pay when I changed jobs, but it still wasn’t enough to sustain myself so I had to move back home.

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It’s worth noting that in addition to being 15 years ago, it was also in the Midwest, where the cost of living is substantially lower than it is here in New York. (I was renting a one-bedroom with a den for $450/month, including two reserved parking spaces, and my apartment complex had a swimming pool!)

I was lucky enough to be able to move back in with my folks to save some money. But many of the people I worked with at those jobs didn’t have that option. They were single parents, trying to support their families. They were middle-aged workers who didn’t have any marketable skills to speak of. They were immigrant families (Yes, whole families – fathers, mothers, daughters and sons.) They were combat veterans and starving artists trying to make their way in the world.

The pay is low, the benefits are non-existent, the work is dangerous and grueling. And nobody – not customers, not management and least of all corporations – gives fast food workers any respect.

So I can sympathize with the striking workers, and I support them. Antagonists who say: “If they get what they want, the price of a Big Mac will skyrocket,” besides being wrong, are missing an important point. Fast food is a multi-billion dollar industry – it is not true that the corporations have to pass the cost of raises onto the customer.

The corporate types who sit behind desks and wouldn’t be caught dead flipping a burger – or eating one for that matter – could take corresponding pay cuts to offset the cost of paying their workers a wage they can live on. They could cut back on the money they spend researching and developing the next great dipping sauce or coming up with new ways to inject cheese into pizza crusts. They could stop building new locations on every corner in America. How about cutting back on advertising? What if they reduced the portions they served? Aren’t there ways of controlling costs that don’t involve raising prices or paying workers poverty wages?

Yes. There are. And if you’re still reading, you know I just named five of them.

A protester in Chicago held up this sign Thursday outside a McDonald's.

A protester in Chicago held up this sign Thursday outside a McDonald’s.

A further confession: I’m a hypocrite. I admit it. I support these workers and I should have steered clear of all fast food restaurants yesterday. In my defense, I really tried. After I left the Union Square protest I was hungry. But I was resolved, so I walked out of my way – past a Taco-Hut, (a combination Taco Bell/Pizza Hut, owned by Yum! Brands, Inc.) two Subways, a Wendy’s and handful of other national chains – to buy my lunch. Then I walked back to the subway (the trains, not the sandwich shop) and headed out to Coney Island. I was hoping to catch a baseball game and ride the Wonder Wheel.

I was frustrated on both counts, but was pleased instead to see a burlesque show at Coney Island U.S.A. I arrived at Coney at 5:30 p.m. when the gates opened to MCU Park, home of the Cyclones, but the bleacher seats were sold out. And the burlesque show didn’t start until after 9. So, I decided to find a free Wi-Fi connection and upload the videos I had taken at the protest to YouTube.

There aren’t a lot of options for free internet connections in Coney Island and they’re pretty much all fast food joints. I walked a great distance to what my phone told me was a Starbucks, where I could get online. But it turns out it was a drive-thru shack with no way inside, so I turned around and headed back towards a McDonald’s. I knew I shouldn’t, but I had time to kill and work to do, so I decided to swallow my pride – bite the bullet – as it were and do what I needed to do.

Retrospectively, I’m glad I did. Because the experience helped me think more about why I support the striking workers and why the corporations who employ them ought to pay them well enough to support themselves and raise their families.

When I got inside the restaurant, it was packed with customers. It was the dinner hour and affordable food options at the People’s Playground are scarce, unless you want a hot dog or a slice of pizza. Surely withholding my $3 wasn’t going to shut the industry down, or get anyone’s attention. So why not? I ordered a medium iced mocha.

What happened next is an anecdote parallel to many of the arguments I’ve seen in the category of here’s-why-fast-food-workers-don’t-deserve-a-raise. It took way too long for me to get my drink. And when I did there was no ice in it. In fact it was a little hot. It’s called an iced mocha for pity’s sake – putting ice in it doesn’t require any deductive reasoning or superior cognition – it’s right there in the name of the drink. But it’s busy in this McDonald’s at this particular moment, so I understand. A simple oversight made by an overworked, underpaid employee. I forgive her.

So I walk up to the counter and politely say: “Excuse me, there’s no ice in this and it’s hot. Would you put some ice in it for me?” She was happy to oblige.

Those familiar with the McDonald’s mocha products know that they come topped with whipped cream and chocolate sauce and have those domed lids with the extra-large hole in the top, presumably so the whipped cream nozzle will fit inside. I watched in wonder as the employee took my drink to the ice bin and tried to dump a scoopful of cubes through the hole in the lid. As you can imagine, the results were disastrous.

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She walked back over to the counter – sloppy mess in hand. “It was really hard to get ice in here,” she said as she wiped the spillage off the side of the cup. She set it on the counter as if to offer me the now destroyed mocha. I smiled patiently, (You support these workers remember? They deserve better than this, don’t they?) “Maybe it would be easier if you put this in a new cup, or just started over from the beginning?” I said. She agreed. It seemed obvious to both of us once one of us had said it aloud. In the end I got my drink and uploaded my videos – no big deal.

But it made me wonder. Am I wrong to dismiss the arguments of those who say fast food workers don’t deserve a raise because they’re unskilled and hopelessly incompetent?

No, I’m not. That’s baloney, because the issue here is not competence. Incompetent workers in all industries should be corrected, disciplined and ultimately, if they don’t improve – fired. That’s to say nothing of the fact that employees who receive better pay are more likely to perform their duties competently. The real issue is anyone in America who is willing to work for a living ought to earn enough to live. It’s just that simple. Many of these workers depend on food stamps, housing subsidies, Medicaid and other government assistance to survive. That’s taxpayer money – yours and mine – spent on keeping workers afloat. Isn’t that a responsibility that ought to be borne by their employers? They work. Hard. In lousy conditions. The least the filthy rich industry can do is compensate them enough so they can live.