New York, NY – Trying to organize around fundamental workplace protections in the fast food industry is no easy task — not when simply taking to co-workers about unionizing could get you fired or your hours cut.
City College senior Jahaira Garcia, 21, would like to see her Chipotle co-workers in Kips Bay, Manhattan become industry trailblazers and vote to unionize. But fear of managerial reprisals have made the young union organizer “picky” about who she’ll even talk to about unionizing.
She says “trying to communicate with my co-workers, trying to make them understand what is the union and how it will benefit us — and [then] trying to make sure they don’t go to the general manager — or the next thing I know, I’ll be the one fired,” are two of her biggest challenges.
The last time talk of unionization reached the bosses ears, Garcia says managers were quick to inform new hires that if they decided to join the union, they would be forced to pay for their own lunches and uniforms.
According to the National Labor Relations Board, you can’t be “fired, disciplined, demoted or penalized in any way” for trying to unionize. But the fast food workers that spoke to LaborPress say that managers have, indeed, punished pro-union workers.
“A lot of people don’t know what’s going on,” 20-year-old fast food worker Jeremy Espinal says. “A lot of people don’t know that they can fight and that they have rights to organize and form a union. And that’s what the company wants — they want us to play dumb and be quiet.”
A recent report from the University of Illinois, Chicago concluded that “Union membership in the United States is not declining because workers no longer want or need unions. Instead, falling union density is directly related to employers’ near universal and systemic use of legal and illegal tactics to stymie workers’ union organizing.”
The clampdown at the Chipotle outlet where Espianl used to work was so complete, that the nursing student says co-workers were prohibited from talking to each other in the back of the restaurant.
Says Espinal, “Telling workers we can’t talk in the back and treating us like children — it’s really disgusting how they think they can get away with all of this stuff.”
Espinal also noticed another feature of the fast food industry: widespread sexism.
“I’ve noticed the sexism in the stores,” he says. “[It’s] another pattern, a majority of crew is women and the managerial staff is usually men.”
That disparity, along with the lack of traditional union protections, have made the fast food industry particularly hostile to women. A Hart Research Associates national survey issued in 2016, found that 40 percent of women working the fast food industry face sexual harassment on the job.
“There has been sexual harassment, as well,” Garcia says. “If you don’t do as [managers] say, stay longer, work certain days, then, what happens is, they get rid of your hours slowly and they don’t call you anymore for extra hours. There are so many women going through this and no one has any idea how many have been affected.”
Indeed, the same Hart Research Associates national survey also found that many women sexually harassed on the job feel trapped and often do not report their abuse.
Garcia is currently in her final year at City College and contemplating joining the military. After graduation, however, she says her goal is to find another leader who can “continue fighting for the union.”