By Jeffery Harrell
When Paquasia Haynesworth was fired from her job at a Brooklyn McDonalds in June, she was completely blindsided. She says her manager had never come to her with problems before.
“I was practically begging for her to give me a day or two more,” said Haynesworth. “I needed the money.”
When she asked why she was losing her job, she was told she was too friendly at the cash register.
Workers at the McDonalds at 840 Atlantic Ave. are fighting back against a spate of unfair firings, which they say are tied to their involvement with the Service Employee’s International Union (SEIU). Since they haven’t been able to officially form a union, they’re pushing City Hall to pass a bill protecting them from capricious firings and giving the union a foothold in the fast-food industry.
Haynesworth says she had been involved with 32BJ, an SEIU local, organizing around raising the minimum wage. She didn’t keep that quiet and tried to recruit her coworkers to get involved.
“I wasn’t really worried about what they would do to me, but I should have known better,” Haynesworth says.
The Goodman Group, the franchisee which owns and operates Haynesworth’s former place of employment, declined to comment on the recent firings at its 840 Atlantic Ave. location.
In August, Haynesworth joined roughly 20 other fired McDonalds employees to picket outside the restaurant. They carried signs reading “Stop Unfair Terminations,” and “Respect Worker’s Right To Organize A Union.”
The picket began spontaneously, after another 32BJ affiliated worker was fired for what the workers thought of as dubious reasons.
Since then, workers like Haynesworth have been working with 32BJ to push for the passage of a bill that would make firings of fast-food workers in New York City illegal without proof of “just cause.”
The first-of-its-kind bill would mimc the “just-cause” clause usually present in a union contract. The legislation is seen as 32BJ’s answer to offer protections to difficult to organize sectors like fast-food.
Fast food restaurants have successfully fought off SEIU’s nationwide push to unionize fast food workers.
McDonald’s has achieved this in part because of its franchise structure, meaning roughly 90% of its employee’s technically work for companies like the Goodman Group, which owns and operates 14 McDonalds in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Unions like 32BJ would have to organize workers and negotiate separate contracts with each McDonald’s franchise, of which there are about 3,100 nationwide.
Thwarted, 32BJ is turning to local government to provide the benefits normally won through collective bargaining for a sector that has successfully inoculated itself against unionization.
The bill is currently waiting to be heard in committee, but a spokeswoman for Councilman Brad Lander who introduced the bill said the legislation will be a priority this fall.
Rachel Deutsch, who worked with 32BJ to conduct a study of fast-food workers across New York City who had been fired on a whim, sees the legislation as a first step.
“The fast food industry in New York has been a laboratory for the labor movement,” Deutsch said.
Deutsch helped conduct the study with the Center for Popular Democracy. It found that turnover rates in New York’s fast food restaurants are at 150 percent, meaning that on average all the workers in a restaurant are replaced in a given year along with half of the new hires.
“The fact that your life can be thrown into total disarray at the drop of a hat creates a culture of fear in these businesses,” Deutsch explained.
Deutsch hopes that legislation like this, if successful, can be extended to other low-wage sectors. This first stab is a creative new strategy in a relentless but ultimately unsuccessful campaign to organize fast food workers launched in 2012 by SEIU.
“$15 and a union has always been our demand,” says Deutsch. “We’ve won half of that in New York City.”
She also sees greater stability as an asset to organizing fast food workers into unions in the future, since building relationships between coworkers would be easier. It would also make it more difficult for employers like McDonald’s to fire workers suspected of union involvement.
“The business model of fast food is designed to treat people as disposable,” said Deutsch. “This legislation is an organizing strategy, but more importantly it’s about giving people dignity in their workplace.”