Fast Food Workers Achieve US$15 Minimum Hourly Wage in New York

Emily Nink

A Fast Food Wage Board appointed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a plan to increase fast food workers’ wages incrementally across the state, representing a major victory for labor organizers and food justice champions. #Fightfor15 is a national campaign working for a US$15 minimum wage and unionization for workers in the fast food industry.

The US$15 minimum will be achieved in New York City by 2018 and the rest of the state by 2021, applying to establishments with more than 10 workers. The Commissioner of Labor in New York will enforce the panel’s recommendations, which will apply to 180,000 fast food workers in New York state, a third of which work in New York City.

According to the Fight for $15 campaign, two-thirds of fast food workers are supporting a family on average yearly wages of US$16,920. “I’m 83 and don’t want to have to work until I die,” says Jose Carillo, an employee of McDonald’s in New York City. 52 percent of fast food workers receive public assistance such as food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, compared to 25 percent of families in the entire workforce, according to a study by the University of California-Berkeley Labor Center.

On April 15, 2015, tens of thousands of people protested for higher wages, fair pay, and union’s rights, taking to the streets in 35 countries around the world. Fast food workers joined the protests in hundreds of cities.

The panel’s decision, a result of two-and-a-half years of grassroots organizing, resulted in celebrations in the streets of New York City. “It’s huge,” says Kendall Fells, the Fight for 15’s chief organizer. “It’s hard to believe, going back to that first one-day strike, with people saying, ‘They’re crazy. This is stupid.’ And now you have Governor Cuomo stepping up to help raise wages for 180,000, people.”

Vermont Senator and Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has proposed federal legislation to raise the minimum wage to US$15 nationwide. “It is a national disgrace that millions of full-time workers are living in poverty and millions more are forced to work two or three jobs just to pay their bills,” Sanders says. “A job must lift workers out of poverty, not keep them in it. The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is a starvation wage and must be raised to a living wage.”

Other cities have already approved similar wage increases across the nation, including Los Angeles, Chicago, and Seattle. However, the New York legislation is the first to single out a particular industry for a minimum wage level.

“The Fight for $15 has showed me what’s possible when people stick and work together,” says Jorel Ware, a McDonald’s employee in New York City. “When industry will not correct itself, the governor has to step in,” says Mike Fishman, secretary-treasurer of the Services Employees International Union and a member of the wage board appointed by Governor Cuomo.