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Faith and the Fast-Food Strikes: An Interview with Rev. Liz Muñoz

Fast food strikes

SOURCE: AP/Mary Altaffer

Demonstrators hold signs and chant slogans outside of a Wendy's restaurant, Thursday, April 4, 2013, in New York.

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Listen to the interview here (mp3)

Jack Jenkins: Hello. My name is Jack Jenkins, Senior Writer and Researcher with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative here at the Center for American Progress. With me today is Rev. Liz Muñoz, an Episcopal priest at St. James Cathedral in Chicago, Illinois, who also sits on the board of directors for Arise Chicago, an organization that builds partnerships between faith communities and workers to fight workplace injustice through education, organizing, and advocating for public policy changes.

We brought in Rev. Muñoz this afternoon because she is involved with the Chicago iteration of what are being called the “fast-food strikes.” Since January, fast-food and retail workers in seven cities—New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Washington, D.C., Milwaukee, and most recently Seattle—have all gone on strike, walking out of their workplaces en masse demanding higher wages and the right to unionize. And the movement looks to be growing.

But since these workers don’t usually have a union to organize them, they rely on partnerships with local community groups—including faith groups and faith leaders such as Muñoz—to help coordinate their efforts.

So Rev. Muñoz, we’re excited to have you here today!

Rev. Liz Muñoz: My pleasure, thank you.

JJ: Let’s start with a little explanation about the fast-food strikes. Can you tell us a little bit about what’s happening with this campaign? Why are fast-food workers and retail workers striking in the first place?

LM: Sure. Here in Chicago, inspired by the work that was being done in New York and other places, fast-food and retail workers came together last fall to form a movement asking for both just wages—here in Chicago we’re talking about the fight for 15, or for $15 an hour—and the right to organize.

These are folks who are actually working in and around St. James Cathedral on Michigan Mile, also known as the Magnificent Mile, which makes a tremendous amount of money. I think $4 billion a year goes through cash registers there on Magnificent Mile. So the folks who work there—mostly at places such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Macy’s, and Sears—are rightfully saying that they’re the people on the economic front lines. By greeting and serving the customers, they’re at the front line of the $4 billion industry. But fast-food workers only make about $9.36 an hour on average and retail workers maybe a little bit more: $9.80 an hour. And they work an average of 24 hours a week—certainly not enough to provide for their families or to invest in the neighborhood.

So they came together last November and had their founding conventionhere at St. James Cathedral, and have since been organizing various actions. This included a one-day strike in April where they demanded a $15-an-hour minimum wage, the right to organize, and better working conditions—e.g., more hours, a fair assessment of their work, among other things.

JJ: Could you say a little bit more about the context of the workers? What their lives are like, what their experience is, what their day to day is?

LM: Well, most of the workers come from the south side and the west side of Chicago, which are the poor sides of town. These are parts of the city that don’t have as many resources in terms of public spaces, schools, parks, among other things. These workers average about 20 hours a week, earning about $11,300 or so a year; that’s not enough to support their families. They’ve done studies on the cost of living here, and they found that for one adult and one child to be able to live in Chicago without having to rely on government assistance—we’re talking no extras, no going out, no eating out, or similar things—a worker would have to make $17 an hour.

So basically, I think workers are being generous. They’re asking for $15 an hour in order to support their families and not have to rely on public assistance. They’re asking for more hours to work, and they’re asking for better working conditions so they can contribute to the economy here in Chicago and in their neighborhoods.

We’re talking about a worker making $11,000 a year, for example, at McDonald’s. By contrast, the total annual compensation for a fast-food CEO is $8.8 million.

JJ: Wow.

LM: Yeah. And McDonald’s makes about $34.2 billion a year. Making a profit of about $5.5 billion. So there’s obviously the possibility of providing for workers without taking a significant cut in profits, while also allowing for workers to provide for their families and invest in the very system that McDonald’s and other large companies are invested in. Henry Ford, one of the leaders of industry, once said that you’ve gotta pay workers enough so they can buy the product.

Oh, and the other thing I want to say: It used to be that these jobs were summer jobs for high school and college students to make a little extra cash for tuition and for spending money. Nowadays the median age of a fast-food worker is 29. Also the majority of the people working in these jobs are women. This is a family issue. Talk about your family values; how are people going to support their families?

This is also a growing area. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 7 out of 10 growth occupations over the next decade will be low-wage jobs such as serving customers at big-box retailers or fast-food chains. These are the jobs that are available. Retail and fast-food the areas that are growing by about 60 percent in terms of jobs.

This is the new economy. And in this new economy, we need to be able to provide workers with a livable minimum wage.

JJ: Would you say that the strikes are working? Have we seen an impact from these strikes?

LM: Well, I think there’s been impacts in all kinds of different ways. For example, workers who had been working the same job for seven years without a raise or opportunity for advancement are now being recognized. And small—and I say small—concessions are also being made. There’s a worker in McDonald’s here in Chicago who had been working seven years and never received a raise. He now has been offered the opportunity for training as a crew chief.

But even more important than that is the fact that companies are recognizing that this is not going away. Meanwhile, the workers are recognizing that they have power and the right to organize and to speak out for just wages, not just for themselves but for workers around the country. For example, two or three weeks ago, workers came together and took petitions to shareholders’ meetings at McDonald’s here in Chicago, and I accompanied them. The workers were not allowed in, but a representative from Chicago did come and take the petition. So the workers felt that they had made something happen.

This would not have happened had they not organized. If they had simply gone and taken petitions individually—which they have tried to do in the past—it wouldn’t have happened. But as a movement, as a group gathering together, there’s a greater possibility for response. Also important is the recognition that when they stand together there is more power, more possibility for change.

JJ: Now, you’re a faith leader. What is your involvement with the fast-food strikes in Chicago, and what are other faith leaders doing to help?

LM: At St. James we have opened our doors and offered workers a place to meet for convention and weekly meetings. We’ve gone out with workers at different actions to support their right not only to ask for just wages but also to go on strike. So the day of the strike back in April, we opened the doors of the church to about 300 to 600 workers and organizers who were at the church that day. The following day, faith leaders such as myself, as well as elected officials and community leaders, walked the workers back to their workplaces to let the managers know that we were supporting their right to organize, their right to strike. We wanted them to know that this was a community effort that was being supported by people in and around the neighborhood and the city of Chicago. We also wanted to assure that there would be no retaliation against these workers.

JJ: Why do you think faith communities and faith leaders are involved with these strikes? What basic principles and values are at stake here?

LM: Well, first of all I would say that it’s biblical. The prophets often warned people about landowners and those who controlled jobs and wages. “Woe to those who did not pay the workers just wages or who withheld wages.” Ezekiel, Isaiah, Micah, all these prophets spoke to this issue. Jesus told many parables of workers being paid just wages and right wages.

In fact, throughout history one of the core Christian justice issues has been economics. The World Council of Churches and various denominations have also passed resolutions on this issue. My own denomination, the Episcopal Church, has passed resolutions at several conventions upholding the right of workers to organize.

JJ: So it sounds like there is a larger movement at work here—a sort of collaboration between faith groups and the greater labor movement. What connection do you see between these two groups especially moving forward?

LM: In this country we are in an age of crisis—of economic crisis. I don’t think anybody would deny that. As faith leaders we are called to respond to that kind of crisis. This is true throughout the Bible. The prophets have called leaders and people of faith to stand up.

To quote the prophet Ezekiel, “God said, I look for someone among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land.”

I think we as faith leaders are called to stand in between that gap, to point out where injustice is happening, where there are wolves, so to speak, tearing at the net. We’ve seen this all over. We’re seeing this in cuts in the budget and in education. We’re seeing record profits in corporations. We’re seeing a rise in income inequality, as well as less and less opportunities for the laborers and for the majority of people in this country. So, from a biblical perspective, that’s where many faith leaders come from. But this cuts across different faith traditions as well: Jewish, Muslim, and Christian.

JJ: Just one more question. You’ve talked a lot about collaborations between faith groups and other community groups in Chicago during these fast-food strikes. Could you say a little bit more about the role of collaborations and coalition building in this work?

LM: Right. I think a lot of different organizations are coming together—churches, community-based groups such as Action Now here in Chicago, churches similar to my own—because there’s a crisis in this country, and we recognize that all these different issues are actually related. The issue of worker’s rights is related to the issue of immigrant rights. It’s related to the issue of women’s rights. It’s an economic issue too, because in this country, more and more of the wealth is at the top, and very, very little of the wealth is being dispersed among the people who need it most.

As the consequence 49 elementary schools just got closed down here in Chicago. There are less mental health and health care services available. There are less opportunities for people to come together and actually plan a future for themselves and for their children. So we come together as faith leaders to support those workers and those community leaders who are looking to improve not just the status of individual workers but also the condition of all people, so that the wealth that is being concentrated at the top can be distributed and shared and used to promote the well-being of all.

JJ: Awesome. Well that’s about all the time we have for today. Rev. Muñoz, thank you so much for joining us. It was great speaking with you, and we look forward to hearing more about your work with the fast-food strikers as they continue to fight for their right to organize and for a living wage.

LM: Thank you, you’ve been most kind. I appreciate it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jack Jenkins is a Senior Writer and Researcher with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.

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