‘Treat Us Right’: Oakland Fast Food Workers Rally for Safer Conditions and a Living Wage

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Maria Ruiz from San Jose, who has worked for McDonald's for 20 years, speaks at a car caravan strike outside a McDonald's restaurant in Oakland's Fruitvale District on Jan. 15, 2021. (Anna Vignet/KQED)

McDonald's employees in Oakland were among hundreds of workers in more than a dozen cities across the country who walked off the job Friday, demanding higher wages and safer pandemic-related working conditions.

In the early afternoon, a caravan of approximately 20 cars of workers and union leaders creeped noisily into the drive-thru of a McDonald's in Oakland's Fruitvale District, horns blaring, a banner hung up on the restaurant's facade imploring Congress to pass another recovery bill.

"We have too many workers in our society, in our communities, especially here in the community of Oakland, that are making such low wages," said Gary Jimenez, vice president of the Alameda Labor Council.

"It's a shame and embarrassment," Jimenez said. "We need to be paying people that work 40 hours a week enough to exist on 40 hours a week."

The rally, staged on what would have been Martin Luther King Jr.'s 92nd birthday, was organized locally by the Service Employees International Union Local 1021 as part of "Fight for 15," an ongoing nationwide campaign to increase the federal minimum wage, which has stagnated at $7.25 an hour for over a decade.

McDonald's employee Cleotilde Cuaya and her son Alejandro at Friday's car caravan strike to demand better working conditions and a $15 national minimum wage. (Anna Vignet/KQED)

"It's been really bad working for McDonald's, really bad working conditions from the point that this company does not give [us] appropriate PPE to work. So it's been disastrous," Maria Ruiz, from San Jose, who has worked at a McDonald's for 20 years, said through an interpreter.

"We decided to do it on MLK's birthday because we thought it was appropriate," Ruiz said. "It's about time that we stood up for ourselves and fought for better working conditions and for better wages nationwide. It's in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King."

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In 2016, California lawmakers authorized a yearly increase in the minimum wage, which will hit $15 an hour for most businesses in 2022 (it just went up to $13). Many cities in the state, including Oakland ($14.14/hour) and others in the Bay Area, have instituted even higher minimums.

Local organizers noted this progress and said they were joining the national day of action "in solidarity with workers across the country who have not yet won $15 an hour."

Workers at the rally also demanded more influence on the job and enhanced safety measures.

"There's a lot of people congregating and working in really close conditions, which is dangerous," Maria Sabina Alegria, who works at the McDonald's in downtown Oakland, said through an interpreter. "There's times where they have to do many things at the same time, because things are not working. Sometimes they're grabbing the money and the food at the same time because of unsanitary conditions that they have here."

Fast food workers, Joseph Bryant, president of SEIU Local 1021, added, "have faced just some of the most unbearable conditions as they risk their lives each and every day in the pandemic making sure that communities have the food that they need."

"We're here today to say, 'Treat the workers right. Respect them,' " he said. "For far too long, the big corporations have tried to frame the workers as expendable. But we know they're essential."

Gary Jimenez, vice president of the Alameda Labor Council, raises a fist in solidarity as the car caravan heads through the McDonald's drive-thru in the Fruitvale District. (Anna Vignet/KQED)

During the pandemic, a slew of complaints have been filed by workers at McDonald's and other fast food chains, both locally and across the country, claiming their employers did not provide adequate safety equipment, enforce social distancing or allow those with coronavirus symptoms to take paid sick leave.

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In June, workers at a McDonald's on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland's Temescal neighborhood sued their employer for unsafe, crowded working conditions that they said resulted in at least 11 workers at the restaurant contracting COVID-19.

Later in the summer, outbreaks of the virus were reported at nine other McDonald’s outlets within 15 miles of the Temescal location, with more than 70 workers and their families testing positive or exhibiting symptoms, according to reporters from the investigative news outlet Reveal, based on a review of formal complaints.

For its part, McDonald's — along with many of its franchisees — has claimed to be an industry leader in protecting its workers against the virus, imposing multiple safety procedures in consultation with prominent health clinics for advice on how to “further enhance hygiene and cleanliness practices in support of customer and crew safety.”

But as Reveal reported, complaints filed by McDonald's employees in 37 states suggest otherwise, depicting many of the chain's restaurants – both franchises and corporate-owned – as COVID-19 incubators.

Workers hold a banner outside the McDonald's in the Fruitvale neighborhood as the car caravan inches past. (Anna Vignet/KQED)

"In California, what we want is for workers to be protected from infection and death that has been way too rampant in fast food since the beginning of the pandemic," said SEIU International President Mary Kay Henry as she stood in front of a McDonald's location on Market Street in West Oakland, where the car caravan headed after Fruitvale.

She accused the restaurant's managers of retaliating against workers for complaining about inadequate health and safety conditions, a lack of PPE and not allowing workers to self-quarantine at home.

"And so what we're hoping is today's strike sends a message to Congress to do the right thing on the emergency relief for all essential workers and everybody in the country," Henry said.