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Fast Food Forward: 'Civil Rights Movement of Our Era' Gains Momentum

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At the Flatbush Reform Church in Brooklyn, religious leaders added their voices to the cause.

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Earlier this week, I attended an interfaith service at the Flatbush Reform Church in Brooklyn, the first church built in Brooklyn in 1654. (The building is on Church Avenue, which was named for the centuries-old center of the Flatbush community.) The service, led by Reverend Cheri Kroon, with contributions from Reverend Brian Carter, Rabbi Michael Feinberg, Imam Yusuf Ramadan, and Dr. Ann Klaeysen from the New York Society for Ethical Culture, was a call to action on the behalf of fast food workers and the Fast Food Forward movement. Also in attendance were many workers, a few of whom got up and spoke along with the religious leaders.

The specific goals of the movement are simple: to raise the pay of fast food workers to $15 per hour and to give workers the right to unionize. In a bigger sense, the campaign aims to fight the growing disparity between the rich and the poor in America, which is illustrated poignantly in the gap between the pay of workers and executives at major companies like McDonald's (NYSE:MCD), Yum Brands (NYSE:YUM), Wendy's (NASDAQ:WEN), Burger King (NYSE:BKW), and others. The current average annual salary for a fast food workers in NYC is $11,000 (the NYC poverty line is set at $11,500), for example. Don Thompson, the CEO of McDonald's has a base salary of $1.1 million, with a yearly bonus that can reach as high as $1.65 million and a cash bonus as high as $8 million.

The Fast Food Forward movement was launched last November and quickly became the largest attempt ever made to unionize fast food workers in the US. With protests and rallies across the city, the movement attracted wide press coverage, from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and others, including Minyanville. However, since the initial protests at the end of November and beginning of December 2012, media coverage has waned.

The movement seeks to stand up for human dignity, to stop the oppression of hard-working people who don't make enough money to live and support their families. As Tabitha Verges, an employee of Burger King in Harlem said, "Faith leaders know that low-wage work is the civil rights movement of our era, and they're not going to stand by and watch as the $200 billion fast food industry pays workers so little we're forced to rely on food stamps."

I spoke with one of the workers, Kelvyn, a tall, outgoing man in his early 20s and an employee of Burger King in Bay Ridge, to get his take on the movement. His passion for the mission was obvious, though he admitted to being initially skeptical of Fast Food Forward and its goals. He has since taken up the cause, trying to bring it to his coworkers and beyond. But he also admitted how difficult it is to ask for more money, how many of his coworkers have been discouraged upon asking for and failing to receive a higher wage. As he said, "My friend was trying to quit. You know how much he meant to them? $.50. After working there for six years, he was offered a $.50 raise [if he would stay]. He had trained people to become general manager."

I asked Kelvyn how realistic the goal of $15 per hour was and got a sense for what workers expect from this movement:

To be honest, I'm a little bit doubtful that we'll get $15, but it's a good starting place. You want to aim high so you can mediate. I want all these franchises owners to meet us and have a mediation. Now, it is not 100% we'll get $15, but then again, not every war you go into is 100% your win. But when you have a solid group of people behind you, we should be making $11 or $12 at least. $10.50 would be the lowest I would go. $12 or $13 would be great. I mean, $15 would be amazing, I think I would cry.

I asked him how $15 per hour would change his life. He replied, "I think I could put myself through school."

The next event hosted by religious leaders in support of Fast Food Forward will be a screening of At the River I Stand, a documentary about the last day's of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life and the Memphis sanitation workers strike he was supporting when he was assassinated. It will be held on April 2, 2013 at the Queens Education Opportunity Center at 158-29 Archer Avenue, Jamaica, NY. Doors open at 6 p.m. EDT. For a reservation, email fjohnson@unitedny.org.

Read my preview of the Flatbush Reform Church event: Religious Leaders to Launch Campaign in Support of Fast Food Workers
.

Follow me on Twitter: @JoshWolonick and @Minyanville
No positions in stocks mentioned.
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