Point of View

Not lovin' it at McDonald's: What 'right to work' doesn’t mean

January 21, 2014 

Fast food workers deal with all sorts of ugly with a smile and a “thank you.” We can be difficult customers. We want it our way. We want it fast. And we want it without the pickles.

Tens of thousands of amazing workers grin and bear whatever comes their way, usually for just above minimum wage.

Friendly smiles were most of what I got last month when I volunteered to deliver community letters of support to three area restaurants the day after a national strike asking the industry to raise its employee wages. The letters (delivered with a smile, for the record) simply reminded supervisors that it’s lawful to strike so no retribution should be taken against any worker who participated.

At two of the restaurants, the shift supervisors accepted the letters kindly and without confrontation. One even expressed support of the movement. I took the third to a beautiful, new, environmentally friendly McDonald’s.

At that store, two superiors who were district level people, I believe, were meeting in the dining area. They offered to get the shift supervisor, but that didn’t seem necessary since they were the supervisor’s supervisors. I handed the letter to them.

A comment accompanied one of their smiles: “This is a right-to-work state, darling, capisce?”

I’m sure that wasn’t meant as a threat, but it turns out that, si, don McDonald, io capisco.

I understand that in a “right to work” state, unions are legal.

I understand that two or more people asking for better wages or working conditions or to be a part of a union is also legal. I understand that retaliating against workers who participate in such activities is, in fact, illegal.

I understand that “right to work” means I can join a union, that I can ask my coworkers to join a union with me (just maybe not on company time) and that we can seek recognition of our union through elections or other manners.

I understand that if more than 50 percent of the employees defined as the bargaining unit vote to unionize, that the company must negotiate a contract with the union that covers everyone in the unit and not just those who pay union dues.

I understand that the only people who are prohibited from having collective labor contracts in North Carolina are most public-sector workers.

Of course, don McDonald, you have a point. North Carolina is the least-unionized state in America. And our workers seem to be paying the price for it with stagnant wages and few benefits like paid earned sick days and affordable health insurance.

Nationwide, an astounding 52 percent of front-line fast food workers rely on public food assistance and Medicaid to help support their families. Sadly, I have never met a front-line fast food worker who makes more than $9.50 an hour, let alone $10.56 an hour, which is how much the federal minimum wage would be if it had kept up with inflation over the last 40 years.

Increasingly, though, people are becoming sick and tired of how they are being treated and are asking for change in different, lawful ways. Incidentally, they are finding broad public support for changes like increasing the minimum wage.

Not only do people think hardworking people deserve to be paid better as a matter of principle, they understand that the entire economy benefits when all workers have enough money to put food on their families’ tables.

I hope don McDonald sees that “right to work” is really a misnomer. All it means is that workers covered by labor contracts can’t be required to pay union dues. While this makes unions’ jobs more difficult and dilutes workers’ bargaining power, it doesn’t give employers license to fire or punish workers for union activity.

Now that we’ve cleared up our little misunderstanding, let’s agree to respect workers’ rights to organize.

And kindly hold the pickles.

Jessica Rocha is outreach coordinator for the N.C. Justice Center.

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