For the customers, nothing has changed in the big, busy McDonald’s on Broadway at West 181st Street, in Washington Heights. Promotions come and go—during the World Cup, the French-fry package was suddenly not red but decorated with soccer-related “street art,” and, if you held your phone up to the box, it would download an Augmented Reality app that let you kick goals with the flick of a finger. New menu items appear—recently, the Jalapeño Double and the Bacon Clubhouse, or, a while back, the Fruit and Maple Oatmeal. But a McDonald’s is a McDonald’s. This one is open twenty-four hours. It has its regulars, including a panel of older gentlemen who convene at a row of tables near the main door, generally wear guayaberas, and deliberate matters large and small in Spanish. The restaurant doesn’t suffer as much staff turnover as you might think. Mostly the same employees, mostly women, in black uniforms and gold-trimmed black visors, toil and serve and banter with the customers year after year. The longtime manager, Dominga de Jesus, bustles about, wearing a bright-pink shirt and a worried look, barking at her workers, “La linea! La linea! ”
Behind the counter, though, a great deal has changed in the past two years. Among the thirty-five or so non-salaried employees, fourteen, at last count, have thrown in their lot with Fast Food Forward, the New York branch of a growing campaign to unionize fast-food workers. Underneath the lighted images of Big Macs and Chicken McNuggets, back between the deep fryer and the meat freezer, the clamshell grill and the egg station, the order screens and the endless, hospital-like beeping of timers, there have been sharp and difficult debates about the wisdom of demanding better pay and forming a union.
Most of the workers here make minimum wage, which is eight dollars an hour in New York City, and receive no benefits. Rosa Rivera, a grandmother of four who has worked at McDonald’s for fourteen years, makes eight dollars and fifty cents. Exacerbating the problem of low pay in an expensive city, nearly everyone is effectively part time, getting fewer than forty hours of work a week. And none of the employees seem to know, from week to week, when, exactly, they will work. The crew-scheduling software used by McDonald’s is reputed to be sophisticated, but to the workers it seems mindless and opaque. The coming week’s schedule is posted on Saturday evenings. Most of those who, like Rivera, have sided with the union movement—going out on one-day wildcat strikes, marching in midtown protests—suspect that they have been penalized by managers with reductions in their hours. But just-in-time scheduling is not easy to analyze.
Read more: Inside the Fast-Food Labor Protests.