Fast Food Forward

December 1, 2012

A one-day strike by fast food workers in New York City is a teachable moment for students on the fast food industry and worker organizing. This lesson includes a brainstorm, small-group readings and discussion, and an opinion continuum activity to get students thinking about these issues.


To the teacher:

Fast food workers walked off the job in New York City on November 29, 2012. They went on strike to demand better wages and the right to join a union.  It was by far the largest series of job actions at fast-food restaurants ever, involving hundreds of  workers at dozens of restaurants owned by McDonald's, Burger King, Taco Bell, and other fast food companies.
This lesson will help students understand more about fast food workers and why they want to join a union.

  • Students will learn some basic facts about fast food workers
  • Students will understand why some fast food workers are striking and why they want to join a union
  • Students will form their own opinions about fast food workers and union organizing




 Have students name their favorite fast food restaurants.  Record their responses on board or chart paper.  Vote on which ones are their favorites.


To solicit what students already know, ask: 

  •  What do you know about working in a fast food restaurant?
  • Who works there?
  • What is it like?  
  • What would you like to know?

Record students' responses on the board or chart paper.  The list might look something like this:
don't get paid well
it's a hard job
they get free food
they have an attitude
high turnover
they all want to be managers
anyone can be a fast food worker
how much do they make per hour?
do they only hire teenagers?
After brainstorming, ask: 

  • What do you notice about the list? 
  • Are there commonalities?  Are there contradictions? 
  • What more do you want to know?



A striker's story


Tell students that on November 29, 2012, hundreds of workers at McDonald's, Burger King, Taco Bell, and other fast food companies walked off the job for the day. It was by far the largest series of job actions at fast-food restaurants ever.
Explain that you're about to read a short news story about one of the workers who took part in the strike.  Then read the story out loud. (You might first distribute the handout, which includes the story, so that students can read along with you.)  

New York Fast Food Workers Walk Off the Job

(excerpted from a report in Labor Notes by Alexandra Bradbury, November 29, 2012)

"Good morning! I'm on strike!" shouted McDonald's worker Darryl Young on a crowded Manhattan sidewalk at 7 am today, as supporters rallied outside the Madison Avenue fast food outlet where he works. "Wanna know why? $7.25!"
After two years working at McDonald's, Young is making only $7.25 an hour, New York State's minimum wage.
That makes it tough to support his two daughters, he said, and many of his co-workers rely on Section 8 housing assistance, welfare, and food stamps to get by, while the corporation they work for makes billions in profit.
That's why Young joined the organizing committee a couple of months ago. He and a friend have been meeting daily and approaching fellow employees at the store "to see if they want to get down with the union," he said.
Young said he was "a little nervous" to strike today, but he found the courage because of "the struggle every day—waking up and coming to a job I don't want to do." ...
Some fast food workers have already been suspended for union activity, organizers said, and they expect further retaliation in the wake of today's action. If that happens, "we have community, labor, and clergy ready to stand up and bring workers back to work," said [organizer Jonathan] Westin. ...
"Our goal is to galvanize as many workers as possible," he said. No one is without fear, but "going back and making $7.25 an hour, and not being able to put food on the table, is a much harder thing than striking for better wages."

Ask students:

  • What do you think about what Darryl Young is doing?
  • How do you think Darryl feels? What does Darryl want and need?
  • What would you do if you were in Darryl's situation?


Reading & discussion

Tell students that we're now going to find out more about fast food workers and why workers like Young decided to strike.
Divide students into groups.  Give all the students 10 minutes to read the fact sheet on the strike (which also includes the story above).

Then give students a few minutes in their groups to discuss these questions:

  • Do you think fast food workers are paid too little?
  • Do you think the strike is a good way for them to address their problems?

Bring the class back together and ask a few people from each group to summarize their discussion.

  • What did you learn from the fact sheets that you didn't know? 

(Note: If you have time you might also use this fact sheet on strikes and unions in general.)

Fact Sheet: Fast Food Workers Strike

What happened?

  • On November 29, 2012, hundreds of fast food workers in New York City - at McDonald's, Wendy's, Dominos, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Taco Bell - walked off the job for the day. It was by far the largest series of job actions at fast-food restaurants ever.
  • Their demands: the right to unionize, and an hourly wage of at least $15 an hour.
  • The strike didn't just happen - it was the result of much planning by workers and their allies. It was organized by a new cross-company Fast Food Organizing Committee that is supported by unions and civil rights groups.  The action is part of a campaign called Fast Food Forward.
  • In a statement about the strike McDonald's said it "values our employees and has consistently remained committed to them, so in turn they can provide quality service to our customers." The statement added that most of McDonald's restaurants are owned by franchisees, and offer competitive pay and benefits.
  • A former McDonald's franchise director said that raising workers' pay to $15 per hour would be an "insane increase" that would add at least $1 to $2 to the cost of a fast-food sandwich. "There goes the Dollar Menu," he said.

About fast food workers

  •  Two-thirds of fast food workers are women.
  • Their median age is 32 years.
  • Fast food companies pay their workers wages that are close to the federal minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour. McDonald's crew members earn an average of $7.63 an hour.
  • Most fast food workers are given only 20 or 30 hours of work a week, which keeps their annual income far below the poverty line.
  • Fast food companies rarely provide workers with health insurance, paid sick days or other benefits.
  • There are over two million fast food workers in the United States.


About the fast food industry

  • In New York City, the fast food industry has grown by 55 percent since 2000, 19 times faster than private sector employment overall.
  • Taco Bell and KFC's profits have risen nearly 50 percent over the last four years, and McDonald's have jumped 130 percent. 
  • Fast Food Forward, the group that organized the strike, has charged that some restaurant managers have threatened to fire workers for striking or supporting a union or have improperly interrogated workers about backing a union drive.

New York Times:
 US Bureau of Labor Statistics:
 The Atlantic :


Opinion Continuum

 Read the following statements and have students put their thumbs up if they agree, thumbs down if they disagree, and thumbs to the side if they aren't sure, or have mixed feelings. As an alternative, give each student three index cards with "agree," "disagree," and "not sure" and have them hold up to the appropriate card as statements are read. (You may want to model how to do it with an unrelated statement before you delve into the activity.) 
After you've read each statement and students choose their opinion, ask a few to share why they have that point of view.

  • Companies like McDonald's can afford to pay their workers a lot better. 
  • If  workers win their demand for $15 an hour, it will make fast food too expensive for a lot of people.
  • There are better ways to deal with low wages than joining a union or going on strike.
  • Organizing will help fast food workers win respect. 



Have a few students complete the following sentence:
I used to think ____________________ about fast-food workers, and now I think ______________________.