March 29, 2013, 4:37 pm
By JULIE TURKEWITZ
When Alvin Turner and Baxter Leach joined a strike in Memphis in 1968, they were two sanitation workers protesting the abuse of black employees and demanding higher wages and the recognition of their union. They recalled being beaten and assaulted with tear gas by the police during marches. But after more than 60 days, the strike ended with the city granting many of their demands.
More than four decades later, in November 2012, New York City’s fast-food workers started their own campaign to improve conditions, calling for the creation of a union and a wage of $15 an hour. Workplace experts called it the largest organized effort ever by fast-food workers. But after a one-day strike in which 200 employees walked out, little has changed for workers at the thousands of hamburger, sandwich and taco restaurants that fill the city.
Which is why Mr. Turner, 78, and Mr. Leach, 73, traveled to Manhattan this week to give a series of pep talks to fast-food servers facing an uphill unionization campaign. “The same fight that we fought in 1968, we are fighting today,” Mr. Turner said Thursday, during an appearance at City University of New York.
Mr. Turner made 65 cents an hour when he began working for the Memphis Sanitation Department in 1951, a pittance even for that era. He and Mr. Baxter worked as garbage collectors, running behind homes, dumping trash into large tubs and hoisting those tubs onto their heads.
They especially remember the maggots, they said. And the fact that the color of their skin restricted them from higher-paying jobs. “I had gotten tired of saying ‘yes,’” to abuse,” Mr. Turner said, “when I knew I should be saying ‘no.’”
During the strike, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Memphis to support the 1,300 striking workers. And, of course, it was in Memphis where he was assassinated.
The strike ended less than two weeks later with the city agreeing to raise wages and recognize the union. Mr. Turner explained how this changed his life: “After the strike, one of those machines that they didn’t allow me to hardly look at” — it was called a sweeper — “I started operating it. This is how I could get my kids through school. And I put four kids through school.”
New York’s fast-food unionization campaign, called Fast Food Forward, is organized by New York Communities for Change, and has the support of several other organizations, including the Service Employees International Union. But organizers have struggled to convince food servers that improved conditions are possible.
While workers have plenty to lament — average wages hover just above $8 an hour, or $18,000 a year for a full-time employee — heavy worker turnover and a general apprehension of unions has made organizing a challenge.
Chad Tall, 20, a Taco Bell employee who wants to unionize, said the campaign is stuck in its awareness phase. “There isn’t a next step right now,” he said.
Tina Fineberg for The New York Times——-Baxter Leach, center, and Alvin Turner, right, during a meeting of fast-food workers on Thursday in New York. Mr. Leach and Mr. Turner were sanitation workers who went on strike in 1968 in Memphis. They came to New York to encourage fast-food workers in their efforts to unionize.
Mr. Tall, who lives in the Bronx, is his family’s primary wage earner. He makes $7.50 an hour and works about 30 hours a week. He dropped out of college because he could not afford to pay for courses. “I’m not trying to be a millionaire working at Taco Bell,” he said. “But I do want the basics. I don’t want to have to sacrifice breakfast to buy a Metro Card.”
On Mr. Tall’s block, nearly everyone he knows works in fast-food restaurants, he said. So do at least six of his friends. He joined the campaign because he does not want to continue a situation in which, he said, “we’re treated like workhorses and paid like slaves” and “the only babysitter you can afford is the crackhead on the corner.”
At CUNY, Mr. Leach and Mr. Turner sat in a circle with Mr. Tall and about a dozen other workers and clergy members. “For all of you to win anything, you’re going to have to stand up,” Mr. Turner said .
“If you don’t stand up, you’re going to stay with what you got,” he continued. “And if you do stand up, you’re opening the door for someone else.”