They may become pioneers in organized labor history. At the moment, Yadira Martinez, Guadalupe Lopez and Rosa Franco are just angry, frustrated workers like so many others.
The three Connecticut residents, all raising children with little help, all from Mexico or Central America, work at McDonald’s stores in state-owned, Interstate-95 rest areas — mostly on the overnight shift. That lands them in a barely noticed corner of the labor force on a highway that passes some of the richest and some of the poorest neighborhoods in America.
Now they’re trying to be heard in a union organizing effort by 32BJ SEIU that’s aimed at Connecticut’s 23 service plazas along I-95, I-395 and Route 15 (the Merritt and Wilbur Cross parkways). These women are in the early core committed to joining the union, not just for workers at McDonald’s but also Alltown Market, Subway, Dunkin’ Donuts, Mobil gas and others, 13 companies in all.
They’re convinced the union can force these employers to treat them with the respect they say is lacking.
“I’m in this fight because of the abuse,” Martinez, a New Haven resident, said through an interpreter who works for 32BJ. “Not just that they cut hours, but they don’t pay you correctly.”
No one has ever successfully unionized a McDonald’s in the United States according to organizers at 32BJ, a multi-state union representing 175,000 people. The Chicago-based corporation, with 34,000 locations worldwide and 14,000 in this country, has famously beaten back union efforts for decades.
Enter 32BJ, the union of janitors and other building service and food workers based in New York — which helped lead the “Fight for $15” minimum-wage campaign. With less success, it’s also been working to organize employees at McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants — notably in New York — amid a sense of now-is-the-time ebullience that belies history in the fast-food industry.
“We have committed to do this. We’re not going away,” said Juan Hernandez, vice president of 32BJ, who heads the Connecticut units. “Everything we can do under the law we will do to make sure these workers get justice.”
The drive will heat up publicly in the coming days and weeks with public events. On the ground, Hernandez and other organizers won’t say how many signed union cards they’ve secured. In enough numbers, the cards form the lifeblood of any organizing drive, allowing unions to demand a vote under federal law.
Some of the 950 workers at the 13 mostly franchised companies at the rest areas know the steep odds of organizing the fast food industry. The companies can stonewall by refusing to recognize the unions, bolstered by fractured ownership of stores in small groups. They can mount years of court appeals as the workforce turns over.
These workers know it’s hard. But then again, so are their lives. Martinez has two children under age 6, and said she spends about half her pay on babysitting.
Guadalupe Lopez has four children under age 12, two in Honduras and two with her in New Haven. She came to the United States in late 2018 and started in February at the same McDonald’s in Milford where Martinez works. She makes the minimum wage, now $11 an hour, though she did not know her hourly pay until a union official and I worked out the arithmetic with her using the company’s payroll app.
“I end up with nothing,” she said through an interpreter, after paying $850 a month for three rooms in a neighborhood a taxi driver told her is unsafe at night.
She’s more afraid at work. “The only fear I have is sometimes late at night, it’s frightening, I’m working alone or with one other person and sometimes the people who come in, you worry, what if they were to assault the McDonald’s workers, what would we do?”
The union in New York has been critical of McDonald’s over safety issues but I didn’t hear about any incidents in Connecticut from these women.
“Of course, I’d like to work in the day, it bothers me to leave my children alone like that at night with somebody else,” Lopez said.
Lopez came to the union through Martinez. It’s a one-by-one slog for 32BJ, which has extra leverage because of a dispute over bonus pay arising from the state’s ownership of the rest areas.
The union insists the state’s 35-year, 2009 contract with a master landlord, Project Service LLC, gives these workers a right to 30 percent pay supplement under a “standard wage” provision. That means benefits such as health and pensions worth at least 30 percent of pay, or the money to make up the difference.
Project Service paid $178 million to upgrade the rest areas and it subcontracts with the stores — which are not paying the extra wages. Since the summer, the union has filed dozens of complaints over the missing pay with the state Department of Labor, which is investigating.
And that issue has given these workers a strong reason to sign on with 32BJ.
Collective bargaining brings a chance for better lives but also a risk for these workers. As the minimum wage rises to $15, and if 32BJ does succeed, other people who don’t want these jobs now might seek them — locking out this corps of immigrants with low skills who don’t speak English proficiently enough for other retail jobs.
It’s also a sure bet the targeted companies will find ways to hire fewer workers for fewer hours. In fact, they already have, which leads the women I met to say they’re overworked on some shifts.
“They shouldn’t treat us like this. You can’t keep working like this,” said Martinez, who works at a Milford location along I-95.
The problem is wildly varying hours, schedules that change at the last minute, sometimes that very day — and mostly, they say, a sense that management doesn’t treat them like people.
“They call us turtles,” Martinez said. “We can’t be sick ever, because if she gives you the day off,” she said of a store manager, “then she takes away your hours the next week.”
Martinez tells the story of coming to the United States at age 7 with her three older sisters. At 15, after not much schooling, she moved to Connecticut with one sister.
“I was in the house watching the kids,” she said. “I started working at about age 16.”
Now at 35, she lives in New Haven and has a 5-year-old boy and 2-year-old girl. She’s done well at McDonald’s, well enough that they made her an overnight shift manager last spring. That was supposed to bring a bump in pay, she said, but the bump never came — so she quit.
Three weeks later, after another McDonald’s refused to hire her because she was still on the roster at the one she left, the Milford store lured her back. “That was the idea when I returned, that I would just be working during the day,” she said, but they soon coaxed her back to night managing.
More recently, she said, she showed up for an 8-hour night shift only to find it was for just four hours. She left because her babysitter charges $50 for both children to sleep over. Working four hours would end up costing her money. Her leaving led the manager to cut her hours.
Stories like that abound, always with curtailed hours as the punishment. Martinez makes $432 a week when she’s fully on her schedule, about half of it going to day care and most of the rest for rent.
The numbers just don’t add up, with two young children in New Haven, 20 minutes from the job, at $12 an hour.
Rosa Franco, whose children are older — 11, 17 and 20 — also makes $12 an hour, or to be exact, $12.03, she tells me. But that’s after 14 years on the job, now as a night manager at the McDonald’s on I-95 northbound in Darien.
“I never call out, I never come late,” the Stamford resident said, also speaking through a union official acting as an interpreter.
Lacking a car, she relies on rides or, often, Uber, a big expense.
“If the union doesn’t come in, I’m leaving,” she declared.
I ask why they stay if the work is so bad. This is the central dilemma: For people with few other options, McDonald’s offers a job and in exchange, the company demands a level of flexibility these women can’t endure.
Besides, Franco said, “The point isn’t that I want another job, the point is that I want this one to treat us better.”
This is the blade of the spear in an economy that fails millions of the lowest-paid workers even as income for the top few percent soars. The fast food industry, especially McDonald’s, may be no better or worse than other employers — these disputes are not uncommon — but it’s a symbol, just as it has also provided the first rung upward for millions of Americans.
“Together with our independent franchisees, we pride ourselves on building a workplace that supports crew members and their ambitions,” McDonald’s Corp. said in a statement to The Guardian in October.
Michell Enterprises LLC, which owns several of the 32BJ-targeted McDonald’s locations including the one where Franco works, did not return calls seeking comment.
A representative for Roger Facey, who owns the northbound Milford location among nearly 20 McDonald’s in Connecticut, referred questions to an outside firm that issued a statement: “McDonald’s and its independent franchisees, recognizes the rights under the law of individual employees to choose to join – or choose not to join – labor organizations.”
The 32BJ union, part of Service Employees International Union, pins much of its hopes on bargaining with the entire group of stores at all the rest stops, just as it does with janitors — including the ones at these same rest areas — who work for many companies under unified contracts.
Project Service, master operator of the rest areas, brings in the retailers who employ the workers.
The rest areas, as state-owned property, must allow public gatherings such as a protest-press conference in August, as a judge ruled that morning, spurning an attempt by Project Service to block the gathering. They also can’t stop union organizers from working in the public areas. That gives the union a benefit it doesn’t have at free-standing fast food outlets or ones in private shopping centers.
So far, the complaints filed with the state pertain to the missing bonus pay, which would bump $11 to $14.30 an hour. Other complaints are pending, said Hernandez, the 32BJ vice president, including non-payment of wages for shifts and, in at least one case, sexual harassment.
The Department of Labor, headed by Kurt Westby, a former 32BJ state chief, has not issued any rulings yet. But the Department of Transportation, which holds the contract with Project Service, maintains the standard wage rule doesn’t apply.
“The only provision in the contract in terms of prevailing wage applies to construction activities,” DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick said Friday.
The contract does not spell out a standard wage requirement but it leaves room for either interpretation.
Project Service, headed by Paul Landino, who also owns many of the 20 Subway stores at the rest areas, did not return calls seeking comment. Landino is the brother of Robert Landino, a former state representative from Westbrook whose company, Centerplan, managed the reconstruction of the rest areas.
The union would like for Project Service and the stores to remain neutral in an organizing drive. That seems unlikely. Subway, Alltown Market and Dunkin’ Donuts all have at least 20 locations and McDonald’s has nine, but of course, it’s the biggest name and therefore the marquee target.
Guadalupe Lopez, the recent immigrant, already thinks of the union as her buffer. “Last Saturday one of the workers left so I had to work a double shift. That was a shift I worked that I never got paid for. I told them that it wasn’t there and they said ‘Yes, we paid you for it’ and I said ‘No,’” she said.
If the drive works, she added, “We’re going to just be doing it with the union.”