"We are Human Beings" Inside the Longest McDonald's Workers' Strike with Angely Rodriguez & Maria Ceja
Today's episode features Angely Rodriguez and Maria Ceja — two McDonald’s workers who went on a historic strike in response to the company’s failure to provide the bare minimum to protect its workers as COVID-19 ran rampant through their Telegraph Ave location in North Oakland. To learn more and get involved visit: fastfoodjusticeahora.com(link is external). Hosted by Andy Currier. Music: Michael & Randy Mell
Andy Currier (AC): At the time of recording in early December the COVID-19 pandemic has taken over 1 ½ million lives, crippled national economies, and worsened Global inequality, leaving the most marginalized further disenfranchised. Despite their roles as essential workers tasked with keeping food on our plates, workers at each stage of the food chain have been denied basic protections. A recent study found that California’s agricultural workers had contracted COVID-19 at nearly 3 times the rate of other residents of the state. Fast food workers, another historically exploited group, have not fared much better.
However, as we will hear today, they have responded to this mistreatment with historic action, organizing for the working conditions and pay that they deserve. Today we are focusing on our own backyard of Oakland California to get a firsthand account inside the longest McDonald’s worker strike ever recorded. With annual revenue last year north of US$21 billion, McDonald’s is the world’s largest restaurant chain and second largest private employer with over 1.7 million employees across more than 38,000 outlets.
Beyond its profitability, McDonald’s bills itself as a socially conscious company. Following the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department this summer, McDonald’s released a statement saying, “we stand with victims of systemic oppression and violence, and with Black communities across America. We do not tolerate inequity, injustice, or racism.” Today we will put McDonald’s supposed intolerance for inequity, injustice, and racism to the test by speaking with Angely Rodriguez and Maria Ceja, two of the McDonald’s workers who went on strike in response to the company’s failure to provide the bare minimum to protect its workers as COVID-19 ran rampant through their Telegraph Avenue location in North Oakland. Translation provided by Ricardo Barajas from the Fight for 15.
Maria Ceja (MC): Hello my name is Maria Ceja and I’ve worked at McDonald’s on Telegraph for five years already.
Angely Rodriguez (AR): Hi, my name is Angely, I’ve been working at McDonald’s since the end of 2019.
AC: So earlier this spring as the pandemic began to spread and many workplaces closed, McDonald’s remained open. Could you describe the protections that management initially provided you with?
MC: OK, when the pandemic started they gave us doggy diapers to do masks that we could wear. We asked them to give us regular masks; we all didn’t want to wear the doggy diaper masks. It took them more than three weeks to get the regular masks – the disposable ones – and they would give us one each for one whole week and they wouldn’t replace it until it would be ripped.
AC: So what happened after management ignored your request for adequate protection?
AR: There was an outbreak, and we had 11 positive cases in the store because we didn’t have the proper protection we were supposed to have.
AC: Can you share what that was like when your colleagues started getting sick and your requests for protection were still being denied?
“We got tired of getting treated like animals, and we’re not animals, we’re human beings.”
AR: If they were to treat us like the human beings that we are, they should have never gave us doggy diapers to put on our faces, because I believe that a person shouldn’t be treated that way. We got tired of getting treated like animals, and we’re not animals we’re human beings
AC: So that was when you decided to go on strike?
MC: Until we as employees gather up and raise our voices, nothing will happen. We discovered that we have a lot of power if all employees get together. So basically we’re working to prove that we are essential workers, not workers who are working only because we have the necessity of needing the money.
AR: Because we are human beings. Because these large corporations like McDonald’s and others have enough financial backing to pay their employees hazard pay and to have their workers wear adequate PPE equipment so they don’t expose themselves to a virus where not only is the worker exposed but our families as well, including our kids and our siblings which is what we most love, and our clients. These managers and corporations don’t think about humans, they just think about making money. That’s why me and my coworkers decided to start this fight, a fight that has not been easy, that’s lasted since the 25th of May.
AC: So by the end this was the longest strike in the history of McDonald’s by any of its workers. Could you talk a little bit about what kept you motivated during what had to be a very difficult time?
AR: I mean, you tell me what it's like to be on strike for more than 40 days and still have to manage being sick during that time without pay. And that's the reason why we all decided we had to start to fight. And we're not going to get tired of fighting. And we’re going to keep fighting. And we’re going to fight with more force because we demand dignity so that no other fast food worker passes through what I went through or passes through what my coworkers and all other workers like myself have passed through.
“We’re not going to get tired of fighting. And we’re going to keep fighting. And we’re gonna fight with more force, because we demand dignity so that no other fast food worker passes through what I went through.”
That’s why this fight for a lot of people can seem like a little bit, but for us it’s meant tears. It’s easy for restaurant owners, but for us it has not been easy. And that’s fine. And that’s why we’re going to keep fighting and we’re not going to give up because together we are stronger, because we are essential workers who have not been able to stop working since the start of this pandemic, because they made us work while being ill. And that’s why we’re going to keep fighting until the end.
AC: And during the strike did management ever sit down with you to hear what you were asking for?
AR: Yeah, it was a very long time but the owner there, Michael Smith, is still not really listening to what workers are asking for. That’s what keeps us steadfast and makes us want to keep fighting every day, the fact that we aren’t being treated in a dignified way. We wanted to talk with him multiple times, we wanted to talk to him and tried to talk to him more than 15 times, but he was never willing to listen to us, he always ignored our voices.
But that was not a reason for us to stop, we didn’t care that he hadn’t listened to us; thousands of other people listen to us. Therefore, due to his negligence in keeping us anonymous is what made us decide to continue united and fighting. Because we are not the voice of the employer who does not care about his workers, because he has not suffered what we have suffered, because he has not lived what we have lived, because, while one of his stores on Telegraph is closed, he has five other stores to rely on.
He kept bringing in income for his family; meanwhile, 33 of his workers who joined in protest were without food in their homes. And he, the owner of the McDonald’s which we were in protest against, in all that time, gave us a US$50 gift card to spend at McDonald’s, which to us workers was an insult. That’s why we all decided for ourselves that we couldn’t continue to be treated in such a way, and we decided to put a stop to all of it, and it’s for that reason that to this day we’re still fighting.
AC: So, unfortunately, the way that you and your colleagues at Michael Smith’s franchise have been treated is not just an isolated case, and McDonald’s and other fast food companies have continued to mistreat their employees despite the pandemic. So I wanted to hear what you think can be done here to take on a corporation as powerful as McDonald’s when they just don’t show any regard for your well-being.
AR: That’s why I think it’s so important for all of us fast food workers everywhere to demand a union, because we need a voice. We need someone to represent us so that we won’t have to go on strike for more than 48 days like we had to. To have a union, we’ll be able to have more representation and dignity, which is what we’re fighting for. And just like you have just said it’s not just the folks at my store who were suffering from injustices in the workplace. It was thousands of workers.
You think of someone immigrating to a first world country like the United States, you would think these kinds of injustices would happen to folks like us? Aside from all the problematic things we already experience as fast food workers? And most of the time we have to do these jobs because we have no other option. And that’s why we say no more. It’s time that we’re listened to. It’s time that all of us fast food workers have benefits similar to all conventional workers in the US, like a paid vacation, a health insurance that’s dignified, not having to fight your employer when you need to use your sick hours, because that’s not what the law says. Not having to fight over workers’ comp or having paid time off from your work, when it’s not like you’re working for a random corner store, you work for an international and national multi-million dollar corporation.
And for this and many other reasons, we’re tired of doing and being essential front line workers who are only being used to make money for these owners and corporations without any concern for the fact that we’re dying. We are not going to permit any more injustices, because we are human beings and we have our family members and if we get sick they get sick. And that’s why we fight. Because when we found out people were dying like Angela, a worker from Burger King, or like when we saw my coworker Yamilet’s little baby convulsing in a parking lot due to COVID, we decided that we couldn’t put up with that anymore.
Today it’s me talking, but there are plenty of injustices that we have all lived through. We could spend a lot of time going through them without stopping, because we believe the laws have been unjust in this time that we are all trying to manage and deal with. Since the 25th of May we’ve been fighting and we are going to keep on fighting, until we are heard by the people who need to hear us. And that’s why we’re not going to stop because we have more momentum and power now to continue to ask for injustices to stop.
AC: Thank you both so much for taking the time, and Ricardo for translating, to
share your story with us.
AR: Thank you for dedicating some of your time to highlight our voice and our story.
AC: As we heard today, Angely and Maria’s story is not unique. Fast food workers have faced a crisis before COVID-19, but the pandemic has only made their situation worse. With outbreaks of the coronavirus infecting workers, family members, and customers up and down the coast. Low wages and fear of retaliation have forced fast food workers to report to duty, even as companies like McDonald’s have time again failed to keep them safe. Even before the pandemic it was clear that in an industry rife with racism, sexual harassment, and wage theft, workers need a strong voice on the job.
The pandemic has only underscored the urgent need for fast food workers in the state to have a union. To learn more about how California fast food workers are fighting for more power in the workplace and demanding accountability in the workplace visit fastfoodjusticeahora.com or follow them on Twitter at @NorCalFF15 for news from the bay, or @Fightfor15LA for news and updates from Southern California. As always you can keep up-to-date with the Oakland Institute at oaklandinstitute.org and our social media. Thanks again for listening, until next time.
Special thanks again to Ricardo Barajas from the Fight for 15 for providing translation.