‘It’s a walkout!’
Inside the fast-food workers’ season of rebellion
BRADFORD, Pa. — Dustin Snyder was tired of the low wages, the 60-hour workweeks and the impossible-to-please customers, and so in early September the assistant general manager at a McDonald’s here drafted a petition that laid bare months of building anger and frustration.
“We are all leaving,” his petition threatened, “and hope you find employees that want to work for $9.25 an hour.” Nearly all of his two dozen employees had signed it. A few added their own flourishes.
“We need a RAISE,” one scribbled next to her signature.
“Piss off,” wrote another.
Dustin, 21, could feel his heart pounding in his chest as he fed the petition into the fax machine in the McDonald’s office, punched in the number for his bosses 80 miles away in Buffalo and hit send. Another low-wage worker rebellion in a season full of them.
A once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, a debilitating recession and trillions in government aid had caused something to shift in the world’s largest economy. Hourly wages for fast food workers rose nearly 14 percent last year, the fastest growth on record. All over America people were quitting jobs at record rates. Even in a place such as Bradford, with its shrinking population and 30 percent poverty rate, low-wage service workers sensed that they finally had a little power.
Soon after Dustin sent the petition, the phone was ringing, and the regional supervisor in Buffalo was demanding to know who was behind it. Dustin’s first instinct was to panic and plead ignorance. An hour later he called and confessed.
“I was trying to get better pay for my people,” Dustin said.
“There are better ways to go about this,” the regional supervisor replied. She had been thinking about boosting pay at the Bradford McDonald’s, she said, but she was not going to give into threats or give up control. Because of the petition, no one was getting a raise. If the workers did not like it, they could quit.
Days earlier Dustin had accepted a job at a lumber mill that paid $11.50-an-hour, or 60 cents more than he made as assistant general manager. But he did not really want to quit McDonald’s. He liked his co-workers, who had become some of his closest friends, and he liked being a leader. He just wanted some affirmation and a little more money, both for himself and his team.
Dustin asked his employees to gather around him in the kitchen. Egg McMuffins sat half made on the counter. A clock on the cash register that tracked the restaurant’s drive-through times and transmitted the data back to corporate ticked away the seconds since their last completed order.
“Why would you want to work for a company that doesn’t value you?” Dustin asked. He turned to one of the restaurant’s longest serving employees. “You’ve been here for five years,” he said. “What have you got for it? Nothing.”
The workers, clad in their black uniforms, ball caps and nonslip shoes, stared at him, unsure what they were supposed to do next. Dustin explained that he was leaving and locking up the restaurant. If they followed, he promised he would help them all find better jobs. “How many of you want to go with me?” Dustin asked.
Initially, there was silence. Then seven of the nine raised their hands. Two who decided not to join took seats at a table in the empty restaurant. The rest tossed aside their headsets and abandoned their posts at the drive-through and registers. Instead of racing to serve customers, they began making food for themselves: a Quarter Pounder, a large fries, an iced caramel coffee with whipped cream and extra pumps of caramel.
Dustin’s anxiety, which had been building since he sent the fax, began to ebb. His co-workers were ebullient. “It’s a walkout,” one yelled as they headed out into an economy where low-wage workers, long-accustomed to feeling scorned, ignored and invisible, were realizing they suddenly had some agency.
In the restaurant’s windowless back office, Dustin was calling Stephanie Kelley, the Bradford McDonald’s general manager, to tell her what was happening.
“What if no one goes with you?” she asked.
“Everyone already said they were,” Dustin replied.
Stephanie, 36, had recently accepted a job at a bank in town and, like Dustin, was finishing out her final two weeks. She’d spent nearly a decade at the Bradford McDonald’s, working her way up from the bottom to the restaurant’s top job. To join the protest was to throw away a reputation for hard work she had fought to build. To stay home was to abandon her employees.
“It won’t look good to get fired from McDonald’s,” she told Dustin on the phone.
“I’ve already made up my mind,” Dustin replied.
The discontent driving the Bradford workers and so many others had been there for years, an ever-present aspect of an economy that could be especially cruel to anyone without an education. The pandemic — the fights with customers over masks and the fears of falling sick — added to the strain. But it was the labor shortages, which extended to just about every part of the country, that caused workers’ long-suppressed anger to burst into the open.
Unlike the strikes of an earlier era, most of the walkouts included no picket lines. Rarely did the workers even make demands. “WE ALL QUIT SORRY FOR THE INCONVENIENCE,” read the message last June on a Burger King marquee in Lincoln, Neb., where, according to the workers, the air conditioner had been broken for weeks and the temperatures in the kitchen soared past 90 degrees.
Sometimes, workers left behind notes for bosses and customers that resembled parting primal screams: “We will not work for a company that DOES NOT care!!!” employees at a Del Taco in Circleville, Ohio, wrote.
“The staff at this location has walked out because we were being treated poorly, overworked and underpaid,” read a message from the employees of a Biggby Coffee in Toledo. Often the dashed-off notes became hits on social media, passed along by equally fed-up workers. Sometimes they would show up in a short segment on the local television news, before fading away.
Definitive numbers on these small-scale walkouts do not exist. The Bureau of Labor Statistics only tracks major stoppages that involve more than 1,000 workers. But Mike Elk, a labor reporter and founder of paydayreport.com, has compiled a database of 1,600 walkouts since March 2020 that included as many as 100,000 workers.
Stephanie was now deciding whether she wanted to be one of them. Like her staff, she had come to feel “degraded” and “belittled” by her bosses and some of the customers. The franchise owner had set the Bradford McDonald’s starting wage at $9.25 an hour, while new workers at his McDonald’s less than 20 miles away in Olean, N.Y., where the minimum wage was higher, were earning $15 an hour. The low pay had made it almost impossible for Stephanie and Dustin to retain workers and keep the restaurant running.
Stephanie’s call with Dustin lasted only about a minute. She decided she could not let Dustin and their day-shift crew “do it alone.” She hung up and texted the night shift staff. “I want you all to know that everyone on the day shift just walked out and quit,” she wrote. She said she was joining the walkout — “Effective 10:51 a.m. I no longer work at McDonald’s” — and encouraged the rest of the staff to quit too.
“I believe that you all are worth more than anything they’re giving you,” she continued. “I am proud of all of you. Every single one of you. Whether you quit or not, I am proud of you.”
Then she drove to the McDonald’s where she saw cars backing up in the drive-through. Most of the workers were gathered in the parking lot, laughing and smiling. The worker who had been with the restaurant for five years was sobbing. She had been swept up in the initial excitement of the walkout but was now worried about finding a new job and paying her rent. She was terrified of losing her subsidized apartment.
“We will help you get a job that pays better,” Dustin reassured her. He and Stephanie were going to drive everyone to the Burger King, two miles away, where Stephanie knew the general manager and the pay started at $10 an hour.
Before Dustin locked the doors, he realized there was one last thing he wanted to do for his McDonald’s customers. He could not find a pen so he snatched a blue highlighter from the back office. “Due to lack of pay we all quit,” he scribbled.
In the parking lot, a half-dozen employees were waiting on him for rides to Burger King. The line of cars full of hungry and angry customers now wrapped around the building.
“Hey! We just want a Quarter Pounder and fries,” a man called out to Dustin from his car.
“Well we just want to be paid more and treated better,” Dustin replied.
Dustin and his co-workers had come to feel that no one understood what their jobs and lives were really like. The biggest frustration was the pay, which had been $8.25 an hour until the franchise owner boosted it by $1 a few months into the pandemic.
“We understand these are tough times,” Enrico Francani, the owner wrote in a letter to the staff, explaining the increase.
“How can you say you understand tough times when you’re only paying people $9.25 an hour?” Dustin recalled thinking.
The restaurant continued to lose long-serving shift managers throughout 2021 to entry-level jobs at Walmart ($13.75 an hour) and Tim Hortons ($12 an hour). The departures hit the Bradford McDonald’s especially hard at the beginning of the month, when disability checks arrived and customers had money to burn on burgers and fries.
“Can anyone go into work right now? They’re down 6 shifts and drowning,” Stephanie wrote on the employee group chat on Sept. 1, four days before the walkout.
A few minutes passed with no response.
“Anyone??” she asked again.
The only thing that seemed to matter to the corporate office were the numbers: revenue, drive-through times and the weekly tally of complaints. Once, Dustin worked 30 hours straight to prepare the restaurant for a health inspection. It passed, but the criticism from the bosses about the restaurant’s cleanliness and his inability to retain employees continued unabated. Heavy turnover led to more mistakes and longer wait times for customers, who took their frustration out on workers who already felt stigmatized by their fast-food jobs.
“The hate is towards the wrong people,” said Caitlin Cox, a shift manager, newly pregnant with her second child. “It’s ridiculous.” She was certain that customers, who regularly belittled the staff for enforcing mask mandates or botching orders, would judge her harshly for having a baby while “flipping burgers.” And she had come to dread the thought of working at McDonald’s while she was visibly pregnant.
The owner, ferried by his driver, typically visited the Bradford location just once a year, employees said, and not even that often once the pandemic hit. Dustin believed that Francani was relying on his Pennsylvania restaurants — with their low salaries — to offset higher costs in New York where he had to pay his McDonald’s workers $15 an hour.
Francani did not respond to a list of detailed questions regarding his Bradford location. In a statement he said that he had initiated a series of “listening sessions” with workers and was adding paid sick leave and raising starting wages in Bradford. “We’re very grateful for the outstanding efforts of the McDonald’s Bradford team,” he wrote.
McDonald’s USA issued a statement in which it said it was “disappointed” by the poor treatment that employees had endured at the Bradford restaurant: “The allegations shared in this reporting are deeply troubling and have no place in a McDonald’s-branded restaurant. Quite simply, they are unacceptable.”
Dustin understood that Francani was entitled to pay his Bradford workers about 40 percent less than his nearby New York employees. “It’s a good idea, but you’re hurting people,” he said. “At what price is it enough? At what point is it just not worth it? What’s the cost of another human being to you?”
LEFT: A help wanted sign hangs on the window as diners eat at Leo's Sub Shop in Bradford. Many downtown businesses are looking to hire help. CENTER: Players Downtown bar in Bradford has a “help wanted” sign outside. RIGHT: Kabob's at the Option House restaurant in Bradford is also hiring.
‘A high school job’
These were some of the questions that people in Bradford were fighting about in the immediate aftermath of the walkout. Less than an hour had passed before someone snapped a picture of Dustin’s sign on the drive-through speaker and posted it in a Facebook group called “B----ing Bout Bradford.”
Most of those weighing in on the McDonald’s walkout were service workers: certified nursing assistants, waitresses, security guards and store cashiers who were barely scraping by themselves. Theirs were the voices of a place whose best days seem behind it. On Bradford’s mostly empty Main Street, Art Deco, Italianate and Neo-Classical buildings loom as a reminder of an earlier era when the city was home to wealthy oil barons and hungry entrepreneurs. The Zippo factory, opened in 1932, still ships its iconic windproof lighters all over the world. But the region has been bleeding manufacturing jobs and people for years.
“Do you have the next great idea?” asked signs from the Bradford Area Alliance offering a $20,000 prize to help seed a local start-up. Set amid abandoned storefronts, the question came off as a plea.
Some speaking out on “B----ing Bout Bradford” blasted the work stoppage as an act of entitlement — another sign of America’s moral decay and waning work ethic. “You got what you deserve when your paycheck came in,” wrote a 41-year-old father of two young boys. “Probably didn’t deserve that because it sounds like you were just there putting in time with bad attitudes instead of working to make your situation better.”
Other commenters called fast food “a high school job,” whose long hours and low pay were supposed to spur young workers to strive for more. Dustin and his crew, they said, should “go back to school,” “quit making excuses,” get a second job or move to a city with higher wages and more opportunity. Or they complained about the service at the McDonald’s (“I’ve never one f---ing time got my order right! Not once!”) and derided the penmanship on Dustin’s hastily scribbled sign. (“Maybe they should be home practicing their handwriting skills.”) The McDonald’s workers’ demands to be seen and heard had broken some unspoken rule; their anger seemed to threaten Bradford’s social order.
Others countered that big companies, such as McDonald’s, had a moral obligation to pay their employees enough to survive. “We have families and bills and can’t even get through with the pay we get,” wrote a cashier at the Bradford Dollar Tree. And they called for a higher minimum wage to match the $15 an hour that workers were making in New York.
Just like the critics, the walkout’s defenders cast the protest as a symptom of a much larger societal disease, made worse by the labor shortage and the long pandemic.
“People in the service industry are done with the disrespect,” wrote a local physician. “I don’t think it’s just about the money. … Whether it’s about flipping burgers or saving lives they crave gratitude and validation. Society has become so intolerant. So disrespectful. So judgmental. So cruel. Let’s change it.”
Soon some of the McDonald’s workers were weighing in to explain themselves and defend their colleagues. “You have NO RIGHT to talk down on those workers when they take a stand and have had enough,” wrote John Lockwood, who had worked at the restaurant for 20 years and had quit earlier that morning. “If you don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, keep your f---ing mouth shut.”
Of the Bradford McDonald’s workers who remained after the waves of spring and summer attrition, five had intellectual or physical disabilities that made it hard for them to find work at a better pay, Dustin said. Two were 17-year-old girls who had quit school and were homeless. In the immediate aftermath of the walkout, one of those teenage girls, Shakira Griffin, was waiting in the McDonald’s parking lot for Dustin to give her a ride to Burger King, where she planned to fill out an application.
She phoned her boyfriend and her mother. Neither answered. A few hours later, she texted both to let them know about the walkout. “Steph and Dustin is helping us get jobs,” she wrote.
Shakira had started at McDonald’s in March after her mother lost custody of her and her father and his new girlfriend had kicked her out of their house. Before she dropped out of high school in the spring, her teachers had tried to look out for her as best they could. Her favorite, a special-education teacher, had slipped her $25 to buy some bras and on her birthday, gave her a dark, green American Eagle hoodie that hung loosely on her skinny frame.
“I could tell you that it wasn’t cheap!” said Shakira of the sweatshirt that she wore everywhere.
Like so many of her colleagues, Shakira had grown accustomed to being told she was not good enough: by teachers, fellow students and even her parents. Now she was jubilant. “I was doing stuff with people besides arguing,” she said of the walkout. “I was standing up for myself and what I deserve. I’ve never done that before.”
By nightfall a crew of $15-an-hour McDonald’s workers had arrived from New York and reopened the drive-through, though the rest of the restaurant remained closed. The Bradford workers were still buzzing with excitement.
“Let’s all stand outside the mcdonalds and riot. Hahaha,” one crew member wrote on their chat.
“I love all you guys. You are amazing,” another added.
“We’ll be friends forever,” wrote Matthew Arndt, who was developmentally delayed and autistic. “Remember my door. My heart is open.”
Six years earlier, Matt had taken a Greyhound bus to Bradford from Tacoma, Wash., to visit a woman he met while playing a video game called “Second Life.” The woman turned out to be married. Now, Matt, 32, lived with her, her husband and another developmentally delayed woman in a rotting brown and yellow two-story rental, which had no working furnace, black mold and bedbugs. Matt was the only one in the house with a job, and they had all come to depend on his salary to survive.
He had not been back to see his father or siblings since arriving in Bradford. His job at McDonald’s was his refuge. His co-workers had become his family. Sometimes he and the rest of the night shift crew would finish work around 2 a.m. and walk two miles to the Sheetz coffee shop, where they would talk and eat mozzarella sticks, boneless chicken bites and burritos until dawn.
Matt texted his colleagues that the regional supervisor had called him and was trying to entice him to stay, but that he was not going to betray his friends.
“She’s desperate now,” he wrote.
“Yeah,” agreed Shakira, who also had received a call. “She really is desperate.”
The workers continued texting for several more hours. They complained about the people in town who were deriding them for walking out.
“People think fast food workers are lazy,” one former crew member wrote. “All they want is their muffins and nuggets.”
“Yeah, we ain’t people,” another replied.
They traded gossip about which workers might be staying. Several noted hopefully that the drive-through line at Burger King seemed longer than usual and that maybe the shutdown had scared some McDonald’s customers away.
Someone suggested they rename their McDonald’s group chat. Matt came up with the idea that they immediately and unanimously decided to adopt: “The McRejects.”
‘A slap in the face’
Dustin rose at 4 a.m. and headed out the door to his car, still clad in his camouflage pajama pants and a hoodie. A month had passed since the walkout. It was his day off, but he had promised two of his former McDonald’s crew members, who he had helped land jobs with him at the lumber mill, that he would drive them to work every day. Neither had cars.
“Jesus it’s cold out this morning,” Dustin’s first pickup of the morning said as he slid into the passenger seat. “I left my window open last night and just about froze my balls off.”
“Yesterday was colder,” Dustin replied as he steered through Bradford’s empty streets. The “check engine” light on his dashboard glowed.
Most of the McRejects found new jobs for higher pay at Burger King, Dunkin’ and the Save-A-Lot grocery store. Shakira landed a $10 an hour position stocking shelves at a Crosby’s convenience store and was living with her boyfriend’s family. Matt and his best friend from McDonald’s, David Putnam, were making $12 an hour at Tim Hortons doughnut shop. The extra money meant David, who was raising his 2-year-old son on his own, no longer needed donated food from the “Blessing Box” near his house. He had recently even been able to treat his mother and stepfather to dinner at the Hunan Buffet across the parking lot from his new job.
Matt’s finances were still tight. One of his housemates had recently been kicked off disability, and he was using his extra pay to help cover her portion of the rent.
After just three weeks at the lumber mill, Dustin got a $1 raise to $12.50-an-hour, part of a companywide pay hike. He hoped the money would help him finally afford his own place. For the moment, he was paying his mom, who was on disability, and his stepdad, who did not work, about $850 a month to live in his childhood bedroom. The money helped to cover their rent and the food stamps they lost due to Dustin’s income.
By this point in his life, Dustin had hoped to have moved out of his childhood bedroom. Shortly after high school he left Bradford in search of a better life in Maine, where he had helped a family from his church start a new congregation. He had considered going to college to become a pastor. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, and it felt meaningful,” he said. But he did not have the money for school and fell out with his church. Lately, he said he felt as if he was “just kind of floating.”
On this day, floating meant grabbing a few hours of sleep, playing video games and then heading back to the mill around 4 p.m. to take his friends home. They tossed their helmets and lunch pails in his car’s trunk. The smell of sawdust clung to their clothes and filled Dustin’s car. One of his friends was complaining about the job, which required them to stand in one spot for 10 hours a day lifting and stacking wooden boards.
“Ugh, the repetition,” he said. “It just repeats and repeats and repeats.”
“You gotta look at it a different way,” Dustin countered. “It stinks because it is the same thing every day. Yeah, it’s boring. But it’s a good paycheck, and they treat you with respect and like a human being.”
Most of the workers in Dustin’s section had been at the mill for only a couple of months, and Dustin attributed the heavy turnover to the tedious nature of the job. He tried to fight off the boredom, as best he could, by asking questions about the different kinds of wood they processed and how the different machines worked. He chatted up the fork lift driver who had been at the mill for almost three decades and was making $30 an hour. If he could just make it to three months, Dustin knew he would qualify for a $300 bonus, a 401(k) and health insurance — something he had been without for more than three years.
“It’s super easy,” he said of the lifting and stacking. “You barely move.” The downside was the monotony, which was numbing in a way that McDonald’s had never been.
Weeks passed and Dustin found it hard to stop thinking about his old job. He missed the friendships he’d built at the restaurant. He missed the challenge and satisfaction that came with helping his intellectually disabled workers master a task. He missed being a leader.
When Dustin ran into one of the McDonald’s Sunday regulars, who gathered at a back table to gossip and complain about their shrinking pensions, he quizzed him about service at the restaurant. The man grumbled about the rising price of coffee and the “haughty” new staff at the restaurant.
“We didn’t get paid enough,” Dustin replied, “but we tried to treat you well.”
Whenever Dustin passed the McDonald’s, he would take note of the number of cars lined up at the drive-through. “I think they’re losing customers,” he would often say.
About six weeks after the walkout, Dustin noticed that the owner had changed the sign on the restaurant’s marquee. “Hiring starting at $10,” it now read.
The 75-cent raise was all that he and his staff had really wanted and all that they had been fighting for. But, to Dustin, it still felt like a “slap in the face.” His former bosses seemed to be sending him a message that their fight was never really about pay. It was about status and power and proving to Dustin and the others that, despite their modest gains and whatever changes might be taking place in the U.S. economy, they were still replaceable.
Dustin did not regret the walkout. He had “refused to bow down to the big scary corporation,” he said. He had rallied his friends and helped them find similar work at higher pay. Dustin’s lumber mill job would do for now. Maybe the meaning he had been searching for would come later.
Jennifer Jenkins and Andrew Van Dam contributed to this report.
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