Striking out in Fast-Food

Friday, August 28, 1998, Macedonia, Ohio - What's the beef?

This past Easter, two employees at a fast food restaurant near Akron, Ohio were so upset with their manager, they did something terrible and unprecedented in the industry.

They went on strike.

Since then, Bryan Drapp and Jamal Nickens have tried to unionize the restaurant's employees, they have made a few mistakes, lost their jobs, missed their fall semesters at college and have even brought in the Feds on the whole thing.

I am curious about this union struggle, in this part of the country where union strife was so prevalent in the 1930's that the community was divided between "Red Hots" who were pro-union and "Red Apples" who were against unions. To get the inside story on this saga, I arrange to meet with Bryan Drapp. We sit near my bike in the parking lot of a local restaurant, just a Big Mac's throw from his former employer. "Why strike?" I ask him. "Was it for better pay?"

"Wages weren't even the top thing," says Drapp. "it was the respect. It was like 'we should just be treated with dignity and respect.' People say; 'Oh, you work at McDonald's you don't need any respect.' But it's a job, just like anything else."

Respect? Heck, employees are practically feared by their managers; it's the only facet of their operation they can't fully control. Ask a room full of managers of chain and franchise fast-food restaurants what's on their minds and you'll hear the word "employees" so often you'll think it's a new sandwich.

So far, none of the major restaurants have union employees. Traditionally, unions have been anathema to corporations, who fear having even less control. If a restaurant's employees were to unionize, they might get a contract which could, for example, guarantee periodic pay raises. This would mean that an employee who has worked at a restaurant for several years will be paid much more per hour than a newly hired employee.

Now, these restaurants have been designed so that jobs have a narrow focus and are easily mastered. There is also a very flat hierarchy so, unless you want a manager's job, there is little chance to move up. These two factors work to provide very little value to the concept of tenure.

At your average fast-food restaurant, costs are pretty well fixed. The food is purchased from company recommended vendors, exact ingredients are used and advertising is mostly handled through their franchise fees. The only major variable cost is payroll, the only part of their budget which they can really squeeze and ply and reduce.

So, if you own one of these restaurants, and you want to keep an eye on your expenses, your main target is your employees. Hire people who will work for minimum wage and let them go when they won't. You may face an average employee turnover of only three months, but deal with it - that's what managers are for.

If the thought of working in fast food for a summer doesn't appeal to you, imagine being the manager of dozens of people who do work in fast food, even though it may not appeal to them. A manager's job requires one special trait; you must love people.

You must love being with people, working with people, training people and managing people. You must understand that few of the people you manage will have the same dedication you have and that in fact, none of these people will be like you, because if they were, they would be managers.

A typical fast-food restaurant manager will usually do the same work as his or her employees, as well as manage those employees. It's like sending the coach out on the field for the game. Sometimes, that manager will work so many hours on a fixed salary with no overtime, that he or she will actually be paid less per hour than the employees.

So you really have to love this work. You have to appreciate the attitudes of a group of people who will be years younger than you, who have lives outside of the restaurant (which your long hours may prohibit) and who will have a comradeship which will often exclude you. You will have pressure from above to cut costs and improve service quality and you will have pressure from below to ease up and to "chill, man."

Bryan Drapp, who, with coworker Jamal Nickens, organized the first fast-food restaurant strike and attempted unionization in the history of mankind.

As so many things are with nineteen year-olds, the entire strike / union / firing saga was not orchestra ted by anyone, but seemed to proceed along in its own direction. Apparently, the two ringleaders; Bryan Drapp and Jamal Nickens were pretty upset with their work situation before the incident which spurred them to take action.

Their manager, according to Drapp, had a dispute with an elderly employee who then left the restaurant in tears. "Then [the manager] told me to go do her job," says Drapp. "And I told him I wasn't gonna do it. So then he sent me home. And then, Jamal - nobody was helping him so he just walked out."

Drapp brought up the idea of striking on a lark. "People ask me; 'how did that come into your mind - strike? I don't know!" he says. But he quickly found out that other employees felt the same way he did and on Easter Sunday, 1998, fifteen of the employees scheduled to work that day went on strike. The manager could not open the store until late morning, according to Drapp.

The following Wednesday, Drapp says, the union arrived. "The Teamsters came and talked to us... they said 'do you guys know you're not protected? They could fire you at any time, because you have no legal reason to be out here.'" Drapp asked his co-workers about joining a union.

Again, support was overwhelming, and twenty-one people signed cards showing intent to join a union. The Teamsters (Local 416, in Cleveland) scheduled a vote in June. All Drapp and Nickens had to do was keep the atmosphere at the restaurant pro-union for a few months.

They found this hard to do, says Drapp, claiming that the restaurant would not let him or Jamal talk about the union to employees. "They said we were not allowed to talk about the union anymore, which brought about the non-verbal use of painting the face."

It seemed like a brilliant move; if you can't talk about unionization to your co-workers, then spell out "GO UNION" on your forehead with glitter paint and show up to work. Well, it was a bit short of brilliant, and this act and others led to the firing of Drapp and Nickens. "It might not have been the smartest thing in the world," says Drapp.

Without the two leaders, the union didn't stand a chance and they dropped the vote.

Since then, according to Drapp, most of the fifteen employees who struck that Easter Sunday are no longer working at that McDonald's. A recent visit to the restaurant revealed several help-wanted signs outside, in the windows and on the tables - more than I've ever seen at any restaurant. It's as though they were about to open and were hiring staff. I was tempted to order a "red-hot apple pie," but I didn't want to start a commotion.

The day he was fired, Drapp went to the National Labor Relations Board and filed a complaint, then he and Nickens went looking for work. It took them a while, but Nickens is now in landscaping and Drapp takes hotel reservations. They hope to someday open their own video store.

The NLRB has reviewed their case and apparently believes it has enough merit to begin further investigation and a possible settlement. This is good news for the two former restaurateurs as they had to put off college for a semester for lack of funds.

Days after I talk with Drapp, I am confused as to why these guys worked at the restaurant even though they were unhappy. I call up Jamal Nickens and ask him. "You're always around people," Nickens says. "I like to work with customers, and the co-workers are pretty cool. I had a lot of friends working there."

But, if you were so fed up, why not just go work at one of the other many restaurants in the area? "The elderly lady who was brought to tears by the manager wasn't gonna stand up for herself and she had nowhere to turn," Nickens says. "Brian and I thought that 'we're young and we've got a voice and we can make a difference.'"

There is a pause on the line as Nickens takes account of what he just said and admits to the intrepid nature of this whole saga.

"I never thought about it until you just mentioned it," he says.

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