NEW YORK — The union organizer found Naquasia LeGrand on her lunch break, sipping coffee and wearing a hat emblazoned with the logo of her employer, KFC.
She was about to return to boxing coleslaw and chicken tenders when he introduced himself and asked how she was doing, how she was surviving on $7.25 an hour, the minimum wage. The organizer, Ben Zucker, wanted to know whether she might want to join a group of workers trying to get higher pay.
It wasn’t something she’d thought much about. The job was a detour between high school and that computer degree she was hoping to get someday. A way to help support her aunt, grandmother, and cousin, who lived with her in a cramped apartment in one of the most expensive cities in the country.
She didn’t think of herself as someone who needed to join a union or someone who would be a fast-food worker for long.
Still, the two exchanged numbers in front of the restaurant, across the street from tire shops and a Latino church. Without knowing it, Ms. LeGrand had begun a process that would change her from an apolitical fast-food worker to one of the most vocal members of a growing labor movement.
Ms. LeGrand, 22, a tall African-American with tight braids, is the kind of convert unions desperately need as they try to reverse a decades-long decline in membership. The new front in that effort is fast-food restaurants, and union leaders, though optimistic, know that unionizing won’t happen overnight.
It took years for a janitors’ campaign that began in Los Angeles in the 1980s to achieve results, for instance, and that effort occurred when unions were stronger.
The fast-food movement, however, has been successful in rallying disconnected workers.
“Nothing is going to happen instantly,” said Ruth Milkman, a labor scholar at City University of New York. “But ... it has done a lot already to make people think unions can make positive change.”
The movement started out small, in New York City, with the Service Employees International Union providing money and support to pull off a one-day strike in November.
Fast-food workers in Detroit, Chicago, and St. Louis had followed by May. On Aug. 29, workers in 50 cities across the country demonstrated outside restaurants, demanding union representation and $15 an hour in pay.
The protests have gained some traction in part because the profile of fast-food workers has changed. They are no longer just teenagers trying to earn extra cash. After the recession, an increasing number of older workers came to depend on these jobs to support families. Now that the economy is improving, the question is whether they will stick around; the industry still has notoriously high turnover.
Ms. LeGrand’s grandmother, a postal worker, disliked unions.
She thought they didn’t do much for their workers, despite collecting millions in dues. When Ms. LeGrand first received a text message from Mr. Zucker encouraging her to attend a unionizing meeting, her grandmother spoke up. No way should Ms. LeGrand go. She could lose her job, and then where would they be?
Grandmother and granddaughter argued in their two-bedroom apartment in an aging brick housing project in south Brooklyn. Ms. LeGrand knew the family needed her salary to help pay the $1,300-a-month rent, so she ignored Mr. Zucker’s calls and tried to forget the talk about raising the minimum wage.
She had a lot to lose by attending a union-organizing meeting. In fast-food work, shifts are determined by managers. If she got involved, she could be labeled a troublemaker and given fewer shifts. Besides, who had time to go to weekly meetings to talk about doubling salaries — something that seemed highly unlikely?
But Mr. Zucker was persistent.
He got on speaker phone with Ms. LeGrand and her grandmother, a stern woman with long dreadlocks who has spent decades caring for children and grandchildren. They talked for an hour about what Mr. Zucker was trying to accomplish. He assured Ms. LeGrand that the union wasn’t some scam, and as she thought about it on the buses and trains she rode to work, she found herself trusting him more.
When you make $300 a week, how can you ignore someone saying you can earn more money to better support your four-person household, maybe even get a bedroom of your own someday, and not have to share a room with your grandmother?
A few weeks later, Ms. LeGrand attended a union meeting in Brooklyn and took along seven workers from her store.
She didn’t know it at the time, but Mr. Zucker was one of 40 paid organizers fanning out across New York to persuade fast-food workers to protest.
At Ms. LeGrand’s first meeting, organizers showed her KFC’s annual profits. She felt disbelief, then anger, then hope. Surely she deserved more pay if David Novak, the chief executive of Yum Brands Inc. — which owns KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut — took home a compensation package of about $11 million last year.
There’s no central place where fast-food workers congregate, making them particularly difficult to organize. So the activists needed help to reach more people.
When Mr. Zucker asked Ms. LeGrand to recruit other workers, she hesitated. Many of her colleagues didn’t want to get involved. One of her close friends at KFC stopped talking to her, tired of hearing about unions.
But at the weekly meetings with other workers, she saw more people getting involved in the movement and felt compelled to do something. Ms. LeGrand kept hearing co-workers talk about how hard it was to pay the bills, so she started turning those complaints into an argument for organizing. Can’t afford the rent this month? Then why not attend a meeting that could help change that? When your pay is so low, what do you have to lose?
The eve of the late-August strike was the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, “I Have a Dream” speech. Ms. LeGrand began that day working a morning shift at one KFC and ended it on the night shift at another.
At 2 a.m. she went straight to a room above a tattoo parlor in a grimy Brooklyn building where the labor campaign is headquartered. She began to sort through sheaves of paper, figuring out who needed to be picked up in a van, who needed to be called and reminded to strike, who needed to give their employers signed notice about the strike.
Later that afternoon, after attending demonstrations around the city in a day that wavered between overcast and scorching hot, Ms. LeGrand climbed onto a stage in front of hundreds of protesters to kick off a rally in Union Square. She was wearing a red, white, and blue shirt with the slogan “Fast Food Forward.” She was surrounded by TV cameras, politicians, reporters.
“This is my fourth strike,” she yelled, her voice raspy from a day of shouting. “This is what I do, it’s part of me now, it’s like there’s no stopping it.”
The crowd cheered.
“What do we want?” she called out.
“Fifteen dollars and a union,” the crowd called back.
The chanting was a little disorganized. But that didn’t bother Ms. LeGrand. She reveled in the show of support for a movement that barely existed a year ago.
“It’s good seeing all you beautiful people coming together to support this movement that’s taken national,” she said, to a sea of supporters wearing shirts like hers. “It’s not just New York no more.”