Josh Whitman, a solemn 17-year-old with shoulder-length blond hair, doesn't
look like a stereotypical labor leader. But for the last six days, the
Fairfax County high school junior has been leading a strike against his
employer, fast-food giant McDonald's.
Yesterday, most everyone on the night shift of the Burke McDonald's at 5651 Burke Centre Parkway went back to work after meeting with company representatives, who promised to address their complaints about pay and work hours. The decision wasn't so easy for their leader, who still is considering whether to return to his job.
"In my mind, me going back in would be saying like, 'Okay, you've won, what you're doing to everyone in America is right, when it isn't,' " Whitman said.
Whitman led eight of his fellow workers off the job Oct. 16. Brandishing hand-lettered "on strike" signs and urging diners to stay away, the picketers attracted the stares of errand-running suburbanites and the support of some former employees, who joined them on the picket line.
The employees said they had launched their Lilliputian job action against the company-owned restaurant because of chronic understaffing and poor treatment by store managers.
At an employee meeting last night, store managers and McDonald's Corp. executives pledged to fully staff busy shifts, conduct regular wage reviews and post work schedules well in advance, said employees who attended.
"The meeting went pretty well," said striker Michael Sheinall, 37, who has worked in the grill area of the restaurant for the last seven years. "They totally clouded the issue."
Since last Friday, Whitman has maintained a virtually round-the-clock presence at the restaurant, holding up signs, napping in his Volkswagen camper parked nearby and leaving only to go to classes or to stop briefly at his Fairfax home. His mother, Kitty, said she was not surprised by his persistence.
"Josh is a very righteous young man," said Kitty Whitman, a private school teacher who delivered snacks and drinks to the strikers all week. She said she will continue to support her son "as long as he goes to school."
"The principles that he is standing up for are correct, in my view, and I think what he's doing is acting on what he believes in," she said.
The job action by the Burke workers isn't the first strike against McDonald's, which has resisted union attempts to organize its workers for decades. The local walkout was similar to a strike at an Ohio McDonald's restaurant in April, when employees won wage increases and paid vacations after a five-day walkout. Whitman said he knew little about the Ohio strike before he led his troops to the picket line.
During their protest, the Burke group subsisted on pizza and soda donated by sympathetic friends and parents and collected more than 175 signatures from passersby on a petition asking McDonald's to meet their demands. They got a friendly reception from people driving by, who waved and gave the thumbs-up sign as they headed for the bank or the grocery store.
"Right on, brother!" shouted one bearded man in a beige minivan as he drove by Tuesday night.
The strikers, chain-smoking and huddled together for warmth against the chilly October air, responded with cheers.