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On July 2, workers at a KFC in the rural North Alabama town of Hartsley went on strike after working for more than six weeks without air conditioning. The exit was led by the store’s general manager, Ta Edwards, who was promptly fired by restaurant operator Tasty Chick’n LLC. The remaining employees were forced back to work on July 5 after Tasty Chick’n falsely claimed to have repaired the restaurant’s air conditioning unit.
Tasty Chick’n LLC operates the KFC franchises on behalf of Tasty Brands, which is itself owned by private equity firm Triton Pacific Capital Partners. Tasty Brands is one of many companies that have benefited during the pandemic. Between the fourth quarters of 2020 and 2021, its adjusted income increased from $2.9 million to $3.4 million.
The strike took place during a summer that saw record heat waves in many parts of the country. A week before the strike, 24-year-old UPS driver Esteban Chavez Jr. died of suspected heat stroke in Pasadena, California. Air temperatures have risen above the mid-1990s, and UPS trucks are not air conditioned. Workers at Hartselle KFC began showing alarming early symptoms of heat stroke prior to the strike, suggesting it may have actually saved lives.
The unit malfunctioned in mid-May as temperatures soared in Alabama. Edwards notified his immediate supervisor, COO Ernest Smith, of the flaw on May 16. An HVAC service repairer checked the unit and reported to Edwards that all three of the system’s compressors had stopped working. Smith assured Edwards that the compressors would be fixed within a week.
“That’s all I heard until two weeks ago,” said Edwards World Socialist Web Site. “Next week, next week, next week.”
As the nationwide heat wave subsided, temperatures in the kitchen soared to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. “There were some nights where I had to bring people home because they were so tired and so exhausted. People were about to faint and turn red. One of the kids stopped sweating, and I knew that was a sign of dehydration. I sent him home and told him to tell his parents what’s going on,” says Edwards.
As the weeks passed, the conditions became more and more unbearable. Edwards refused to discipline for not calling and not showing up. He asks, “Why would you want to come work in a 100-degree kitchen for ten dollars an hour?”
“Both coolers were off and the freezer was too,” Edwards said. premature coleslaw spoilage in overburdened coolers; Management directed Edwards to put her on ice so she could look good again and sell her anyway. Edwards refused.
“[Tasty Chick’n] They don’t care anything about the food they sell or the safety of their employees. “All that money, money, money,” Edwards says. Finally, I got tired of hearing the word ‘next week’.
In the last week of June, he detailed ongoing issues in an email to Tasty Chick’n’s Director of Restaurant Excellence, Tommy Cash, and President Steven Abigail.
Tommy Cash responded almost immediately, berating Edwards for not taking the chain of command. Edwards replied that he had already done so to no avail. “It started a firestorm,” he says.
“They were more concerned about sending the email to Stephen Abigail than running the air for the staff.”
Edwards was finally allowed to buy kitchen fans after a barrage of emails. He indicated the futility of this gesture. “I don’t know if I was somewhere hot and tried to cool it with the fans, but all it does is stir hot air.”
Cash, the minister-designate, implored him for moral reasons, telling him, “It seems you of all people will understand the predicament I am in.”
“Right now, I’m not working for God,” Cash told him. “I work for Tasty Chick’n.”
Edwards replied, “You’re risking people’s lives, and I don’t think so.” Again, he was told that the unit would be fixed “soon”.
By Friday, July 1, no fixes were imminent. Edwards sent a brief email to District Administrator Michael Bumbus: “My people are fed up.”
On July 2, Bombus told him he couldn’t decide when to fix the unit.
“The only thing I know to get their attention is to leave,” Edwards says. He immediately expressed this to his employees, and they agreed to withdraw. “They are afraid. Nobody wants to lose their job, but they are sick.
“We cleaned the restaurant all night, and we cleaned it really well. We emailed Michael Bombus and told him we weren’t coming in until the air was fixed.”
Last Monday, Tasty Chick’n Edwards was fired. The company promptly issued a deceptive statement to the press blaming late fixes for supply chain issues and referring to fans Edwards was allowed to purchase as “temporary air conditioning units.” They concluded with a verbally offensive lightness, “We can confirm that no termination occurred due to this employee complaint.”
They have suggested that Edwards was fired only for closing the restaurant.
Meanwhile, Edwards’ employees have been told the unit has been repaired and instructed to come to duty on Tuesday, July 5, or face immediate termination.
On Tuesday, workers logged in to find that only one compressor had been fixed; New caps were placed over the remaining two caps to hide their damage. Employees were forced to sign pre-written statements condemning Edwards and withdraw. A teenage employee was offered money to make false statements against Edwards.
When Edwards visited his former employees on Wednesday, the temperature was 95 degrees Fahrenheit in the restaurant. An opening in the kitchen floor, present since Edwards became a manager, is still covered without structural repairs. A leak in the ceiling above the freezer forces employees to remove dirty ice with shovels and shovels every time it rains.
“These guys have become my family and friends,” says Edwards, who has run the restaurant since 2019. “I’m still worried about them. They’re still working at 95, 100 degrees. They need air. They act like they fixed all three compressors when they just replaced one.” One of the kids had hypoglycemia, when he came back, Ernst wouldn’t let him take a break to eat. He was just pushing him. I don’t know what would happen if he lost consciousness. He wasn’t worried about that kid’s safety at all.”
He says the workers are unhappy and are thinking of going out again. No one apologized, no one thanked them. They refused to pay them for the days we were out.”