This article is part of a collaboration between YES! Magazine and Climate Workers that seeks to connect the experiences of workers with the urgency of the climate crisis.
Tina Sandoval is a cashier at a McDonald’s in Richmond, California, and a leader in the East Bay Organizing Committee and the Fight for $15 in the Bay Area. A U.S.-born daughter of Mexican farmworkers, she is fighting to transform the food industry into one that is good for both people and planet, for both her customers and her children.
From farm to plate, warehouse to compost, loading dock to drive-thru, food-chain workers like Sandoval are the scholars of the fast-food system. Their experience places them front and center in efforts to craft solutions to the food, climate, and economic crises. But Sandoval’s worker wisdom goes way beyond her workplace.
Brooke Anderson of Climate Workers talked with Sandoval about her family’s farming background, raising kids on a McDonald’s salary, climate change, and why women are harder workers than men.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Brooke Anderson: Earlier today, we were weeding at one of Urban Tilth’s gardens on the Richmond Greenway. You clearly knew what you were doing. Who taught you how to grow food?
Tina Sandoval: My mom. She lives in Michoacán on a big piece of land with cows and vegetables. That’s her thing, her passion. Being out there, cutting the plants, killing weeds. She is very skilled. I like it now too. I was born in the United States and grew up in Napa Valley, but I lived with my mom in Mexico for a few years in high school. That’s when I learned to grow things. But also, in Mexico, it’s not like someone teaches you. It’s kind of just called common sense, you know?
Anderson: Tell me more about your mom.
Sandoval: My mom is Carmen Mendoza, and my dad Francisco Sandoval. They were born in Mexico, in Michoacán, in the tiny town of Atacheo outside Zamora. My dad came to the United States when he was 16 years old as part of the Bracero Program. He worked on the trains and in the grape fields in Napa. When he married my mom, she came to work in the grape fields too. That is what they did: farm work.
Growing up, my mom was the main support of our family. That’s true of so many households. And on top of that, she was a real fighter in the farmworker struggle led by Cesar Chavez. Some of my early memories are on the picket line. I was on my first strike when I was 7 years old. I didn’t know what I was marching for, but my mom was 100 percent fighting with the United Farm Workers union.
Anderson: And now you are with your daughter at all of the fast-food union events.
Sandoval: Yes, my daughter, Juliana, is 17 and lives here with me in Richmond. And I have a 7-year-old son named Adrian, but he isn’t here. He lives with his dad in Puebla, Mexico. I had to leave him there with his dad years ago. Really, it’s awful. I have some ongoing health problems, and with the pay at McDonald’s, I can only care for my daughter, not even myself. I simply cannot afford to care for both of my kids living paycheck to paycheck. We are stretching as much as we can, struggling for each paycheck, barely making it to the next paycheck—not living.
I always tell my daughter, “We have our documents. Don’t forget how lucky we are. Your grandfather came here first illegally, undocumented.” I mean, except for the Native people, all of us are immigrants. But now only some immigrants are the ones who care for the land, wash the dishes, pick the freaking tomatoes. And no offense, but it’s really not White people doing that, you know? My family, we are spread all across this stupid border, in California and Mexico—when California used to be Mexico. It just doesn’t make sense.
Anderson: Now you’re in Richmond. What’s it like here? How is it to work at McDonald’s?
Sandoval: Richmond is a tough city to live in. And this billion-dollar, messed-up corporation I work for is part of the problem. My shift is 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., five days a week. My paycheck is usually just under $500 for two weeks. Even if I can afford to pay rent with one check, I will have nothing left. And I only rent one room in someone else’s home, which is really hard. Our rent goes up, the bus fare, groceries, our utilities—everything goes up except our salaries. The least McDonald’s could do is let the workers eat their crappy food for free, but we only get 25 percent off.
Plus, they throw so much food away, but they don’t care that homeless people are living in their parking lot. If we had a union at McDonald’s, I would put a stop to it, for the workers and the homeless. I should know how important that is because I was homeless in a shelter with my daughter for 16 months while I worked at McDonald’s. I could have been one of the people living in their parking lot.
Anderson: What do you want the McDonald’s corporation to know about the impact of these “McJobs”?
Sandoval: I just want the CEOs from these corporations to see the conditions our kids live in. We are forced to live in bad environments. Our kids get caught up in the wrong crowd, and you know what can happen. We know about the violence in those streets. We know about the police brutality. It’s right here. For me, it’s so hard because I work nights, and I don’t get to be with Juliana. I don’t always know where she is. It’s really scary sometimes. I hate it when people say these annoying things, “But where were the parents?” Please! It’s not that I don’t want to spend time with my daughter. It’s not that I don’t want her to eat healthier food or go out to a nice dinner or get Christmas presents. I just can’t.
Honestly, people think that immigrants come to this country for the American Dream. I was born in this country, and I’ve never seen this dream we are supposed to have. Maybe it’s a dream for McDonald’s, but for the workers it’s a nightmare.
Anderson: If you could, would you grow your own food?
Sandoval: Yes, yes absolutely. I would love that. As I said, my mother, the farmworker, taught me to grow food in Michoacán. But where am I going to grow food now? In my bedroom? I don’t have land, you know. I would plant healthy food in a heartbeat for my family if I could afford decent housing here in Richmond. But I’m broke. Maybe with a living wage, I can get my own yard.
Anderson: You have been working at McDonald’s for almost three years and organizing with the East Bay Organizing Committee. What is the East Bay Organizing Committee?
Sandoval: The East Bay Organizing Committee is the fast-food workers union here in the Bay. We’ve been around for over three years. I am part of the organizing committee locally—a group of workers who lead not just their stores, but the whole organization—and I sit on the national organizing committee of workers from across the country. We coordinate the actions of our workers in all the cities across the country. These brothers and sisters, here and around the country, they are also my family.
Right now the organizing committee is almost all women. I think that’s important to say because women really lead this fight. We are the providers, we are the caregivers, we are the warriors. Like my mom. The men—and don’t get me wrong, there are great men out there—but the men just aren’t strong like we are. Honestly, I think that God didn’t give men the ability to give birth because he knew men wouldn’t be able to handle it. That’s why it’s such crap that men get paid more than women. They take all the credit, but don’t do the work. Sorry dude, but Head of the House is not a staff position.
Anderson: Let’s talk about climate change. What role do you think the East Bay Organizing Committee can play in fighting for climate justice, preparing for climate disaster?
Sandoval: My mom used to get horrible allergies from the pesticide chemicals they would dump on the grapes. And my godfather, like many other people, he died so young from cancer. My co-workers are the ones who have the asthma, the heart issues, the unhealthy kids. I know about that because every day I have to make the choice between buying good food for my daughter or paying rent. Workers deserve both good jobs and healthy lives. I mean, what’s the point of winning $15 if we just end up dying of disease anyway?
I just think that if we as a union stay together, we can handle whatever comes. Like, for example, right now McDonald’s is trying to replace us cashiers with those stupid ATM-looking machines. To have robots taking customers’ orders! It’s horrible. It’s completely wrong. We don’t need less jobs for workers—we need more jobs, more hours. This union is going to fight for our jobs and against these stupid robots. The only people who benefit from that are the rich people.
Anderson: Tell me about your role in the fast-food strikes.
Sandoval: If I could go on strike every day to make a change, I would do it. For me it’s a big deal, being able to take a stand for my co-workers like this. It’s just in me; it’s what I do. I want to help my co-workers overcome their fear, fight the intimidation of the boss.
All this is why I’m so proud to be part of this fast-food worker movement. We take on McDonald’s and the other greedy corporations. But we also helped shut down Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities in Los Angeles, joined the police brutality protests here, supported the Black Friday 14, marched on International Women’s Day, led an MLK Day weekend shutdown of McDonald’s to say “Black Workers Matter,” and supported restaurant workers fighting wage theft.
We demand immigration reform, #BlackLivesMatter, and affordable housing, alongside $15 and a union for all. Because these are all our people, and we won’t leave nobody behind.