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Fast Food Workers’ Movement: Union 2.0

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With the support of America’s second largest union SEIU, the fast food workers’ $15 wage movement has grown, and this unorganized workforce of the past is shaping up to become the face of American organized labor.


JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Last week, a sea of about 2,000 McDonald’s protesters marched to the company’s headquarters. In anticipation of the protesters, McDonald’s closed their offices in suburban Illinois, and police barricaded the roadway entrance. When demonstrators tried to cross, 100 of them were arrested. Workers like Drelynne Finley say that they are there to fight for a $15 wage for all fast food workers.

DRELYNNE FINLEY, MCDONALD’S EMPLOYEE: This won’t be, you know, just for me. It’d be for others. And that’s what make me feel good about it. It’s not just about me. It’s for others as well.

DESVARIEUX: But behind these faces of fast food workers there is a powerful organizing force. Among those arrested was the president of the second-largest union in America, Services Employees International Union, or SEIU. President Mary Kay Henry Tweeted this out after her arrest:

“I am proud to stand w fast food workers & anyone else willing to fight for dignity & respect for these workers”.

With membership of about 2 million workers, SEIU has been organizing fast food workers for the past two years. They’ve hired a private PR firm and listed organizers, and have allegedly financially supported the movement with hundreds of thousands of dollars. That’s according to an expose by In These Times, which featured 40 different sources, like low-wage workers, union officials, and labor organizers.

We spoke with SEIU employee and executive director of Fast Food Forward Kendall Fells, who confirmed that SEIU has been supporting the fast food workers financially.

KENDALL FELLS, EXEC. DIR., FASNT FOOD FORWARD: Oh, our members are sympathetic to the fight that these fast food workers are having, and they want to see them win, because our members understand SEIU specializes in building worker leaders amongst a workforce that is going to profit from trying to organize for a union.

SEIU has also provided financial support for these workers, you know, to make sure that, you know, they can actually win this campaign.

DESVARIEUX: But why would SEIU invest their time and money into a private-sector labor group that has been so difficult to organize in the past? Some critics say it’s because of the downward trend of union membership. With only 11 percent of wage and salary workers in unions today, critics see SEIU’s support as looking to enlist this 4 million person workforce.

SEIU president Mary Kay Henry responded to critics with this in an interview with MSNBC last year.

MARY KAY HENRY, PRESIDENT, SEIU: This is not about growing unions. This is about our nation respecting the value of work again and helping workers come together and restore their ability to bargain with employers and be able to work hard for a living, expect to do better, and have a life where we can pass something on that’s better for our children. And that basic promise has been broken in this economy. So this is way beyond the question of an institutional interest of a union. This is about how work pays, again, in our economy.

DESVARIEUX: But in the economy of the past, unions were the force behind pay increases, like the strikers of 1930s in Flint, Michigan, that waged sit-ins on General Motors. And historically, fast food workers have not had that same organizing potential, the number-one reason being that the majority of fast food workers used to be teenagers with no long-term plans of staying on the job.

But that face has changed. A report by the Center for Policy Research found that only 30 percent of fast food workers are actually teenagers. The vast majority are adults, with more than 25 percent of them raising at least one child. John Smith is one of the authors of the report.

JOHN SCHMITT, SENIOR ECONOMIST, CENTER FOR ECONOMIC POLICY RESEARCH: —Fast food worker is. It’s not teenagers who are earning a little extra money while the go through high school or college, maybe. In fact, only about 30 percent of fast food workers are teenaged, and more than half of them are in their twenties or older. So it’s certainly not that.

The other thing that we found that was quite surprising relative to the stereotype is that at least a third of fast food workers have some college or even a college degree. So they’re a much higher level of education than, I think, is, like, again, in the stereotype of what a fast food worker’s like.

DESVARIEUX: SEIU organizer Kendall Fells adds that this changing face from a transient teenager to a breadwinner mother means a new direction for organizing.

FELLS: And we’re all focused on winning the campaign and getting the industry to the table. And then, you know, we’ll negotiate details from the information that we gather, i.e. will they be in a international union or a local union or SEIU or another union, or will they—you know, will this be a national contract? Like, all those things will be negotiated when we actually get the industry to the table, which is what everybody’s talking about right now.

DESVARIEUX: But whatever unionization looks like, it certainly won’t be easy, says former union organizer Roger Crowther. He helped organize the first McDonald’s in North America in the 1990s. They received enough signatures to start the union, but they ran up against the giant of the fast food industry, McDonald’s.

ROGER CROWTHER, FORMER ORGANIZER: We had a fairly quick signup, we applied for certification, and then the wheels kind of got into motion by McDonald’s. They throw all their legal stuff at you. And they were able to delay the campaign through various tactics. And we did move towards a collective agreement. It took us about a year. But they never accepted the recommendations of a mediator. And so in time we lost the certification.

DESVARIEUX: The unionization effort eventually failed in Canada until today there are no unionized McDonald’s franchises in North America.

Executive director of Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program Elaine Bernard says the law is the true obstacle getting in the way of fast food workers’ ability to organize.

ELAINE BERNARD, EXEC. DIR., LABOR AND WORKLIFE, HARVARD LAW: Our labor law was set up at a time where, you know, the assumption was that physically where you are is also your employer of record. And, of course, in fast food we’re looking at franchises. So in one sense you might work for McDonald’s, but you don’t actually work for McDonald’s, the big multinational corporation; you work for the local franchise. And so who is your employer? Well, your employer is actually whoever owns that franchise. The lack of power between, say, an individual fast food worker and a massive corporation is just total asymmetry in power.

DESVARIEUX: Though the fast food industry may seem like a Goliath, with billions in profits last year, CEPR senior economist John Schmitt says past organizing movements can be of inspiration, specifically the Justice for Janitors movement in the 1980s. It allowed for one contract in a certain market to apply to all janitors across that market.

SCHMITT: It’s possible to see at least part of what’s happening in the fast food business in a similar sort of way. You have similar kinds of circumstances. You have a fairly high turnover labor force that works, often, not for McDonald’s directly or not a fast food company directly, but they work for a franchisee. And the franchisee is extremely constrained in terms of what they can do with respect to how they operate their business. And the real power is not with the franchisees in most cases; it’s with the corporate management that sets the structures for both the franchisees and for the employees.

So I think a real challenge in the fast food context is to bring the large national corporations directly to the table and into the negotiations.

DESVARIEUX: Steve Early, journalist and author of the recently released book Save Our Unions, says if fast food workers link up with more established unions like the SEIU, democratic and transparent processes should be at the forefront.

STEVE EARLY, AUTHOR: We,ll in California there’s been a lot of discontent among existing service employee members as a result of some very heavy-handed steps taken by the union to consolidate its membership into very large locals out here. In 2009, the largest SEIU health care local in California was put under trusteeship in very undemocratic and unjust fashion. A local, a branch of the union with 150,000 members was stripped of its elected leaders. That’s created a real backlash against the union here and it was a real stain on its reputation.

So I think in some ways SEIU is seeking to redeem itself on a different organizing front. And let’s hope it doesn’t make some of the same mistakes that it has in health care in the fast food field.

DESVARIEUX: There is certainly momentum growing towards fast food workers and increasing the minimum wage. Michigan is poised to become the next state to raise its minimum wage. It will raise it over the next four years to $9.25 an hour. This move by the Republican-controlled legislature would block a November ballot which would have raised it to $10.10 an hour, mirroring the federal bill, which still waits for a vote in Congress.

Even if Congress doesn’t act, Elaine Bernard sees this fast food workers movement as a positive move for labor, attracting a younger generation to understand the struggle of prior movements.

BERNARD: The vast majority of people who are union members today—we’ve got, what, 15 million union members in America—the vast majority of them did not come to the labor movement through action. They got a job in a unionized workplace and discovered they were union members. So they really didn’t experience the solidarity and the profound actions and intensive debate that really goes into deciding to form a union.

So what’s very interesting with the fast food workers is that they’re organizing by striking, so that that makes them a very, very powerful entity.

DESVARIEUX: If history is any indication of the future, it’s clear that without a union fast food workers won’t see their paychecks changing any time soon.

For FSRN and The Real News, Jessica Desvarieux, Washington.