For Protest Organizers, Fast-Food Unions Remain a Tall Order

Fast-food workers protest at a McDonald's restaurant on Fifth Avenue in New York on Aug. 29 Photograph by Richard Drew/AP Photo

Fast-food workers are set to protest for higher wages again on Thursday. A year since the first in a series of multi-city protests began in New York, organizers have yet to engage in any formal discussions with corporations about increasing pay and forming unions. To organizers, results that appear like a disappointing standstill are framed as early stages of an industrywide movement.

The goal is to form fast-food unions for collective bargaining, according to Kendall Fells, a coordinator at Service Employees International Union (which provides support and funding for the protests) and an organizer for Fast Food Forward, a New York-based campaign for higher wages. With 3.9 million workers at quick-service restaurants, “it makes more sense for them to be in a union that is specifically created for fast-food workers,” Fells says.

Previous efforts to unionize fast-food workers did not get far. In 2004, a small group of Starbucks employees organized the Starbucks Workers Union through the Industrial Workers of the World, but Starbucks still doesn’t consider a single cafe to be represented by the IWW. Employees of a Jimmy John’s franchisee also tried to unionize as part of the IWW in 2010 but failed to get enough votes in a recognition election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board.

Employees could try to negotiate outside of a formal union, but this tends to be less effective. “At the end of day, you’re part of a collective bargaining group or not,” says Paul Millus, an attorney at Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein who specializes in employment law. “Employees could get together on an informal basis, but that doesn’t have much muscle. The muscle is with an established union with protected rights, then the employer has to bargain.”

All the more reason for organizers to devote so much energy to publicity-by-protest ahead of any unionization effort, as it remains unclear how much support the union cause enjoys among workers. This time around, however, an industrywide effort is being led by community leaders and minimum-wage activists as a way to broaden the issue beyond any one chain or franchise owner. ”They’re trying to strike and continue to grow until they have a massive movement around the country,” says Fells. The organizers even hired BerlinRosen—the public-relations and campaign-consulting firm that worked with Wal-Mart workers and New York Mayor-elect Bill De Blasio—at the start of the campaign last November “to expand capacity for outreach as the movement grew,” said Carter Wright, a spokesman for the SEIU.

To start a union, organizers must get at least 30 percent of a proposed “bargaining unit” to sign a petition asking for an NLRB-supervised union election, and the board then investigates whether a union would qualify and holds an election. If a majority votes to be represented by the union, and their vote is certified by the NLRB, then the company must enter into contract talks with the group.

What’s complicated in the fast-food world is that for many chains, the majority of units are independently operated by franchisees that set wages at their stores. Workers would likely have to organize unions franchisee by franchisee, rather than across an entire chain, says Millus. (SEIU’s Wright, meanwhile, says there are different models for workers doing the same work for different employers to be united in a common union.) Another issue is that many fast-food workers are part time, and Millus expects that employers will argue they don’t belong in the bargaining unit.

Still, Fells says the franchise model is no excuse for big, profitable corporations to stay out of the debate. “They have plenty of money at the top to funnel down to the bottom. I don’t know if it’s that the franchisees pay less royalties, or how the structure needs to be rejiggered so the franchise owners have enough money to pay the workers,” he says. “The change has to happen in the relationship between the corporation and the franchise owner. The corporation is the one who holds the big purse.”

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