Skip to content
Subscriber Only
Business
Pursuits

Fast-Food Workers of the World, Unite!

The fastest-growing service union in the U.S. takes on the industry
Demonstrators rally for better wages outside a McDonald’s restaurant in New York, as part of a national protest on Dec. 5
Demonstrators rally for better wages outside a McDonald’s restaurant in New York, as part of a national protest on Dec. 5Photograph by Richard Drew/AP Photo

The campaign by fast-food workers to raise the industry’s minimum wage to $15 an hour and unionize has gathered momentum so quickly it has surprised even some of the organizers at the Service Employees International Union, which is underwriting it. A year ago, a group of workers protested at dozens of restaurants in New York. On Dec. 5, workers were expected to rally in about 100 cities.

The prospects for unionizing an industry with about 200,000 restaurants, most owned by franchisees, and workers who don’t stay in their jobs for long remain daunting. “Attention is oxygen for these groups, and they’ve been very good at getting attention. But that’s very different from getting collective bargaining rights,” says Ruth Milkman, a labor expert at the City University of New York who supports the drive. The SEIU says workers aren’t organizing the traditional way—restaurant by restaurant, vote by vote—and they don’t yet know what their union would look like. “It’s not predetermined what form this will take,” says Mary Kay Henry, SEIU’s president. “We would be creating something new.”