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The SEIU’s Odd Recipe for Unionizing Fast Food

It wants the big restaurant chains to pressure their franchisees to allow unions

The Service Employees International Union, one of the nation’s largest labor groups, is battling to organize America’s fast-food workers. Since 2012 the union has spent more than $25 million on a campaign that’s included backing lawsuits over alleged unpaid wages and racially motivated firings, promoting legislation to change the franchise system, and occasionally mounting attention-grabbing strikes. The goal is to put so much pressure on companies like Wendy’s, Burger King, and especially industry leader McDonald’s that they agree to raise pay and embrace unionization. There’s only one problem: Almost all the people SEIU wants to organize aren’t directly employed by the fast-food giants they’ve gone to war against.

Instead, the big chains contract out the management of most stores to thousands of small franchisees, legally distinct companies that hire the workers, run the business, and pass a cut of their sales back to headquarters. Most people flipping burgers under the Golden Arches don’t get McDonald’s paychecks, and even fewer will in the future, since Chief Executive Officer Steve Easterbrook’s turnaround strategy for the chain includes increasing the global share of its franchised stores to 90 percent, from 81 percent now.