The story behind America's fast food worker uprising
By Arun Gupta / theguardian.com

The unions, especially the SEIU, are backing this campaign for $15 wages. Some worry the workers are being used like pawns

 

The sight one year ago of scores of fast-food workers walking off their jobs and marching through the streets of New York City demanding $15 an hour was like a defibrillator to a dying American labor movement. If poverty-wage workers demanding that the federal minimum wage be doubled and they be allowed to unionize free of retaliation could win against fast-food giants like McDonald's, KFC and Subway, then unions might finally begin to reverse a 60-year-long decline that's seen its share of the private sector workforce plunge from 35% percent to 6.6%.

The top 10 employers in fast food alone account for 2.3m US jobs (pdf). Add in discount retailers, drug stores, clerking and material moving, and the number of workers soars to the tens of millions. The growth of part-time low-wage jobs has become a battering ram against the last citadels of unionism in heavy industry and the public sector, crushing wages, benefits, and workplace rights. That's led organized labor to make a stand with organizing drives such as OUR WalmartDomestic Workers UnitedWarehouse Workers for Justice and the fast-food worker campaign commonly known as "Fight for 15".

Unlike the other campaigns, however, it was unclear who organized the November 2012 walkout in New York and repeated one-day strikes this year in cities like Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Seattle. Various news reports portray Fight for 15 as abottom-up effort in which community groups canvassing workers in Chicago and New York found low wages was the chief concern, so they reached out to unions for organizing help. But word was the 2.1 million-member Service Employees International Union was providing the know-how and money. For their part, SEIU leaders claim they're more servant than shepherd of fast-food workers, saying, "We don't yet understand the scale of it … [we're] amazed at the degree to which it spread."

In reality, a months-long investigation published today by In These Times, a Chicago-based magazine, indicates SEIU has been directing the campaign since early 2012 as part of its plan to pressure the biggest fast-food companies to strike deals to unionize workers and increase their wages.

Interviews with 40 low-wage workers, labor organizers, SEIU officials, media strategists, and analysts reveal that behind the scenes, there is widespread unease with how the campaign has developed. Workers and organizers are troubled by what they say is a lack of respect for workers, resistance to worker control, a rubberstamp decision-making process, and the overall direction of the campaign.

Insiders say that's why SEIU is trying to downplay its role. "Brooke", a former organizer in Chicago, says SEIU leaders tell the media Fight for 15 is "spontaneous [and] the workers came to us" because they want "to get people to stop asking questions". (All the workers and organizers asked to remain anonymous out of concern of harming job prospects or relationships within the organizing campaign.)

"Carlos", a former organizer on the New York City campaign, says he suspects SEIU is being coy because its "name has a lot of baggage, so they don't want it out there. They want to funnel it through smaller organizations so it looks like more of a grassroots effort". Labor reporter David Moberg describes that SEIU baggage as "coziness with big employers, limits on internal democracy, [and] excessive deference to Democratic party leaders".

There is one question in particular SEIU is probably not keen to address: is Fight for 15 about organizing a long-term social movement of low-wage workers or is it a "march on the media"? Workers and organizers across the country emphasize that they back the campaign for providing space for workers to build solidarity, share knowledge and assist shop-floor organizing. But they add that SEIU is pouring resources into a PR and legal strategy that they consider dubious and which comes at the expense of building a militant workers movement within the fast-food industry.

"Rose" works with an SEIU-backed drive focused on fast-food workers in federal buildings like the Smithsonian in Washington. She says organizers are mainly "training [workers] as spokespeople, gearing them up for these one-day strikes and training them to appear on camera, and return to work without any follow-up for a unionizing effort". Rose charges that "propping them up as media spokespeople without guaranteeing any sort of long-term protection … is very irresponsible and very hypocritical" as it puts them at risk of retaliation from their managers.

According to sources and internal SEIU documents obtained by In These Times, the union does try to protect striking workers by having community leaders and elected officials accompany them back to their jobs the day after a strike. "Jason", a worker in Chicago, says in the event workers are fired for union activity, which is illegal, SEIU vigorously defends them by picketing the employer and filing unfair labor practices. However, the preoccupation with the media undermines this aspect of organizing as well. Jason says at least in Chicago the union has not helped workers develop skills to prevent retaliation as

The strategy is to wait until [bosses] actually fire you because they can get more publicity. But it's easier to keep your job instead of fighting to get it back.

Some observers say this is a result of fast-food organizers being pressured to "instrumentalize their relationship with workers" by having to meet quotas for workers to sign petitions, attend meetings, fill out union cards, and go on strike. Workers say this can discourage involvement as it leaves little space for worker input or control. "Victor", a fast-food worker in Seattle, says at meetings organizers go around the crowd, get them "amped-up" and have them rubber-stamp "some decisions that are already made". Victor says, "It feels like there's not very much respect being paid toward the workers and it feels childish."

A sore point for workers is strike "votes". At a national convention of fast-food workers held in Detroit in mid-August the decision was made to launch a one-day walkout across the country on 29 August. Workers who attended say their input was limited to being presented with a prepared statement to endorse when they showed up at the hotel after a day of travel. "Sam", a worker from Chicago, says:

If it's been decided at some level that there will be an action on a given day, then it's going to happen. It's just a question of going through the motions of getting people to come to the decisions that they want them to.



At the same time, workers in Chicago say union organizers were responsive to demands for more input, resources and control. Sam says, "At the shop level we control the messaging, we control the tactics, we decide what we want to organize around, we motivate the strikers." Jason says workers now have a newsletter to help "tighten organization between the stores". There's a women's caucus where women strategize about "sexual harassment at work and unsupportive husbands who don't want them to be involved", and workers also discuss how managers use racial discrimination to divide and control workers.

Outside of Chicago, however, there's little evidence of worker-to-worker organizing. In Seattle and Washington, sources say active workers number a dozen or less, about the same as the number of paid organizers.

Workers' main concern right now is that SEIU's strategy will leave them out in the cold. It appears that SEIU is pursuing several strategies simultaneously. One effort is living-wage laws in Seattle, Milwaukee and Washington. Two sources say SEIU is also supporting fast-food worker centers – workplace advocacy organizations that are not formal unions – such as a new branch of Restaurant Opportunities Center United in Seattle.

But SEIU also has a comprehensive national plan centered on the two public demands of $15-an-hour pay and the right to unionize free of intimidation. If successful, the multi-stage strategy would allow SEIU to secure collective bargaining agreements and gain thousands of new union members. One SEIU official admits this is a primary concern because "the money going into this is a gamble. These workers aren't paying dues; they're not financing this right now".

SEIU's first step is to challenge the legal distinction between a corporation and its individual franchises. Take McDonald's: Ninety percent of its 14,000 U.S. restaurants are franchises and are solely responsible for employees, but the corporate parent micromanages key aspects of the business—menus, promotions, insurance, software, advertising, cleaning and so on. Based on this, SEIU aims to hold corporations liable for their franchises' actions.

Second, SEIU is compiling data about wage theft in the fast-food sector. Sam says researchers come to worker meetings and state: "If your register is short and that difference comes out of your paycheck, come talk to us. … If you get your paycheck on a debit card and there are fees associated with it, come talk to us." In May, Fast Food Forward, the New York chapter of the fast-food organizing campaign, released a survey finding that 84 percent of 500 fast-food workers reported at least one form of wage theft.

SEIU's third planned step is to use legal liability for wage theft to pressure fast-food companies into accepting "neutrality agreements" that allow employees to unionize without management interference. Finally, insiders say SEIU hopes to enlist unions in other countries to mount protests and possibly use pension funds to pressure fast-food chains with global operations, which is they it's focusing on corporations with extensive overseas operations.

Jason, however, calls this "a strategy for failure". He says even a prominent company like McDonald's has little to fear from a PR campaign as their customers who consume burgers of unknown origin are less interested in the conditions of workers slapping them together.

In an email, one long-time SEIU staffer summed up the ambivalent feelings toward the campaign, enthused by a new generation of labor organizers, while fretting about the union's checkered record. "SEIU still does not have a clear picture of what to do with Fight for 15, where to take it. Some staffing here is frustrated with the very heavy and somewhat manipulative 'media moment' approach that ignores the voices and the democracy [and] development of the natural shop floor leaders who have emerged. How to begin a bottom up process is a big challenge, especially as the SEIU leadership is not fixed on that as a goal at all. … Retreat is very possible, leaving militant organizers high and dry."

• For the full report, go to In These Times.

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The story behind America's fast food worker uprising