Fighting for $15—and a Union

(AP Photo/Craig Ruttle, File)

Protesters rally outside a McDonald's in Times Square on April 15, 2015.

A wave of fast-food worker protests and strikes, led by the Fight for $15, unfolded across the country two weeks ago. But more than just fighting for a raise, the movement has an additional goal, though their name doesn’t suggest it: winning unions. Specifically, getting unions at low-wage employers; the recent protests targeted fast-food giants like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King.

At the beginning of the month, the Fight for $15 hosted a week of actions in the Midwest explicitly focused on demanding union rights, which led to about 100 arrests of workers as well as allied elected officials. Workers went on strike in Detroit and Flint, Michigan, on Tuesday, October 2, and workers in Milwaukee shut down a McDonald’s during the lunch hour on October 3 and then marched to the interstate, closing lanes. On Thursday, October 4, more than 1,000 workers descended upon McDonald’s headquarters in Chicago.

“I do think we’re closer to the union—we saw in this past week of action [that] the demand for a union is becoming as loud as the demand for $15,” says Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President Mary Kay Henry. “We believe union wins can escalate just like [they did] for $15.”

When cashiers and cooks walk off their jobs at just a fraction of the outlets of massive chain restaurants, corporate profits are unlikely to be affected, especially as Fight for $15 strikes tend to be one-day events—more intended to heighten public awareness of the low wages their employer pays and to boost worker confidence in their ability to affect public opinion, than to punish the chains by reducing their profits.

“They’re political strikes. They’re demonstration strikes,” explains Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian and professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “They’re designed to shift public opinion and name and shame management.” This strategy is what helped the Fight for $15 win wage increases, which will eventually reach at least $15 across states (California, Massachusetts, and New York) and local jurisdictions (Washington, D.C., Seattle, and San Francisco). In jurisdictions such as those, the movement “forced the political establishment to address the [wage inequality] crisis,” wrote Jonathan Rosenblum in Labor Studies Journal. By 2016, the Democratic Party had adopted the $15 wage as a part of its official platform.

The Fight for $15 has also engendered some criticism of the limitations of this strategy. “[O]ne-day work stoppages offer an aspirational token of what’s possible,” Michelle Chen wrote in Dissent in 2016, “but the spectacle can’t substitute for an enduring rank-and-file operation that can rise up to disrupt the industry when necessary.”

Most immediately, unions are necessary to ensure that a wage increase, for instance, isn’t accompanied by a reduction in hours. McDonald’s worker Jamal Tabar told Dissent that though $15 is a win, “[W]ithout a union I don’t think it’s gonna stand strong. We don’t have a real backbone, because with these corporations and these companies—they can basically delegate how they’re gonna give you hours and cut your hours. … With a union, that helps.”

With wage successes under their belt, Fight for $15 has moved on to the union question. But can the strategy of “political” and “demonstration” strikes yield successes in winning unions? Much more than wage increases, winning the union will be an uphill battle.

Companies “from Amazon to McDonald’s are willing, with a certain amount of pressure and given the labor market, to give wage increases,” says Lichtenstein. “But unionism—from the point of view of management—is a far more serious constraint on their operations.” The very labor model of the service sector, whether in fast food, retail, or the like, often is premised on making employees work irregular schedules with unpredictable hours. Lichtenstein points out that these aspects of service-sector work, which result in inconsistent wages and difficulty in scheduling necessities like child care, are already major grievances of service-sector workers, and thus would be a main concern of their would-be unions.

And while wage increases can be instituted by progressive elected officials—this is where public and worker outrage comes in handy—it’s more difficult to get corporations to recognize unions. While the Obama-era National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that the McDonald’s corporation has joint liability with its franchises, the Trump NLRB recently reversed the ruling, making it more difficult to make corporations take responsibility for the actions of their franchisees. McDonald’s can argue that it cannot control working conditions at its franchises (it has made this argument concerning wage increases as well).

Indeed, some corporations may raise the wage to $15 in an effort to stymie unionization efforts. That may well be the case with Amazon, which recently succumbed to public pressure to raise its minimum wage to $15, while at the same time distributing a union-busting instructional video to managers at Whole Foods, which Amazon owns.

Today, however, the use of the strike tactic is escalating—often with public support. Shaun Richman, program director of the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. Center for Labor Studies at SUNY Empire State College, wrote in In These Times that 2018 has seen a considerably higher number of strikes compared with recent years. “Strikes are once again a strategic option for some unions—and that could become contagious,” he wrote.

Public support for unions is increasing, too. According to a Gallup poll released in August, 62 percent of Americans approve of labor unions—the highest level since 2003.

Lichtenstein points to the success of Fight for $15 in shifting how Americans view a living wage, and adds, “maybe you can say that insofar as SEIU is now going to push on unionism they’ll be able to alter the discourse. The typical [Democratic politician] will make the right statements on unions but they don’t make it an issue. Maybe SEIU could be successful in [pushing to get] trade unionism at the level of, say, abortion rights or gun control—those hot-button issues for Democrats,” he muses. Were that the case, he adds, there would be no way that anti-union Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz could plausibly run for president as a Democrat—a trial balloon that Schultz recently floated.

At the urging of workers, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a not-so-typical politician, took to pressuring Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to raise wages. Sanders has done that again with McDonald’s. The senator recently sent a letter to the McDonald’s corporation demanding that they raise the lowest wage they pay to $15 per hour—and allow their workers to unionize.

"If McDonald's raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour and respected the constitutional rights of your workers to form a union, it would set an example for the entire fast food industry to follow," Sanders wrote to McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook.

Another way that McDonald’s could, as Sanders said, “set an example,” is by setting a national bargaining table where wages could be bargained for the entire sector—a wage board. “We want to invoke wage boards in as many cities and states as we possibly can,” says Henry, describing wage boards as “stepping stone[s] to get a seat at the table to get a collective-bargaining agreement.”

A fast-food wage board is exactly how the $15 wage was set in New York City, after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo convened a wage board to “investigate and make recommendations on an increase in the minimum wage in the fast food industry.”

A similar wage board, says Henry, could also be created for sectors like retail or home health care. But wage boards are exceedingly rare in the United States; their creation would require a fundamental shift in American labor thinking, as the Prospect has reported. In themselves, they would also do little to help workers win unions. But if a wage board could take care of issues like the minimum wage, unions could attempt to organize companies that knew going union wouldn’t put them at a labor-cost disadvantage with their competitors.

Winning a union at corporations like McDonald’s will remain extremely difficult. But if strikes keep coming and union approval keeps rising, the odds could shift more in workers’ favor. “I do think you can change public discourse. The right wing has certainly shown you can move things to the right really fast … and [Sanders] has shown you can move it in the other direction,” Lichtenstein says. “You just need aggressive formations to make that happen.”

Perhaps the Fight for $15, with its heightened focus on unionization, will be the centerpiece of that formation.

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