The SEIU's efforts to mobilize at McDonald's

DETROIT, Mich. -- This past weekend, the walls of Cobo Center on the Detroit River reverberated with more than the usual amount of cheers and chants, endlessly repeating a two-pronged demand: A minimum wage more than double the level of the federal baseline, and a labor union for the fast food industry.

"We work, we sweat, put $15 on our check hey hey we work, we sweat, for $15 on our check hey hey!" shouted scores of people dancing and clapping on-stage, as the crowd of hundreds in the ballroom before them joined hesitatingly, and then enthusiastically. Moments of silence with fists raised punctuated speeches and more hype sessions, as contingents of mostly black and hispanic low-wage workers from different cities sought to out-cheer each other.

"Kansas City in the hooouuuse!" "Raise up Greensboro!" "Where you at Oakland!" Young people got on chairs and beat on tables, with chants erupting spontaneously from all corners of the cavernous room.

It was the second convention put on by the massive Service Employees International Union for the "Fight for $15," a three-year-old series of protests and walkouts aimed at raising the minimum wage in cities and states. The union has poured tens of millions of dollars into the campaign, and since last year's gathering in Chicago, it's shown a lot of progress.

A $15 minimum wage, which once seemed outrageously high, actually passed in San Francisco and Los Angeles, following Seattle. Legislation on the federal level has pushed the minimum from $10.10 to $12. Chicago decided to go up to $13. Just recently, $15 proposals have surfaced in St. Louis and Kansas City. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has specifically instructed a wage board to examine how much fast food workers should be paid. And on Sunday, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton made a surprise call in to the convention to voice her full-throated support.

Despite so much movement on the wage front, however, for the other part of the workers' demand -- the full slogan is "$15 and a union" -- the path appears much less clear. As far as the campaign is aware, fast food workers haven't actually tried for union elections at any of their employers. For them, a "union" means something different from the strict work rules and grievance processes common to organized labor.

"A union is nothing more than workers standing united," explains Kendall Fells, organizing director for the Fight for $15. "The process is too small and the movement is too big. The process goes store by store, the movement has no boundaries, not by store, not by city, not by state. So all these workers standing together means 'I can win stuff, if I get fired I can get my job back.' "

And indeed, some fired workers have gotten their jobs back, or gotten their hours restored, or gotten their checks on time, after workers banded together. "In my store, we're already a union, not by paper, but by feelings and emotions," says Skillet Johnson, 21, a McDonald's worker in St. Louis.

It is an open question, though, whether that kind of organic power can sustain itself without the kind of financial backing that the SEIU's 2 million members have been providing to the movement. It's hard to generate a revenue stream without a formal union, and right now, fast food workers are still a long way away from getting one.


Of all industries, the fast food industry has been among the most difficult for labor to crack. McDonald's, for example, is built to be union-proof: Since it's made up of lots of little workplaces, the work of organizing is grinding and expensive.

So instead of having elections in individual restaurants, the SEIU started filing complaints with the National Labor Relations Board every time franchisees retaliated against workers for organizing at McDonald's, naming the company as a "joint employer" with its franchisees. Last December, the NLRB's general counsel decided to group all those cases together as a test for whether McDonald's should in fact be liable for the actions of its franchisees.

If the SEIU prevails, McDonald's could count as a single employer for the purposes of a union election, potentially allowing its workers to take one nationwide vote rather than thousands of individual ones. The franchising industry worries that could undermine the business model.

"What SEIU doesn't want people to understand is that you need employers before you can have employees," says Matt Haller, a spokesman for the International Franchise Association. "Unfortunately for these workers, the union wants to get rid of the small local franchise business owners who employ the vast majority of potential new members they seek to represent."

SEIU president Mary Kay Henry thinks that it won't necessarily come to that. In some countries, like Denmark and New Zealand, the largest fast food companies already bargain with powerful unions over issues like wages and scheduling. She thinks unionization in the U.S. fast food industry would require a similar step change -- similar to how the United Auto Workers have a system of "pattern bargaining" that allows it to set the same wage standard with Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler.

"When the fast food workers make this breakthrough, we will introduce to the United States a form of organization that is as powerful as what the autoworkers birthed in the 1930s," Henry said in an interview. In the meantime, minimum wage hikes fueled by the non-union fast food workers' campaign is helping SEIU locals win wage increases for their own members.

Here's the catch: For the union drive to be successful, the corporate headquarters will have to decide to participate, Henry thinks. "What's essential is that McDonald's, Burger King or Wendy's makes a decision that instead of litigating whether workers can get a seat at the table, that they set a table that workers can join and collectively bargain."

And there's no sign yet of that happening.

• DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper.

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