Today’s fast-food strike reveals big labor’s decline — and desperation

Casey Given | Editor, Young Voices

Today, thousands of fast food workers in over 100 cities across America are striking to demand a so-called “living wage” of $15 an hour. While most of the commentary leading up to the strike has focused on the feasibility of demonstrators’ demands, not much has been said about who exactly the picketers are. When taking a closer look, it’s clear that today’s strike is unlike most seen throughout American history but rather is a new move from Big Labor’s playbook.

Typically in the course of labor relations, strikes are organized after a company’s management and union reaches an impasse in collective bargaining. A union demands better wages or working conditions, and, if its company cannot accommodate its request, the unions’ members go on strike until an agreement is reached. Today’s protest, however, follows none of these standards. In fact, it’s not even being organized by a union, but rather a vast network of nonprofit organizations bankrolled by Big Labor and operating free from bargaining regulations.

They’re called “worker centers,” and they’re becoming an increasingly favored way for unions to skirt the procedural inconveniences of operating democratically to more directly push their agenda. Today’s strike is primarily being organized by a New York City-based group called Fast Food Forward, amusingly located in ACORN’s old Brooklyn office along with New York Communities for Change. The latter group functions as a funnel for unions like the SEIU and AFL-CIO to pipe money toward undisclosed labor activities. Last year alone, New York Communities for Change received $2.5 million from the SEIU and nearly half a million from the AFL-CIO.

Fast Food Forward is not an isolated example. It’s just one of dozens of these shell organizations scattered across America. Today’s strike in Chicago, for example, is being organized by Action Now, a group that has received over $5 million from the SEIU in 2012.

Not only can worker centers be found in every corner of the country, but every sector of the economy too. There’s Hotel Workers Rising funded by UNITE-HERE, the Retail Action Project by UFCW, Working America by AFL-CIO, the Restaurant Opportunities Center by UNITE-HERE, and OUR Walmart by UFCW to name a few. You may already be familiar with that last organization if you cut through a picket line to do your Black Friday shopping last week. OUR Walmart organized rallies at over 1,500 stores across the country, leading to at least 111 arrests.

Note that the target demographics of most of these worker centers are largely not unionized, like the food services industry. With private sector union membership at a historic low of 6.6 percent, Big Labor is using union centers as a last-ditch effort to save itself by adding more dues payers to its roles. If they are successful, most personal service industries will be unionized in a few years’ time, from your local Walmart to McDonalds.

Unfortunately for American workers, Big Labor’s new blitz may backfire by leading to mass layoffs. A living wage of $15 per hour could more than double many companies’ labor costs considering the current federal minimum wage is $7.25. Basic economics dictates that maximum employment can only be achieved by allowing market forces to pay workers what their labor is actually worth instead of wages being artificially imposed by the government.

Indeed, the future of worker centers is even more uncertain considering their legally ambiguous status. As Stefan Marculewicz and Jennifer Thomas argue in an October 2012 Federalist Society article, one 1959 law may subject the centers to the same federal regulations as unions. The Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act requires “any organization … which exists for the purpose, in whole or in part, in dealing with employers concerning grievances, labor disputes, wages, rates of pay, hours of employment, or conditions of work” to relate their finances and activities to the federal government. Such a broad statute is begging for a legal challenge, and it will take one wily union lawyer to argue worker centers don’t fit its definition.

But for now, Big Labor’s new concoction is just being tested. As millions of Americans drive through their local fast food joints today congested by picketers, they are picking up a glimpse of labor history along with their Big Mac. Only time will tell what worker centers will cook up next.

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