Big Labor’s Fast Food Unionization Strategy Unfolds

Ryan Williams Senior Advisor, Worker Center Watch
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Unions have belied the true intentions of their protests against the fast food industry using terms like “dignity,” “respect,” and “$15 an hour.” Responding to questions last year on whether the fast food campaign was a desperate attempt to reverse plummeting membership numbers, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry said: “This is not about growing unions. This is about our nation respecting the value of work again.”

This week the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (a former union official) determined that McDonald’s Corporation and its franchisees could be held as joint-employers of workers at franchised locations. The NLRB decision sent shockwaves across the franchise industry, suddenly casting into doubt decades of legal precedent that clearly defines the distinct entities.

In the wake of this pro-SEIU decision, union activists including Fast Food Forward campaign director, Kendall Fells, hedged on the SEIU’s real motives. In Fells’ words, “We’re not convinced that we want to have elections at these stores, we’re not convinced we want to have a card check.”

Not all union allies are playing as coy as Fells. Wilma Liebman, a former chairwoman of the Obama National Labor Relations Board and now consultant to the SEIU, told the New York Times that “the decision could give fast-food workers and labor unions leverage to get the company to negotiate about steps that would make it easier to organize McDonald’s restaurants.”  In truth, that’s what the SEIU’s public affairs assault over the past year, and all the piles of lawsuits, unfair labor practice complaints and regulatory actions, have been about — gaining leverage.

One reason the SEIU has hidden its real motive is that its unionization campaign has been conducted outside the established parameters of the National Labor Relations Act and the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act. While pretending not to be engaged in a full-out union organizing drive, the SEIU has funded non-profit worker centers to do and say things that unions can’t. This strategy should be transparent enough but the agency tasked with calling the SEIU’s bluff, the National Labor Relations Board, is a complicit ally in their ongoing stealth unionization effort.

What should leave little doubt that the NLRB’s decision is, in fact, just another phase in an organizing campaign is that the SEIU has had proven success using this legal strategy in other organizing drives. In the Pittsburgh Justice for Janitors campaign, the SEIU won a crucial ruling that determined a building owner and a subcontractor who performed janitorial services in the building were co-employers. The ruling allowed the union to pressure the owner to settle a contract on more favorable terms and, more importantly, allowed the union to replicate the tactic against building owners in other cities.

Unions aren’t inherently bad. If workers want to join a union, they can. Protections are codified in law that allow for workers to do just that. What’s taking place now, however, is not an open dialogue about the pros and cons of fast food workers unionizing. The SEIU is not being an honest and straightforward actor. It’s using every tool at its disposal to mask its intentions and subvert protections put in place to ensure workers can thoughtfully make a decision on whether or not to unionize.

Unfortunately, the agency tasked with ensuring the SEIU is playing by the rules is actively rewriting or simply ignoring those rules to assist the SEIU. With the force of a friendly federal agency behind it, the SEIU’s campaign to organize food restaurants will certainly continue. And with each NLRB assist, it becomes easier for Mary Kay Henry to achieve the outcome she is pretending not to seek — unionization in the fast food sector.

Ryan Williams is a senior adviser to Worker Center Watch and a former spokesman for Governors Romney and Sununu.