Nov 19, 2015 - 3:45pm

SEIU Fast Food Protests Not Quite as Advertised

Senior Vice President, Employment Policy Division


November 10 was yet another “day of action” for the so-called “Fight for $15” movement, with the group claiming workers would actually strike in 270 cities and protest in 500.  Media outlets called it the largest fast food strike ever, with “tens of thousands” participating.  Social media was abuzz, and the first question in the Republican presidential debate was actually about a $15 minimum wage. 

Yet the reality behind the headlines was far less dramatic.  The protests simply weren’t all they were cracked up to be.  Moreover, the day’s activities failed to bring the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which funds and staffs the Fight for $15 protests, any closer to its goal of unionizing the fast food industry.

A few news outlets caught on.  For example, an article by Reuters wrote:  “But Lisa McComb, a spokeswoman for McDonald's, said that only 'a handful' of its employees took part in protests she called 'staged events,'and only three walked off their jobs." Reuters noted that in the nation’s second largest metropolis only “hundreds” of people showed up, not exactly the “gigantic” protest described by Fight for $15 on its website. 

In New York City, both SEIU President Mary Kay Henry and Mayor Bill DeBlasio led a rally to bring out the crowds.  Yet it was similarly reported that just “hundreds” of protestors were on hand — in a city whose population exceeds 8.4 million.

And those were the big protests.  Other locations saw considerably less activity.  The Detroit Free Press described a moderate crowd protesting in the Motor City; NBC Chicago said “more than 100” people were demonstrating at a McDonald’s; and Fox 8 in Cleveland wrote that “several” area workers protested outside city hall.  Putting an exclamation point on the day, a Dallas news outlet wrote laconically:  “Campaign workers said no protests were planned for North Texas, however some workers from here may have gone to a protest in Houston.”

This is not to say the “day of action” wasn’t a valiant effort — it’s hard to turn out a couple of hundred people, even in a large city.  But it’s not just that the crowds weren’t as advertised.  In some cities there were no crowds at all.  Fight for $15’s own website features photos from protests in less than 50 cities, far short of 270 (let alone 500), and it would be a stretch to call any of those gatherings “gigantic.”  Previous Fight for $15 protests have been no different, with grandiose predictions followed by lackluster results and alleged “strikers” consisting largely of SEIU members and activists.  One wonders for how long journalists will continue to take Fight for $15 press releases at face value.  

Moreover, few have reported on the significant fact that after pouring at least $30 million into these protests, the SEIU has not managed to unionize a single fast food worker.  Indeed, the anxiety over this point was palpable on November 10 with SEIU organizers stressing that in the phrase “$15 and a union,” the second demand should be emphasized.

To be fair, Henry seems genuinely gratified by enactment of a $15 minimum wage in a few jurisdictions, even with the lack of corresponding organizing gains.  But no matter how much it claims to be motivated by altruism, the SEIU is still a business that must make revenues match expenses, and the massive investments it has made in the Fight for $15 can’t be sustained forever without generating a return.

The bottom line is that despite capturing the attention of the media, the SEIU’s fast food protests have had a minimal presence in most cities, motivated few workers to actually go on strike, and cost tens of millions of dollars in members’ dues money.  If reporters start to catch on, the coverage of the next “day of action” might have a different flavor.

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About the Author

Glenn Spencer Headshot
Senior Vice President, Employment Policy Division

Glenn Spencer is senior vice president of the Employment Policy division at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.