Apr 14, 2016 - 10:30am

Unions Not Wages the Priority in Fast Food ‘Strikes’


Senior Vice President, Employment Policy Division

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Pro-union signs lay in the street before the start of a "Fight for $15" rally in New York.
Pro-union signs lay in the street before the start of a "Fight for $15" rally in New York. Photo credit: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg.

There’s an old expression that says “you can’t judge a book by its cover.”  The veracity of that statement will be on full display when protestors claiming to be striking fast food workers take to the streets on April 14. 

The protests are allegedly led by a group calling itself “Fight for $15,” as in a $15 an hour minimum wage.  But look a little closer, and one finds that rather than being a grassroots uprising of workers who have walked out on strike, the protestors are, in reality, a front for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which organizes, funds, and initiates these demonstrations.  And rather than being about the minimum wage, the protests are actually intended to further the SEIU’s campaign to unionize the fast food industry.  The protestors’ slogan is “$15 and a Union,” and the primacy of the second demand is highlighted by the fact that the SEIU has already poured more than $55 million of dues payers’ money into the effort. 

This isn’t usually the story that gets picked up by the media.  That may be because the SEIU and its front group run a sophisticated press operation.  Last year, for example, the union spent $1.7 million on a public relations firm to promote its narrative about the fast food protests.  Correspondingly, press accounts invariably repeat Fight for $15’s claim that thousands of workers are going on strike across hundreds of cities. 

What has actually occurred in past protests, and what will likely be the case on April 14, is that in only a few major cities, such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, will there be more than a handful of demonstrators.  Few, if any, workers will actually be on strike.  And at the end of the day, no fast food workers will have joined the SEIU, an organization that lost over 5,800 members last year.  

Perhaps workers are reluctant because they have noticed that when it negotiates its own contracts, the SEIU isn’t quite so insistent upon getting $15 an hour. In fact, some SEIU collective bargaining agreements include pay as low as $9.75 per hour — what the union publicly refers to as a “poverty wage.”  This might seem a bit hypocritical, unless unionization is more of a priority than wages.

While the SEIU hasn’t gotten its way in terms of recruiting new dues payers from fast food workers, the Fight for $15 protests have been credited with prodding state legislatures in New York and California to raise their statewide minimum wage to $15 an hour. But this is an achievement some workers might come to regret.  As reported in the New York Times, even economists typically sympathetic to a higher minimum wage have raised concerns that an increase to $15 an hour will result in “a potential loss of jobs in a number of cities.”   

Certainly the potential harm shouldn’t be news to Fight for $15.  On its own web site, the group features an economic study from Cornell University that reaches the following conclusion:  “Much larger increases, like the $15 minimum wage recently enacted in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle and contemplated elsewhere (including New York), may have more substantial negative effects[.]”

That conclusion certainly won’t appear on any banners or T-shirts when Fight for $15 protestors show up outside fast food restaurants.  But if unionization, not wages, is your real goal, the economic consequences don’t matter quite so much.  Anyone witnessing Fight for $15’s shenanigans on April 14 should keep that in mind.

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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.