How did the biggest-ever mobilization of fast-food workers come about, and what is its endgame?
by Arun Gupta In These Times November 11, 2013
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU)-backed campaign to organize fast-food workers nationwide is on a roll. It’s entering its second year in the public eye, having staged four one-day strikes, culminating in a 60-city walkout on August 29. It’s a bold move by one of the nation’s largest unions to organize an unorganized private-sector workforce numbering in the millions.
The movement has no official name, though each city-level campaign has one: Fast Food Forward in New York, Raise Up MKE in Milwaukee, We Can’t Survive on $7.35 in St. Louis, Stand Up KC in Kansas City, and, in Chicago, Fight for 15 (which refers to a $15 minimum wage and has become the name most commonly used for the national campaign). The campaign has revived the use of the strike to build worker solidarity and employs a strategy of minority unionism, which aims to build a core of militant workers who can sidestep labor law that nowadays hinders worker organizing more than abuses by management. Most importantly, the fast-food organizing campaign has set in motion thousands of working poor, mainly African Americans and Latinos, who are acting collectively to better their lives. The campaign is generating excitement that a popular movement can finally go on the offensive against corporate power.
As the fast-food organizing campaign continues to build, Marco (not his real name), an SEIU organizer in the Midwest, says, “Workers are getting empowered, standing up to their bosses, and they’re not taking shit anymore. If managers do try to clamp down, they’re going to have 60 people march into their shop and disrupt their business. The creation of solidarity that’s happening is exciting.”
Why fast food, and why now? Simply put, it’s where a dying labor movement sees the most opportunity. Private-sector union density has plunged from its peak of 35 percent in the 1950s to only 6.6 percent now. One of the key factors in labor’s decline has been the growth of the non-unionized service sector, where low wages have become the norm and workers who try to organize often face retaliation. Workers in the fast-food industry, which employs more than 4 million Americans, earned an average of $8.72 an hour in 2010.
The fast-food organizing campaign is one of many efforts to organize the low-wage sector, along with OUR Walmart, warehouse worker and university adjunct campaigns, and the spread of worker centers. But it’s the one that has generated considerable media buzz and excitement among organized labor and progressives.
SEIU says its role has been more servant than shepherd. “It’s really a privilege for us to support” fast-food workers, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry told Salon’s Josh Eidelson in August. Henry portrayed the campaign as a surprise: “We don’t yet understand the scale of it,” she said, adding that she was “amazed at the degree to which it spread.”
So what exactly did set the movement off? And could its development serve as a model for future campaigns? To discover exactly how Fight for 15 began and grew and whether we can expect similar upsurges among other groups of workers, In These Times talked to 40 low-wage workers, labor organizers, reporters, historians, union officials and media strategists. All of the more than 20 organizers and workers who discussed their involvement requested to speak on background or be identified by pseudonyms, expressing fear of damaging either job prospects or relationships with others involved in the campaign. Based on these interviews and hundreds of pages of internal documents from the campaign, In These Times can offer the most detailed examination to date of how Fight for 15 originated, what its goals are, where it might be headed and who is making the decisions.
Nearly all of the low-wage workers and organizers involved in the campaign who spoke with In These Times expressed concerns about the campaign’s direction. They made clear they do support Fight for 15—often enthusiastically—for providing space for workers to build relationships, share knowledge and, in some cases, embark on shop-floor organizing. But many questioned whether Fight for 15 is fundamentally a worker organizing campaign or a “march on the media,” and many believe the endgame will be determined by an SEIU leadership that is not in contact with the daily realities of the campaign.
How the fight began
The tale being told in the media is one of a spontaneous, worker-led uprising. In New York and Chicago, the story goes, the movement was born in early 2012 after advocacy groups organizing in low-income communities kept hearing complaints about the difficulty of surviving on fast-food industry wages. According to Bloomberg News, “The advocacy group New York Communities for Change” (NYCC)—an offshoot of the now-defunct ACORN—“originally was trying to halt planned school closings in low-income neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Organizers shifted focus after hearing fast-food jobs were keeping local residents poor.”
The official story in Chicago is virtually the same as in New York. In April, Salon reported that Katelyn Johnson, executive director of Action Now, a local organizing group also formerly affiliated with ACORN, said the Chicago-based group “took a leadership role in organizing fast-food workers after discovering on door-to-door canvasses about [bus] fare hikes that ‘people were more concerned with their jobs.’”
But three former organizers in Chicago who joined the campaign in late 2011, and two former organizers with NYCC who began petitioning in March 2012, all dispute this story. All say that from the get-go, the stated goal was to organize low-wage or fast-food workers. All say they were told within weeks or months that SEIU was funding the organizing, and all say that it became increasingly clear that SEIU was directing the campaign.
Sidney (not his real name) says that when Action Now hired him in November 2011, it was to join a campaign to raise the minimum wage. For the first few weeks, organizers armed with postcards calling for a $10-an-hour state minimum wage prowled fast-food and retail joints in the Loop in downtown Chicago and gathered names, phone numbers, emails and home addresses to meet daily quotas. But when managers started kicking the organizers out of establishments because they were talking to workers about low wages, Action Now changed tactics, according to Sidney and Maria (not her real name). Maria, who was hired by Action Now in December 2011, says she and other organizers “started to brainstorm what can attract people’s attention … and everybody said, ‘Well you know a lot of these workers take public transportation.’ So we made it about public transportation and stopping the fare hikes.” There was some media speculation around hikes at the time, but no specific proposal on the table. According to Sidney, he and Action Now organizers came up with “a scenario where the CTA [Chicago Transit Authority] was raising the prices. … From then on, we started going around to the same establishments in the Loop and telling them the CTA was going to raise the prices two, three bucks.” The tactic worked, the organizers say: The petition met with less opposition from managers than the minimum-wage postcards.
Brooke (not his real name), who was hired by Action Now in December 2011, says that despite close supervision, organizing leaders denied they were in charge: “I was told, ‘It’s all about the workers. We have to leave it up to the workers.’ Then [SEIU leadership] tells the media, ‘It’s spontaneous; the workers came to us.’ It’s duplicitous. It’s to get people to stop asking questions.”
Maria, Brooke and Sidney say they soon learned that SEIU was bankrolling the project. Sidney says that early in the campaign, Action Now leaders were meeting with SEIU officials and saying they were trying to secure money. In December 2011, SEIU’s Washington, D.C. headquarters disbursed about $36,000 to Action Now for “Support for Organizing.” Sidney says that in January, Action Now leaders told them, “SEIU is funding this, they’re happy with the work you guys are doing, so we’re going to continue for at least six months.” On January 19, 2012, SEIU headquarters contributed $191,797 to Action Now, the first in a series of donations that would total more than $3 million by year’s end.
An SEIU staffer with knowledge of union politics in Chicago explains, “Action Now here is very closely connected to the largest SEIU local in the region—SEIU Healthcare Illinois/Indiana. They have a history of cooperative, overlapping campaigns.” Starting in its first full year of operation in 2008, Action Now has received $100,000 or more annually from the healthcare local.
As for who’s calling the shots, Carter Wright, a communications organizer with SEIU, describes a bottom-up process of a movement that “emerged after organizers in those groups found that there were way too many fast-food workers making way too little money in the areas they were canvassing. They worked with SEIU to develop a campaign to build a movement so those workers could fight for better pay.” He notes. “Members of SEIU have supported groups like NYCC, Action Now and their predecessors for a long time.”
In contrast, all three Chicago organizers say that by February, SEIU personnel were coming to their offices specifically to train them in union organizing. In other words, while SEIU maintains that Fight for 15 is a bottom-up project, the organizers who did the legwork concluded that SEIU funded and directed it from early on.
Full steam ahead
By early April 2012, organizers had gathered 20,000 contacts. Then, on June 6, the day after the anti-union Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker handily won a recall election, a supervisor walked into the Action Now office and told them it was full steam ahead with the fast-food campaign. In the previous week, SEIU headquarters had transferred more than $300,000 to Action Now. Brooke says organizers were given a rap sheet (also obtained by In These Times) and told to call petition signers and say, “We were successful in stopping the fare raise. When we were talking to you and other workers downtown we found a lot of other workers were talking about wages or lack of healthcare or lack of respect of managers. Do you have any problems like that? Would you like to meet and talk about it?”
Because of delays, the lists had grown stale. “It was hard to track down workers and talk to them, and when we did there was a lot of hesitation and fear,” Brooke says. “A lot of workers didn’t even remember signing the petition.”
In July, the first citywide meeting was held. After nearly eight months of work by more than a dozen organizers, at least $1.7 million spent by SEIU, and 20,000 contacts, Brooke says the meeting brought together “about six workers, who were all very afraid.”
Meanwhile, in New York City, SEIU headquarters started pouring money into NYCC in February 2012, outlaying more than $2.5 million by year’s end. Chris (not his real name) was hired by NYCC in early 2012 to organize fast-food workers and was dispatched to Manhattan to gather a daily quota of signatures on low-income-housing petitions. Similarly, another organizer, Carlos (not his real name), also says he was hired by NYCC in early 2012 to organize fast-food workers and spent months gathering names on petitions in favor of low-income housing and against police “stop and frisks.” Both were told SEIU was paying the bills behind the scenes. Carlos believes that “[SEIU’s] name has a lot of baggage, so they don’t want it out there. They want to funnel it through smaller organizations so it looks like more of a grassroots effort.”
In the summer, when organizers shifted to phoning workers about unionizing, Chris says he conducted a dozen one-on-one meetings with workers and “typically most workers were fearful. Most of them were not happy with their work situation, but they did not want to lose what they had.” He recalls that the first meeting in lower Manhattan in late August 2012 attracted about 30 workers, and at least two more meetings drew similar crowds before Nov. 29, 2012—the campaign’s first big strike.
Who’s calling the shots?
By early 2013, the second year of the organizing effort, the Chicago campaign was finally gaining momentum. Sam (not his real name), a cashier at a health-food store who was part of an informal committee organizing at two stores in his chain, says the Chicago Teachers Union strike in September 2012 opened space to discuss work-related issues with his coworkers, as did a strike the next month by warehouse workers just west of Chicago and the nationwide Black Friday strikes at Wal-Mart stores staged by the United Food and Commercial Workers-backed OUR Walmart campaign. These events, says Sam, “dramatically transformed” his conversations with coworkers from “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get something going?” to “If it could happen at McDonald’s and Wal-Mart, then it could happen here.”
Looking for assistance in early 2013, Sam and co-organizers started attending meetings of the Worker Organizing Committee of Chicago, which was formed in November 2012 to lead the Fight for 15 campaign.
Sam and his co-worker Jason (not his real name) say they initially found some tactics off-putting. The decision to stage the first low-wage worker walkout in Chicago on April 24, was made a few weeks in advance, at a meeting where New York workers were flown in to talk to the Chicago workers. After a rousing description of the New Yorkers’ experience walking off their jobs, Jason says, the Fight for 15 organizers asked, “‘Who wants to go on strike?’ Everyone cheered, and of course we want to go on strike after you just hear what they said. They called it a strike vote, but it wasn’t a vote in any meaningful way. They didn’t count [votes]; they didn’t say who is opposed to going on strike; there was no discussion.”
Sam says, “If it’s been decided at some level that there will be an action on a given day, then it’s going to happen. It’s just a question of going through the motions of getting people to come to the decisions that they want them to.” Marco describes a similar process in his city: “The organizers say, ‘All the other cities have decided to go on strike on this date, do you want to join them?’ And the workers are like, ‘Yeah!’ Do I think it’s ideal? No. But do I have any better ideas? No, and that’s the problem.”
The decision to conduct a nationwide strike on August 29 was made in a similar manner, at an SEIU-led convention in Detroit on August 15 to 16 that brought together about 700 low-wage workers, organizers and staff from around the country. Sam says that on the second day, an SEIU organizer got in front of the crowd and said,“We have this idea to do a national day of action, Chicago, what say you?” According to Sam, someone preselected by SEIU stood up and replied, “We in Chicago are ready to do a national day of action.” Sam says the process was repeated with the other cities.“There had been no discussion on it previously in any meaningful sense. The first time most people [from Chicago] had heard about it was on the bus to Detroit.” Two other workers confirm they had little say in the decision other than being asked to rubberstamp a prepared statement when they showed up in Detroit.
By the spring, strikes were staged in a different city every week, rolling through New York, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Washington, D.C., Seattle and Flint, Mich., and generating a national media buzz.
To help get out the word, SEIU is employing several communications consultants. Journalist Peter Rugh, who has been tracking the fast-food campaign since 2012, says that according to employees of New York-based company Purpose, which specializes in “21st-century movements,” the firm is helping with branding. In Washington, D.C., SEIU worked with M+R Strategic Services to coordinate an extensive social media effort around a May 2013 fast-food and low-wage worker strike.
Nationwide, sources say, SEIU has retained the aid of BerlinRosen. The communications firm declined to comment on the record, but Charles (not his real name), a Detroit organizer with knowledge of SEIU strategy, says his impression is that BerlinRosen is “helping in every spot” around the nation, and its work included “local communications, teamwork … advising on communication strategy, generating coverage.” He adds that, in addition to “showing strength to the workers [and] getting the community behind it,” the purpose of the campaign is generating a media buzz. In 2012, combined payments to BerlinRosen from SEIU Healthcare Illinois/Indiana and SEIU headquarters soared to $1.2 million, doubling from 2011 and tripling from 2010.
Why SEIU’s role is problematic
A few SEIU organizers voiced concerns to In These Times that airing criticisms of Fight for 15 would aid right-wing and anti-union forces trying to undermine the campaign. That may be true. But the criticisms are coming from workers and field organizers across the country who say they’re concerned that the top-down organizing may benefit SEIU leaders at the expense of the workers.
For instance, some workers say that while they welcome the spotlight, the glare can be damaging. Media generates public support, but also more pressure on organizers to turn out workers for high-profile actions. Some organizers worry that a lack of time for proper back-up or training may put workers at risk of employer retaliation.
In many instances, the fast-food campaign has vigorously defended workers against retaliatory firings by picketing the employer or filing unfair labor practices. But Jason criticizes Fight for 15 in Chicago for mounting strong defenses after a firing, but not helping workers develop skills to prevent retaliation in the first place. “The strategy is to wait until [bosses] actually fire you because they can get more publicity. But it’s easier to keep your job instead of fighting to get it back.” He believes that in general, the media emphasis undercuts shop floor organizing.
In Marco’s eyes, an SEIU action at a recent fast-food corporation shareholder meeting revealed another way that the media focus can disempower workers. He says, “I don’t like the fact that these people, the workers, are being used like pawns. Shuffle them in, shuffle them out, tell them what to say, what makes the best story for the media.”
Workers say developing solidarity and organizing and leadership skills would be more effective, as they would be able to act quickly when bosses retaliate at the job. “You can’t just call the union office and wait for someone to do something,” Jason says. “You have to be able to respond immediately and in a way that actually has power at work, and you have to have networks built with your coworkers to be able to do that.”
Chicago is one city where worker-led organizing is thriving. Sam says, “At the shop level we control the messaging, we control the tactics, we decide what we want to organize around, we motivate the strikers.” Following the April 24 strike, workers demanded a greater say in meetings. The next decision to strike, in mid-July, was a vote with a 30-minute discussion and a count of those for, against and abstaining. It passed overwhelmingly. “It represented a very big step forward in terms of the actual practices within the union,” says Jason. Now, up to 200 workers attend meetings in Chicago every other week. They have been given resources to publish a newsletter for workers to help “tighten organization between the stores.” There’s a women’s caucus where women can strategize about “sexual harassment at work and unsupportive husbands who don’t want them to be involved,” and workers can also discuss how managers use racial discrimination to divide and control workers.
Outside of Chicago, however, there’s little evidence of worker-to-worker organizing. In Seattle and Washington, D.C., sources say active workers number a dozen or less, about the same as the number of paid organizers.
Victor (not his real name) in Seattle says the campaign is faltering because workers are “babied at the meetings.” He says the process involves workers getting “amped-up” and “rubber-stamping some decisions that are already made,” which wears thin after the first meeting.
While optimistic about the campaign, one long-time SEIU staffer expresses reservations as well. “SEIU still does not have a clear picture of what to do with Fight for 15, where to take it. Some staffing here is frustrated with the very heavy and somewhat manipulative ‘media moment’ approach that ignores the voices and the democracy/development of the natural shop floor leaders who have emerged. How to begin a bottom up process is a big challenge, especially as the SEIU leadership is not fixed on that as a goal at all. … Retreat is very possible, leaving militant organizers high and dry.”
That retreat is a reference to SEIU’s troubled history, especially under the 1996-2010 presidency of Andy Stern. Many workers are wary of SEIU’s track record of “coziness with big employers, limits on internal democracy, [and] excessive deference to Democratic party leaders,” as In These Times staff writer David Moberg wrote in July 2012. Workers also fret about SEIU’s tendency to sign neutrality pacts that “surrendered basic worker rights” in return for new members, Moberg noted.
Sam speculates that when SEIU sees “a win, they’re going to focus on it narrowly.” He says, “Then the concern becomes: What about all the other workers who are now mobilized, who have organized themselves, but don’t necessarily fit into SEIU’s focus for a win?”
And what will that win be?
SEIU appears to be pursuing several strategies simultaneously. Campaigns in Seattle and Washington, D.C., have pushed for living-wage ordinances. SEIU seems also to be interested in supporting fast-food worker centers—workplace advocacy organizations that are not formal unions. Two sources say SEIU is helping to start a new branch of Restaurant Opportunities Center United in Seattle and is considering supporting ROC chapters in other cities.
But conversations with various SEIU sources—as well as statements from the leadership and developments in fast-food organizing around the country—indicate SEIU also has a comprehensive national plan in the works, centered on the two public demands of $15-an-hour pay and the right to unionize free of intimidation. If successful, the multi-stage strategy would allow SEIU to secure collective bargaining agreements and gain thousands of new union members.
The first step is to challenge the legal distinction between a corporation and its individual franchises. Take McDonald’s: Ninety percent of its 14,000 U.S. restaurants are franchises, but the corporate parent micromanages key aspects of the business—menus, promotions, insurance, software, advertising, cleaning and so on. At the same time, McDonald’s takes pains to spell out in contracts that it has “no implied employment relationship” with a franchisee or their workers. SEIU aims to hold corporations liable for their franchises’ actions.
Second, SEIU is pouring resources into compiling data about wage theft in the fast-food sector. Sam says researchers come to worker meetings and state: “If your register is short and that difference comes out of your paycheck, come talk to us. … If you get your paycheck on a debit card and there are fees associated with it, come talk to us.” In May, Fast Food Forward, the New York chapter of the fast-food organizing campaign, released a survey finding that 84 percent of 500 fast-food workers reported at least one form of wage theft.
The third planned step, organizers say, is for SEIU to use legal liability for wage theft to pressure fast-food companies into accepting “neutrality agreements” that allow employees to unionize without management interference. Fourth, SEIU plans to mount an international campaign by enlisting unions in other countries to pressure fast-food chains with global operations.
Though several SEIU insiders confirmed on background that this is SEIU’s overarching plan, SEIU spokesperson Carter Wright would not do so, saying that “community organizations that are part of the coalition and workers continue to brainstorm and expect to experiment with a variety of actions and strategies.”
But in the interview with Salon in August, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry and her assistant Scott Courtney hinted this is the path being pursued, saying that options include a “political or legal challenge” to the fast food industry’s franchising.
2014 or Bust
The coming year could make or break Fight for 15. According to one SEIU official, “The money going into this is a gamble. These workers aren’t paying dues; they’re not financing this right now. Definitely over the next two years we’re going to have to take a look at this and see where we’re going.”
Despite the uneasiness some organizers have about SEIU’s role, others doubt that a truly spontaneous, worker-led uprising would have been possible without SEIU leadership.
“Without SEIU this shit would not have happened,” Marco says. “Fast-food workers are not going to self-organize. They’ve been so beat down for so long by circumstances and an anti-labor environment. You look at the Civil Rights Movement—a lot of that was top-down, orchestrated movement.”
But this attitude can also foster paternalism. Speaking in September, Jason says some organizers “really do think we’re stupid and we need to have our hands held and things like that.”
Still, Sam credits SEIU for “pushing people out into the struggle. It’s very easy to be critical of an organization like SEIU for its behind-closed-doors activities and top-down organizing,” he says.“This is an instance when the labor bureaucracy is encouraging people to demonstrate, to go on strike, to take action in the workplace. And I’m excited about that.”