Can fast food organising breathe new life into a dying labour movement?

A piece on the recent fast food campaigns launched by SEIU – their origins, means, and prospects for revitalizing the labor movement in the U.S.

Submitted by John E Jacobsen on December 8, 2013

“Olivia, who’s 23 now, has worked a string of fast-food jobs since she was a teenager, most recently at Papa John’s Pizza. She’s gone in to work sick on many occasions… and seen co-workers get injured on the job; with no paid sick days or disposable income, they would sometimes arrive at work the next day in a sling.

“For years, she says, she’s wanted to do something to change that, so one day in May, Olivia followed in the footsteps of her relatives. Instead of going to work at Papa John’s, she threw on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt and joined other workers from McDonald’s, Wendy’s, KFC and other chains in a daylong strike.”

That’s the introduction to Seth Freed Wessler’s October 16th article in Al Jazeera America, Unhappy Meal: Fast Food Workers Want Unions, Like Their Elders.

The article takes a more personal look at the lives and family histories of workers engaged in the Service Employees International Union’s fast-food strikes. It piqued my interest not so much because it offered a good explanation of why fast-food workers were striking – but rather because it seemed at odds with the broader reality unions today are up against. Is, as the article implies, increasing union membership really a question of workers wanting to join?

Others besides Wessler have come to something like that conclusion, spurred on by new organizing in industries long viewed by labor as untouchable. Others still have argued that increasing labor’s ranks will mean broadening coalitions, creating new partnerships, democratizing labor, or simply becoming more militant.

But the SEIU has by and far garnered the most attention for its innovations in organizing, and perhaps more than any other union in the country, has reinvigorated a hope that the labor movement might be able to turn its fortunes around.

Advertising themselves as the “fastest growing union in North America,” the SEIU has led some of the largest union drives of the past several decades, conducting a number of relatively successful campaigns that have appeared to offer solutions to labor’s free-falling membership.

The latest of these efforts came on August 20th, when a national fast-food strike hit over 50 cities – the largest action yet taken by workers in an industry notorious for its low pay and non-union status.

The strike followed a series of one day walkouts at major fast-food chains across the country, with thousands of workers and supporters taking part in the work stoppages, demanding a minimum of $15 an hour and the right to organize without retaliation.

The novel strategies employed, and the showy militancy with which they have been executed, has only added to the country’s curiosity, compounding the reach of the union’s media heavy strategy and, in the hopes of the union’s top leadership, helped “spark a movement.”

But to gauge how realistic these hopes may be, it’s important to contextualize the strikes – to look at their lineage and evolution within the SEIU, and to fit them into the larger social and economic changes which have made them necessary.

Justice for Janitors and the New Organizing Terrain:

After decades of persistent decline in union membership, the SEIU by the late 1980′s had recognized that relying merely on the provision of services to workers – the roll most unions of that time filled – was untenable. Increasingly contracted, precarious, and employed in services, the workforce of the late 20th century had a qualitatively new layout, magnified by changes in its racial and sexual make-up.

Los Angeles, then, must have seemed to be the perfect place to experiment with a new organizing model. In fact, you could not have found an organization at that time which more precisely embodied the trajectory of the labor movement than LA’s SEIU Local 399.

Having organized most of the city’s downtown janitors, its membership peaked in 1978 at around 5,000 members, declining sharply to 1,800 by 1985. Partly due to growing competition between contracted cleaning companies, and partly due to a large building boom in the downtown core – the drop in membership was compounded by an influx of immigrant labor. This meant not only the pricing out of union companies and their replacement with non-union contractors, but critically the displacement of native workers by foreign-born.

Untitled-2In the 1970′s, African American’s – who comprised the largest demographic group employed in cleaning services – made up over 30 percent of the area’s janitors (and 50% percent of Local 399′s membership), whereas Latino workers comprised a paltry 7%. By the 1990′s, however, foreign-born Hispanic workers made up over 60 percent of janitors in a workforce that had doubled in number over the same time period.

Running out of breathing room, the SEIU brings in former United Farm Workers organizer, Stephen Lerner, to lead the effort in rallying the battered local.

Lerner, who would bring his experience with the United Farm Workers to bear in his encounters with janitors in Los Angeles, initially gives the campaign the look and feel of a typical organizing drive: staffers approaching workers at target companies, building contact lists, doing house calls, forming committees, and signing cards. What made this campaign so noteworthy, however, was that there “was no expectation that the drive would eventuate in an election.”

In fact, the SEIU went out of their way to make sure that the companies they were targeting had no grounds to argue the union was seeking representation. According to one organizer: “we never made a demand for recognition, like an official ‘We represent a majority of your workers,’ you know, ‘we demand that you recognize us.’”

The decision to sidestep the National Labor Relations Board, moreover, was made purely based on expedience. In an interview I conducted with Stephen Lerner, he had this to say:

“Janitorial contractors work for building owners. Contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder. A janitorial contractor can’t pay newly organized workers significantly more, unless the building owner agrees to allocate more money for increased wages. If we survived all the NLRB hurdles and won an election the contractor would say they couldn’t pay anymore because of the low bid system.”

He continued, “so instead of continuing to depend on a failed system, of organizing one building at a time, through the NLRB, we decided to organize the whole city at one time. We built city-wide campaigns that pressured building owners to allocate more money to cleaning contractors so they could pay more, while pressuring cleaning contractors to be neutral on the subject of unionization and to agree to negotiate with the union when a majority of workers signed cards saying they wanted a union.”

Because SEIU could not reach the building owners with traditional tactics such as Unfair Labor Practice lawsuits or NLRB elections, they were forced to begin organizing in more of a legal grey area. According to an organizer from the Denver campaign:

The law prevents us from picketing against the building owner, so we made a snowman with a picket sign. We can’t go around with picket signs saying John Smith building owner is unfair to workers, but we can hand out handbills saying the same thing….

Although the union heavily relied on legal tactics to financially wear down individual contractors (in one such case causing a small employer upwards of $75,000 in legal fees), these campaigns demonstrated a new and heavy reliance on tactics taken directly from United Farm Worker campaigns, which had a strong emphasis on dramatic street theater protests, partnerships with community leaders and politicians, and social pressure tactics (such as protesting at a boss’ country club).

Ultimately, the goal was to win city-wide contracts for all buildings in the area. “Instead of contractors competing over who could pay the lowest wages,” notes Lerner, “all the contractors would have the same labor costs, and compete on quality, not the lowest wages.”

It is this basic model that lead the SEIU through the major confrontations of its first few years – initially with Century Cleaning, next to Bradford, and famously onto International Service Systems in Century City. Eventually, Local 399 does win its first master contract in downtown Los Angeles.

Fast-Food Organizing in the SEIU – its evolution and means:

Justice for Janitors would for many years continue to be a relative success within the broader labor movement, and to its credit today claims an additional 27 master contracts in cities across the country. More important for us, however, is that this track record would go on to inform the model emerging amongst fast-food workers today.

Like organizing done with janitors, what should strike observers of these campaigns most is the new geography of the organizing itself. In its approach to fast-food workers, the SEIU has cast an incredibly wide net, with organizers in cities across the country simultaneously recruiting fry cooks at McDonalds, janitors at Taco Time, and cashiers at Burger King.

The drive no longer begins from a single shop or even company to move outwards, but begins with a wide sample of workers and moves inwards – according to our sources within Good Jobs Seattle, in fact, only recently has the union seriously begun to focus on building up the power of their shop committees.

Largely, this is due to the dispersed and franchised nature of the industry, and the SEIU has again been forced to tailor its tactics to an enemy it cannot legally attack. Like the building owners who contracted out their janitorial work, companies such as McDonald’s, Burger King, and Subway generally do not hire employee’s directly. This has historically made it very difficult for individual stores to unionize, as the company can simply choose to close any of its franchises at will. By organizing many cities simultaneously, the union is making it very difficult to simply close stores as a response; there are too many, and they’re very dispersed across states and franchise owners.

Perhaps the most eye-catching feature of these drives, however, has been the union’s use of one-day strikes – another strategy they’ve borrowed from Justice for Janitors, where the SEIU made first one-day strikes, and later strikes which stretched on for weeks at a time, a centerpiece of their campaigns.

But this legal grey area within which the union is forced to operate opens them up to new dangers. In order to shield itself from counterattacks from the company, then, the SEIU has again gone through a great amount of effort to distance itself legally from its organizing.

When the union began organizing walkouts late last year, they did so through partnerships with a number of political organizations across the country. Unlike Justice for Janitors, however, the partnerships this time were almost exclusively with organizations founded by the union itself.

In Wisconsin, the SEIU partnered with Wisconsin Jobs Now, and the two organizations together formed Raise Up MKE - the organization behind the strikes in Milwaukee. In Seattle, the SEIU and Working Washington support the efforts of Good Jobs Seattle, who have led the walk out drive in the North West. And in Chicago, Illinois, the SEIU and Action Now support the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago.

The Right Questions:

Of course, the campaign is still underway, and reports from Adam Weaver of the IWW suggest that the SEIU’s leadership may still be unclear about its national strategy. However, in a memo leaked in 2011, SEIU’s leadership made it very clear that their organizing efforts in fast food were meant to “spark” an “organizing surge.”

The hope, in other words, was not for the gradual accumulation of members through individual organizing drives, so much as it was to “change the environment;” to make workers see unions “as vehicles through which they can collectively stand up for a more fair economy,” to make unions relevant again.

As much as the SEIU understands that the fortunes of the labor movement can’t be gradually reversed, and as much as it wants to “spark a movement,” it has to build its membership. The high costs of these campaigns, which require trained, salaried, full-time staff on the ground in every city they organize in, means SEIU needs to eventually come out of this with some sort of dues paying base, or die trying. Like Justice for Janitors, SEIU will have to seek master contracts across fast-food businesses, “taking wages out of competition,” as Stephen Lerner put it.

But this need to build their membership doesn’t deal with the problem of jump-starting the labor movement; the two questions, in fact, are quite separate issues.

Despite the impressive growth in membership the union advertises, in fact – from 1.1 million in 1996 to roughly 1.8 million today - the bulk of their growth turns out to be more a matter of isolated political influence than to new organizing models.

As Kim Moody notes in his book, U.S. Labor in Trouble and Transition, of the 700,000 members SEIU added between 1996 and 2007, roughly half of the gains came through mergers and takeovers of independent unions. The other half, according to Joe Burns in his 2011 Reviving the Strike, can in great part be attributed to deals with political allies such as former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who “gave the go ahead” to organize 20,000 healthcare workers in the state after receiving nearly $1.8 million in campaign contributions from the union. (You can find SEIU’s annual membership report from 2012 here).

Wage and benefit increases, moreover, may have fared little better. Using data provided to us by Jono Shaffer of SEIU and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, janitors represented by SEIU contracts in Los Angeles currently earn slightly over $20 an hour in total compensation, or slightly less than they would otherwise earn if wages and benefits had kept pace with inflation and healthcare costs.

Compare this to the $10 per hour package union janitors were making in 1979 (before the major membership free fall) and janitors today are making approximately $12 less an hour than were their forerunners just 30 years ago (after we’ve adjusted for inflation).

In other words, both the membership figures they advertise and the relative success of their new organizing strategies obscure the reality of labor organizing in today’s economy – namely, that SEIU is no exception to the more general trend of declining membership and living standards for unions and the workers they represent.

This isn’t to say that the campaign won’t be able to achieve its requisite goals – namely, to build contracts in core fast-food markets. Given enough time, and enough pressure, it is possible that SEIU will be able to establish master contracts in major cities across the U.S., as they did with Justice for Janitors. The point, however, is that any successful fast-food organizing one may be able to point to in the future will still exist in a broader context of stagnate union membership and worsening conditions on the job.

No Revival:

The conclusion is inescapable. Something else, outside of our organizing – successful or not – is missing. It is what SEIU’s leadership called “sparking” an “organizing surge,” what Kate Bronfenbrenner referred to as “mobilizing for a major resurgence,” and what AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka calls “a groundswell.” But what could the unions do to create this, especially given the real and immediate need to simply maintain their diminishing ranks?

This is the situation unions have found themselves in since the end of the post-war boom; caught between the need to add members where none can be found, and the desire to recreate a mass movement. But no movement gets sparked. There is no groundswell, and no one discovers a strategy to reverse the decline.

Campaigns like Justice For Janitors, Fast Food Forward, or their wayward cousins in OUR Walmart, offer no contribution towards the revival of the labor movement; not for lack of strategy, or militancy, or democracy… but because there is no revival to contribute to. These campaigns, moreover, represent the largest, most advanced in the whole of the American labor movement, and their failure signals a real need to rethink not how organizing campaigns can reach even a minimal level efficacy, but of how radicals should engage with our coworkers to begin with.

In short, if we’re asking “how do we bring back the unions,” we’re asking the wrong question. The more appropriate question is “why have they gone away,” and it is to this question which we will devote our energies to in the next installment of this series.

For the original article, feel free to visit the Seattle Free Press.



10 years 7 months ago

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Submitted by backspace on December 9, 2013

Thanks for posting this article, it is extremely interesting. Currently digesting all available material on the attempt by US business unions to revive an aggressive growth strategy.

These campaigns, moreover, represent the largest, most advanced in the whole of the American labor movement

On this point, i'd say there is a fair bit of debate to be had. They may involve the largest number of resources and organisers, but i'm a little unsure they represent the most advanced in the American labor movement. Although I do not live in the US myself, i'd say surely even something like United Electrical (some rank and file elements but ultimately still a social partnership union) could be classified as more advanced. If anything, from following the reports on this forum, the campaign seems incredibly regressive in its tactical approach, and I think this specific character makes it difficult to apply the usual critiques of union drives. In other words, whilst there exist extensive inherent limits to the union operating under modern labour law, this organising drive seems so lumberingly parliamentary-oriented that it is problematic to pose it as a highly militant campaign.


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Submitted by Steven. on December 10, 2013

Yeah, I think this article is highly problematic. In addition to being overly enthusiastic, it seems to take the campaign's claims at face value. For example the claims about all these "strikes" - many of which were just publicity stunt demonstrations outside stores which continued to be open, without any actual workers taking part at all.

There is lots of additional information and discussion about this campaign here:

the posts of Hieronymous are particularly instructive


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Submitted by Hieronymous on December 11, 2013

John E Jacobsen

In short, if we’re asking “how do we bring back the unions,” we’re asking the wrong question. The more appropriate question is “why have they gone away,”

Or why not analyze why there's been no struggle? (Or real class-against-class struggle?) Because I agree with E.P. Thompson that we don't even get to the question of class until there's been struggle. What the unions and their partners have been doing isn't struggle. It's PR. And, to me at least, it doesn't seem any different than the hoopla that surrounded Obama when he got elected. Like all kinds of Leftist appeals to "give him a chance." It seems like everyone is pretending like these unions aren't willingly managing austerity and declining working class living standards, while everyone is clamoring "give them a chance." All the while they're begging the state to pass laws to "save the middle class."

Steven, thanks for the kind words. If I wasn't so insanely busy right now, I'd try to put my thought together into a written piece. Maybe after the first of the year.

John E Jacobsen

10 years 7 months ago

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Submitted by John E Jacobsen on December 12, 2013

"Yeah, I think this article is highly problematic. In addition to being overly enthusiastic, it seems to take the campaign's claims at face value."

Hey, Steven. Thanks for responding, but just just to start with - I'm not enthusiastic about the SEIU, nor am I a particularly big fan of the actions coming out of fast food organizing right now. I more or less agree with every criticism Erik Forman makes in his piece Fast Food Unionism, for example.

In my article, however, I wanted to deal with something else - why are radicals putting the emphasis on things like "democracy, autonomy" or "militancy." If SEIU's struggles became more democratic, for example, what would this actually mean for the labor movement?

I find a lot of the rhetoric coming from syndicalist circles concerning fast food organizing really lacking - and I think its best summed up in your sentiment here:

"For example the claims about all these "strikes" - many of which were just publicity stunt demonstrations outside stores which continued to be open, without any actual workers taking part at all."

Is striking really the issue here? If all we're concerned with is making the actions of fast food workers more effective, I'll bet there's a good case to be made that longer, more militant strikes would help. But, like I conclude in my piece, any victories the fast food workers *might* achieve - strikes or no strikes - still do nothing to change the fact that (elephant in the room) unions no longer represent any living, viable means of self organization for workers.

Or why not analyze why there's been no struggle?

Thats what the second piece in this series will deal with - that will be out in the next month. The first article here, however, sets us up to tackle that question by dealing with this narrative: "if only we could find the right organizing strategy..." or "if only we could get people to really strike," or in your words "really struggle."

I don't pretend to know what that means, and I don't think anyone else does, either. I think we don't know, because within the context of "the labor movement," there isn't an answer, and we're chasing ghosts.

Finally, I think its fine to characterize much of the actions that SEIU has taken as PR stunts - they certainly are. But the lion share of my piece was dedicated to showing the history behind that - why is SEIU using these tactics - and I think the results speak for themselves: as poorly as SEIU has done over the preceding 30 years, it isn't all bullshit - they've fared better than any other union in the United States. The tactics are keeping them in the game.

Maybe this is where you two got the idea that I somehow support the SEIU or think their strategies are brilliant - I didn't mean to come off that way, but for the record, I was only trying to be clear on why they were organizing that way, not approving of it.


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Submitted by backspace on December 13, 2013

edit: I posted here a rather long untidy forum post in an attempt to cover a large number of points, however, I think the quality of the article here deserves a proper response, so I will aim to revisit it when I have time and write it into a better presented form.