Ever since fast food workers staged their first strike in 2012, their basic demands have been twofold: an increase of their pay to at least $15 an hour, and the right to form a union.
They’ve made significant headway on the first demand, helping to secure the passage of a $15 minimum wage in two states and a handful of cities. But now they plan to make good on the second half.
At a convention of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in Detroit over the weekend, a delegation of fast food workers who have been leading the Fight for 15 movement announced that the group will hold a vote this summer about whether to join the union. They presented SEIU members with a petition from workers on Saturday.
“Fifteen dollars an hour is becoming a reality for millions of workers. Now, we want to zero in on the other part of our demand: union rights,” Terrence Wise, a McDonald’s and Burger King worker who is a member of the Fight for 15 National Organizing Committee, said in a press release. “We are excited about joining together with SEIU to energize that effort and forge a new kind of worker organization that helps lift tens of millions of Americans out of poverty.”
It’s clear, however, that fast food workers’ path to unionization won’t be straightforward. The biggest hurdle is the franchise model used throughout the industry, which means that many restaurants are owned by much smaller franchisee entities rather than the large corporations like McDonald’s or Burger King. Companies have argued that the structure means that they can’t be held responsible for working conditions in stores they don’t own directly. Workers have fought back against that argument, suing McDonald’s itself for wage violations under the argument that the company controls franchisee workplaces through the use of technology, and they have been backed up by rulings at the National Labor Relations Board that similarly found McDonald’s to be liable for workplace conditions.
Still, the challenge of unionization persists. It’s unlikely that the fast food workers can get recognition from the NLRB for being unionized. That’s why, if fast food workers vote in favor of joining SEIU, they won’t become dues-paying members. Instead, they will be formally part of the union system but not pay in, at least at first, according to BuzzFeed News.
SEIU President Mary Kay Henry has acknowledged as much. In her remarks over the weekend, she said, “SEIU has a long history of partnering with groups of workers who were given no chance to win unions, but who were nonetheless able to forge new, powerful organizations. Our commitment to helping fast-food workers win a union follows decades of successful campaigns that resulted in workers ranging from janitors to home care workers to hospital workers joining together and winning unions to have a voice at work and build a better life for their families.”
“We have never let an outdated labor law stand in the way of workers being able to stand together,” she told BuzzFeed. “We did it 90 years ago for janitors, 40 years ago with every public employee, and 15 years ago for home care workers.” All of those groups of workers faced their own obstacles on the traditional path to unionization but made it there in the end.