From The New York Times
By STEVEN GREENHOUSEJULY 27, 2014
ADDISON, Ill. — As labor gatherings go, this one was highly unusual — 68 workers arrived on charter buses from St. Louis, 100 from New York City and 180 from Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas. Fifty flew in from Los Angeles and two dozen from Seattle.
Robert Martin, of Greensboro, N.C., displays a button in support of a higher minimum wage for fast food workers. The convention was held four miles from McDonald’s headquarters
These were not well-paid carpenters or autoworkers heading to their annual convention, hoping to sneak in a round of golf. Rather they were fast-food workers — 1,200 of them — from McDonald’s, Burger King and other chains, eager to pursue their ambitious goal of creating a $15-an-hour wage floor for the nation’s four million fast-food workers.
Crowding over the weekend into an expo center in this suburb west of Chicago, many wore boldly lettered T-shirts proclaiming “We Are Worth More” and “Raise Up for $15.”
“If we win $15, that would change my life,” said Cherri Delisline, 27, a single mother who earns $7.35 an hour after 10 years as a McDonald’s cashier in North Charleston, S.C. “I get paid so little money that it’s hard to make ends meet, and I’ve had to move back in with my mother.”
It was by far the largest gathering of fast-food workers, and it was largely underwritten by the Service Employees International Union, a powerhouse with two million members known for unionizing hospital workers, home care aides and janitors. Mary Kay Henry, the union’s president, said the S.E.I.U. has adopted the fast-food workers’ cause to lift low-wage workers and combat income inequality.
Knowing how to rally a crowd, Ms. Henry said in her keynote speech, “A selfish few at the top are using their power to hold down wages, no matter how much that hurts families and communities across the country.”
She attacked the C.E.O.s of McDonald’s and Yum Brands, which owns KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, for receiving executive compensation of more than $10 million a year. They make more than twice as much in a day as many fast-food workers earn in a year.
The Rev. William Barber addressed convention attendees
Glenn Spencer, executive director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Workforce Freedom Initiative, asserted that the S.E.I.U. wasn’t pumping $15 million into the fast-food campaign merely out of beneficence.
“You don’t put that kind of money in just to have a sense of altruism,” he said. “You have a plan for how that transfers into new members.”
The S.E.I.U. does hope to somehow unionize throngs of fast-food workers, but those efforts may prove difficult given that most fast-food employees are scattered among thousands of different franchised restaurants. Moreover, the franchisees and fast-food chains are likely to mount a fierce battle against unionization.
The two-day convention, with 150 tables spread across the expo center’s floor, highlighted the campaign’s growth since November 2012, when 200 workers went on a one-day strike at 60 fast-food restaurants in New York. In its most recent strike in mid-May, workers walked out at restaurants in 150 cities nationwide, with solidarity protests held in 30 countries. The focus increasingly includes unionizing; the movement’s motto has become “$15 and a union.”
“My sense is there’s been a recognition on the part of the S.E.I.U. that to get the labor movement out of the very deep rut it’s in, it’s going to take more than an individual local organizing drive — that this is a moment to do a large-scale, high-visibility effort to alter the climate for labor,” said Janice R. Fine, a professor of labor relations at Rutgers University. “They have taken a sector like fast food where the conditions are well known: low wages, part-time hours, irregular hours, often no benefits.”
In a high-stakes move, fast-food workers, backed by the S.E.I.U., have brought several cases before the National Labor Relations Board, asking its general counsel to declare McDonald’s a joint employer of the restaurants run by its franchisees. If the labor board agrees, that would open the door for the S.E.I.U. to try to unionize not just three or five McDonald’s at a time, but dozens and perhaps hundreds.
Business groups oppose such a change. Mr. Spencer said that if the labor board adopted a broader interpretation, “then you make the corporation sit down at the table and talk” with the union. S.E.I.U. officials want McDonald’s and its franchisees to agree not to fight unionization efforts.
McDonald’s declined to comment on the weekend convention, held four miles from its headquarters. The main target of the movement’s attacks and unionization talk, McDonald’s says it provides competitive pay and benefits and opportunities for many workers. The National Restaurant Association has repeatedly criticized the call for a $15 fast-food wage, saying it would result in higher menu prices and cuts in employment.
Ms. Henry said the fast-food campaign has already paid off. She cited its influence in creating an atmosphere for Seattle to approve a $15 minimum wage and for San Francisco and Chicago to be weighing similar measures. In early July, the S.E.I.U. signed a contract for 20,000 cafeteria workers, custodians and other service workers for the Los Angeles school district that will raise their pay, now often $8 or $9, to $15 an hour by 2016.
“The fast-food movement is producing real gains in the wages of our members,” Ms. Henry said, declining to disclose how much money her union has spent on underwriting the campaign — or the convention.
With the midterm elections approaching, Mr. Spencer said the union gets another benefit from the fast-food campaign, which is spurring efforts to raise the minimum wage in many states. “There’s clearly a political dimension here,” he said. “The S.E.I.U. is trying to rally the Democratic base for November.”
Francis O’Donnell, owner of a Buffalo Wings & Rings franchised restaurant near the White Sox stadium in Chicago, said a $15 wage would be a disaster. “It’s going to put a lot of businesses out of business,” he said.
Mr. O’Donnell estimated it would increase his payroll costs by 25 percent, erasing his profit margins. He added, “It would leave me with three choices: raising my prices, which will hurt customers, or reducing my staff” or shutting down.
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The Rev. William Barber, a minister from North Carolina who has mobilized liberal protests there, gave a fiery speech with a different view.
Citing Franklin Roosevelt’s Depression-era advice, he told the workers: “You have to stay in the $15 fight until it is a reality. When you raise people’s wages and it raises the standard of living and you increase purchasing power, you actually not only do the right thing morally, but you do the right thing economically, and the whole country is blessed.”
Throughout the convention, one overarching strategy was to say the fast-food movement was an economic justice movement comparable to the civil rights movement — a strategy the service employees used to unionize tens of thousands of cleaning workers in its “Justice for Janitors” campaign. Inspired by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the fast-food workers debated and discussed using nonviolent civil disobedience to step up pressure on the fast-food companies.
“They’re already slowly killing us with the way they’ve got us living,” said Terrence Wise, a Burger King worker in Kansas City, Mo., who served as M.C. for much of the convention. “Are we going to stand up?” he asked. “I want to see who is willing to do whatever it takes, who is willing to get arrested.”
After his pleas, the workers voted unanimously to conduct a wave of civil disobedience actions.
Adriana Alvarez, a McDonald’s worker from Chicago, was ready to answer the call. “It’s awesome to see all these people here,” she said. “I’m ready to take the next step.”