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Labor's Fast Food Campaign Is Getting Real

Getty Images/Justin Sullivan

If you stop at McDonald’s this week, you may have to think about more than your cholesterol intake. You may also have to think about the people serving you food—and whether they deserve a raise.

On Thursday, fast food workers across the country are planning to walk off the job and, in at least a few places, engage in civil disobedience. It’s part of a two-year-old campaign, backed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), to lift the wages of fast food workers and to make it possible for them to join unions. Presently, jobs in the fast food industry are the lowest paying in the country: The mean hourly salary for a cook is $9.07 an hour, which works out to a little less than $19,000 a year for full-time employment. But many people in fast food don’t work full time and, naturally, many of them make less than the mean.

Exactly how many people actually participate in these strikes remains to be seen. The last time fast-food workers did something like this was in May, when, according to organizers, workers in 150 cities temporarily walked off the job. That demonstration didn't seem to disrupt business operations in any serious way, although it got some media attention. The hope is that peaceful but more assertive shows of protest, with their deliberate echoes of the Civil Rights era, can attract more public attention—and give the workers’ cause a higher profile.

Nobody expects the unionizing part of the campaign to yield results right away. That will take a lot more organizing and also some legal victories, as veteran labor strategist Rich Yeselson explained in an interview that appeared at QED on Monday. Yes, the general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board recently issued an opinion, effectively declaring that the large franchise companies like McDonald’s and KFC, not individual storeowners, were the employers of record. But, as Yeselson pointed out, it won’t mean a thing unless and until the full NLRB accepts that opinion. If that happens, more lawsuits will follow and the case would likely get to the Supreme Court, which has shown no great enthusiasm for taking up the cause of workers.

Still, Thursday’s demonstrations could have some more immediate effects. In part because organizing in the private sector has become so difficult, unions have been focusing heavily on political advocacy. Journalist and unofficial labor historian Harold Meyerson, writing in the American Prospect, recently chronicled some of these efforts. Most have taken place at the local and state level, in places where liberals have the most influence: California, Seattle, New York City, and the like. But, as Meyerson notes, labor activists have also organized ballot measures to raise the minimum wage in Arkansas and Nebraska, among other states. They have also kept the pressure on Congress to raise the federal minimum wage, which still stands at $7.25 an hour, to $10.10.

Achieving anything remotely like that would still be difficult, of course. SEIU’s president, Mary Kay Henry, has apparently taken some grief for spending so much of the union’s money on an effort unlikely to swell the organization’s ranks anytime soon. But labor has always been at its best when it was an advocate for all working people, not just those paying dues. Unions were pivotal in creation of Social Security and Medicare (and Obamacare), for example. They also helped secure higher minimum wages and safer workplaces.

Those achievements helped all Americans, by improving minimum standards for pay, benefits, and working conditions. Getting fast-food workers a raise—whether it’s by shaming or pressuring businesses into action, or securing new legislation—could have similarly wide-reaching effects.

Jonathan Cohn

In the news:

IMMIGRATION: There have been two major developments over the last few days. First, the executive order on deportations that was supposed to come at the end of the summer may not come until after Election Day. Obama himself hinted at that on Thursday; Press Secretary Josh Earnest did the same thing on Friday. Aides are divided over whether the president should wait and, apparently, the president is still waiting for official word from his legal advisers on how much action the law would allow him to take. (Carrie Budoff BrownPolitico) Meanwhile, a federal immigration court has ruled that women who are victims of domestic violence can qualify for asylum status, setting a clear precedent that should allow many more women to make the same claim. One Fox News anchor apparently protested that it meant these women could get “instant U.S. citizenship plus our benefits.” (Molly ReddenMother Jones)

DAY CARE: Over the last decade, at least 43 children died in Virginia’s barely regulated at-home day cares, according to an investigation by reporters David S. Fallis and Amy Brittain. (Washington Post)

FERGUSON: 50 Ferguson police officers began wearing body cameras on Saturday, which were donated to the department following Michael Brown's death. (St. Louis Dispatch) Will it make a difference? Quite possibly. Rebecca Leber recently cited examples from other departments that saw a huge reduction in use of force incidents when they started using cameras. (QED)

CAP-AND-TRADE: China plans to overtake Europe as the world's largest carbon emissions trading market in 2016, as part of a pledge to cut its GDP emissions 40 to 45 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. (Kathy Chen and Stian Reklev, Reuters)

FRACKING: Six years and numerous lawsuits later, Pennsylvania has finally revealed that 243 drinking water wells were contaminated by the fracking boom. (Associated Press)

WAGES: Steven Greenhouse reports on the growing number of lawsuits from low-wage workers demanding back pay for periods when their employers refused to follow minimum wage and overtime laws. (New York Times

Things worth reading:

Bring on the death panels! Pam Belluck reports that more and more private insurers are paying for end-of-life counseling. It turns out that both physicians and patients find the sessions valuable. (New York Times) Should somebody tell Betsy McCaughey?

Cloudy with a chance of catastrophe. The United Nations World Meteorological Organization imagines how climate change will make for more dire weather reports. (Andrew Freedman, Mashable)

Hell freezes over: Grover Norquist attended Burning Man and Kevin Roose had a front row seat for Norquist's experience. (New York)

Anti-labor day: Ed Kilgore reminisces about growing up in LaGragne, Georgia, which he describes as a “monument to capital’s war on labor.” How bad was it? The public schools started classes on Labor Day, just to make a point. (Washington Monthly)

Better order more scrubs: Dan Diamond notices that the health care sector has created more than 1 million jobs since the end of the recession, which is how many new jobs the economy has created overall. (Forbes)

Stories we’ll be watching:

If Obama decides to delay the executive order on immigration, will he take some other, lesser action in the interim—just to show his commitment? And Congress is coming back. Will they have any trouble putting together a new continuing resolution, in order to keep the government running?


In case you missed it on Labor Day, Naomi Shavin put together a list of the ten worst-paying jobs in America.