Two years of mounting agitation by fast-food workers will culminate in acts of civil disobedience and a nationwide work stoppage on Thursday, organizers say. And while members of the public and boosters from other industries have previously come out in support, this round of protests will emphasize the commonality between fast-food employees and another low-wage group: home care workers.
The 2.1 million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has organized home health attendants since the early 1980s and, in recent years, invested heavily in the Fast Food Forward campaign, aiming to recruit thousands or tens of thousands of members from this mammoth, global service sector. As organizers prepare for Thursday’s protests outside McDonald's, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and other restaurants, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry has called on the country's million-plus home-based workers serving the elderly and disabled to join these street actions and the push for a $15 minimum wage. (A McDonald's spokeswoman would not comment on the planned actions, except to say, "We would hope that any protestors will obey the law and demonstrate in a respectful fashion.")
The pairing of these disparate workforces comes at a critical juncture: A recent Supreme Court case has weakened home care workers' ability to form and sustain a union; fast-food workers, on the other hand, hope to transform their loose network of protesters into a formal union.
Hundreds of thousands of home care workers — mostly women of color and immigrants — are currently represented by service- and public-sector unions such as SEIU, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Thirty years ago, however, personal care aides and other domestic workers were considered unorganizable: isolated on long, physically demanding shifts in their clients' homes. It seemed impossible to find all of them, let alone negotiate one-to-one employment contracts. But because they were paid with public dollars through Medicaid and Medicare, worker outreach was combined with a legislative tactic to deem the state their "employer" for collective-bargaining purposes.
In states not entirely hostile to organized labor, unions lobbied for statutes and executive orders opening up this path, and, through subsequent contract negotiations, wages and benefits improved. Yet many caregivers remain unorganized and paid just above the minimum wage. Veteran health aide Jasmin Almodovar supports herself and her 11-year-old son on $9.50 an hour, shuffling from one client's house to the next. On a given shift, her duties range from cleaning and cooking to bathing clients, performing physical therapy and picking up medication. As part of a home-care organizing campaign in Cleveland, she plans to join Thursday's actions for a $15 minimum wage. "It's all for the same cause," she said. "We're all underpaid, overworked and not treated fairly."
But in June, the Supreme Court made it more difficult for home-care workers to organize. In Harris v. Quinn, it ruled that Illinois's publicly paid health aides are "partial" or quasi-public employees exempt from the automatic deduction of union dues. The decision as applied could allow home attendants to opt out of union membership and dues while continuing to reap any benefits from the collective-bargaining process. A potential class-action lawsuit filed by caregivers in Washington state relies on this precedent to argue that "the compelled union membership and dues requirement violates individual providers' First Amendment rights." According to Wright Noel, the plaintiffs' attorney, the union is "not negotiating a salary with an employer. It's much closer to petitioning the legislature to set a pay rate for independent providers, and it's less than what the providers were receiving prior to when SEIU was involved."
As private employees, fast-food workers do not depend on a legislative strategy to unionize, and their primary focus has been to tell stories and make emotional appeals to the public. Yet in order to organize effectively, they will have to recruit thousands of members and convince the courts and administrative agencies that Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut and other corporate franchisors should share legal responsibility with individual franchisees. (The brands did not respond to requests for comment.)
In late July, Fast Food Forward won an initial victory in this regard: The National Labor Relations Board stated that the McDonald's Corporation, not just local restaurant owners, must answer claims of retaliation and other unlawful conduct. (McDonald’s has vowed to fight this preliminary ruling.) Wage-theft lawsuits against McDonald's that rest on similar allegations are snaking through several federal courts.
When the fast-food mobilizations began, workers demanded $15 per hour. Seattle and SeaTac, Washington have since adopted the "fight for $15," and many other cities and states have passed incremental increases. Last year, Senate Democrats introduced a bill for a $10.10 federal minimum, but it has little chance of advancing, despite or because of President Obama's support. (The president has issued an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contractor workers.)
Today, after two years of intermittent protests, fast-food workers employed by McDonald’s and other multinational franchisors are fighting for "$15 and a union.” To transition from their current organizational form to an official union, “You have to get a master agreement with McDonald’s on the issues that affect all McDonald’s [locations] and then there will be some workplace issues that the union will bargain at a workplace level,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “Where [the workers] go from here — whether they actually build a real movement or whether it just becomes a pressure campaign to get a wage increase — is the question.”
The excitement lies not in the procedural weeds, however, but with the fry cooks, pizza deliverers and cashiers expected to walk off their jobs this week. “To see fast-food workers take a stand in an industry everyone knows is low-wage, that means as much to home care and domestic workers as it does to retail workers and everyone else who assumed that it was acceptable to work hard and earn poverty wages,” said Ai-jen Poo, director of National Domestic Workers Alliance, a non-profit worker center affiliated with the AFL-CIO labor confederation.
Acknowledging that a traditional union may not be the right fit for all industries today, she defines a low-wage workers’ union simply — as “having a voice and a home, representation and advocacy.” And to those who have criticized the spectacular, public relations-heavy strategy of Fast Food Forward, Poo counters: “Narrative work is really, really important. For years, there’s been lots of good organizing on the ground and hundreds of thousands of people organized, but you wouldn’t know it.”