Free Advice for Organizing McDonalds’ Workers

 Scott Courtney, a leader of the Fight for 15 campaign, with protesters in Brazil. Credit Fernando Cavalcanti

Scott Courtney, a leader of the Fight for 15 campaign, with protesters in Brazil. Credit Fernando Cavalcanti

New Orleans    There was SEIU’s organizing director Scott Courtney, friend and comrade, in a picture in The New York Times, rallying with Brazilian unions before preparing to testify on the evils of McDonalds’ franchisees in Brazil to their government. Even more surprisingly, he was quoted in the Times essentially saying he was throwing everything against the wall hoping to find some critical vulnerability.

By pushing fast food companies, particularly McDonalds, on its Fight for $15 campaign, the union has succeeded in pressuring the company to raise wages in corporate stores to $9 already and soon to $10 early in 2016. Charges at the National Labor Relations Board have also led to real concerns on whether or not the union has successfully pierced the veil between the corporate locations and its franchisees as co-employers, which has led to mass hand wringing throughout corporate America.

Perhaps the biggest victory though was the success of the campaign in New York State, where the wage board has recommended accelerated increases to $15 in New York City and not long afterwards throughout the state for fast food workers. Several months ago Brother Courtney was quoted as, perhaps too transparently and too willingly, expressing the hope that action by the wage board might have given the union sufficient leverage to be able to make a deal with the company somewhere, somehow to allow the union in on some piecemeal basis. In organizing circles, the New York wage board and a powder keg supposedly ready to explode in Brazil were touted as the one-two punches that were going to bring the company to the mat. One punch seems to have fallen short, and now Brazil is in the ring and though arms are flailing, much of the heat seems addressed at a big franchisee and potential tax scams in that country, which is already reeling from political payoff scandals that have weakened the left, governing Workers Party.

Observers are clearly worried that SEIU might be coming to the end of their rope unless they can deliver a knockout soon, just as UFCW has pulled the plug on its expensive OUR Walmart effort. When blood is in the water, even friends line up to offer advice. Steven Greenhouse, long time labor reporter for the Times in an unusual step weighed in at The Atlantic recommending that SEIU start picking off McDonalds’ “hot shops,” though he undoubtedly knows the statistics on the relatively low success rate in NLRB representative elections for such shops. Wilma Liebman, former chair of the NLRB, recommended that SEIU direct all of its organizing energy at corporate stores rather than franchisees to advance the cause, which is curious advice as well. To the public, McDonalds is McDonalds, and unquestionably many of the franchisees, as SEIU has found in Brazil, are way more vulnerable to organizing and pressure. Eighteen months ago a big franchisee in Houston with more than 50 locations flirted briefly with Local 100 for us to sign up his workers for Obamacare. There are athletes and others who own hundreds of locations who might be leveraged as well.

Regardless, the notion of organizing stores one-by-one has been the opposite of SEIU’s strategy in this campaign and many others over the last twenty years. One senior SEIU organizer in Los Angeles commented to me several years ago that there’s an entire generation of SEIU’s organizers that have never run an NLRB election and would be fish out of water trying to do so. SEIU knows that there were 14350 McDonalds in the USA in 2014 and 21908 internationally. The last thing they are looking for is a Vietnam style quagmire where they are locked into a struggle to organize store by store. How many would they have to organize successfully to have the moral rectitude that converts into the equivalent pressure of their current Fight for $15 Campaign? What could they deliver in collective bargaining to the first couple of hundred stores? These are hard problems, and Courtney and SEIU are clearly intent on doubling down before caving in.

It’s one thing for unions, even SEIU, to decide to throw everything up against the wall against a company for a couple of years to see if they can win. It’s another thing to decide that you are willing to make a 20, 30, or 50 year commitment to actually unionize the workers step by step, block by block, or in this case store by store.

SEIU may have to face that decision soon, but it won’t be today, while they’re still swinging hard, and the bell hasn’t rung.

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