Fast Food Justice Wins Checkoff in New York City

Little Rock   New York City passed a first-of-its-kind, one and only ordinance last year in an effort to help fast food workers in the city who have been trying to organize under various banners since the Fight for $15 campaign began. The ordinance required employers – in this case, fast food companies – to allow payroll deductions to be processed for membership dues payments to a nonprofit that was not a union or engaged in collective bargaining but was advocating for workers rights.

Fast Food Justice, a nonprofit in New York City meeting those requirements has succeeded in getting 1200 fast food workers to sign such pledges in order to trigger the requirement. These workers have agreed to pay monthly dues to the organization of $13.50 per month. Reportedly, the effort was supported by the Service Employees International Union, which has been the organizer and paymaster of such campaigns for almost all of these efforts in recent years.

Leaders of Fast Food Justice who did the work are of course happy and wild, enthusiastic congratulations to all of them for doing the work and getting the job done. The National Restaurant Association says that it will sue and that the ordinance discriminates against fast food employers, so this may be delayed in court or thrown out completely. The New York Times quoted someone from the National Employment Law Project saying that this accomplishment was important as a step forward towards “sustainability.” Professor Janice Fine, a respected labor scholar, colleague, and friend, said it was “proof of concept,” and that is certainly true, given that the barrier was set high under the ordinance and many believed it would not be achieved, so she’s right as rain on that.

Janice was also quoted further saying, “When I speak to people in other cities, they get really interested. They can imagine a law like this one where they are.” Frankly, while we applaud the success of Fast Food Justice in New York City, Janice and any others asked need to advise organizers to go another direction.

Why should Janice and I say this? Let me list the reasons.

  • It is almost the identical amount of work, perhaps a little more, to get workers to sign dues authorizations to their credit/debit cards or banking accounts.
  • There is no threshold or time barrier to dues being collected other than what the organization sets and the members allow, as opposed to this precedent. [See similar threshold for Texas state workers that only CWA could ever climb until 1992!]
  • This is a highly mobile workforce that will move from operator to operator so employer specific checkoff like this is not as advantageous as direct deposits by the workers. [Can you imagine how much time and trouble it will take Fast Food Justice to get Arby’s to pick up the deduction for a former Papa John worker, when the worker moves to a new job?!?]
  • Direct payment from the workers entails no bars on the type of activity the workers can pursue both on and off the job, both as a workers’ organization or for that matter as a union.
  • There is no legal question or any governmental authority that can challenge direct payment and dues deductions from workers to an organization, since this is constitutionally protected and personal.
  • All forms of employer dues deductions are under attack so whenever we can take the employer out of the equation when a worker decides to join and support an organization – or union – that’s a better course.

So, congratulations Fast Food Justice, and good luck bringing justice to fast food workers, but for those organizations trying to sustain such work, go a better route by directly enrolling workers and facilitating their dues payments through their personal financial tools.


Seems No End to Some Rent-to-Own Contracts

New Orleans   As the teams of ACORN Home Savers Campaign student volunteers came in from the field on Sunday afternoon with their reports on the families they visited who were under various housing contracts in Memphis, the stories were stirring and profound. Having been greenhorns on Saturday, now many of them spoke in the language of veterans about their experiences. The campaign had learned from their first day and made the maps tighter and pruned the list, while the teams had buckled down better on the reporting and their own efficiency. We were on a learning curve and making progress. As one canvasser told me, “I wish Sunday had been our long day, and Saturday had been the short one,” as she spoke about the qualitative difference of what she had been able to bring to the work. Skepticism and student sassiness had been replaced with seriousness in the pursuit, as the teams were able to talk to more families and feel both the promise and the pain of their situations.

One of the most harrowing stories was told me by a woman who had asked me the most challenging questions in the first day’s briefing. They had visited a young, 25-year old woman with some children, about their same age. She was in a contract with the local Memphis company, Affordable Property Management. She was paying $700 per month on the contract for a house priced in the range of $70,000 from what they heard. She was reasonably happy with the contract. The kick in the gut came when they heard the term of the contract for her to finally receive the deed. It was fifty-two (52) years. Yes, 52 years! Were she ever to complete the contract, and it’s hard to believe that she will, she would be 77 years old! We didn’t see the contract, but one can imagine for 52 years that the interest rate and other provisions must be incredible. We’ll be speaking to her again soon! The canvasser when leaving turned to me and said, “We may have started out wrong yesterday, but we’re best friends now, Wade.” That’s the story of organizing once boots are on the ground and fists hit the door.

The first thought many would have is that, hey, mortgages are for 30-years. Right, but this isn’t a mortgage. It’s a contract, and contracts can go for 99 years or be in perpetuity for that matter. Even mortgages are not time limited. During the financial crisis, many big league banks in the US tried to modify mortgages by extending the terms to 35, 38 or 40 years. Sweden just reduced the maximum term of its mortgages to 105 years from 145 years. Japan and the UK in their housing affordability crises have extended terms as well.

Many families wanted to convert to conventional mortgages. They were positive about coming to a meeting in early January to push their companies for better deals and a clear path to ownership.

My own visits produced the same range of experiences. One family with Christmas decorations all over the house had been under lease contract for 5 years and desperately wanted to convert. In another case the house seemed abandoned. Windows were boarded and the screen door was tied to the front door. When I knocked, I could hear children inside. There was no answer. They may have been told to never open the door. At one door, I didn’t meet the owner, but tenants who were renting rooms from the lease option holder who was also renting the driveway for commercial trucks. They were the only house on the street, almost within shouting distance of the huge warehouse complex in north Memphis that seemed endless until I drove by the street corner and saw the swoosh known worldwide as the Nike emblem.