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.

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The Big Mac Tactical Dilemma

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Action at France’s Eurodisney

New Orleans   For the fourth year there was a tactical “strike” at McDonald’s stores. Organizers claimed there were actions of one sort or another in 300 cities around the country. Much of the action was wrapped up in the slogan, Fight for $15, pointing out the inability of workers to live on McDonald’s wages.

In the United States, caring about this issue, it was hard to find the heartbeat nationally. Not a word was printed in The New York Times or Wall Street Journal on the mid-April actions. A French researcher working as a post-doc with the Kennedy Center in Berlin on a 2-yearlong study of the Fight for $15 movement met with me while in New Orleans, and was mystified that he could not find any notice of the action so that he could attend. There were no notices on the coffeehouse bulletin board. It took a couple of emails and calls, to locate any call to action. The local papers were silent for days about anything happening. When something finally appeared in the Sunday paper, days later, it was one of those “for the fourth year” protestors chanted in a local McDonald’s and tried to get workers to leave the counter to strike without success.

Talking to organizers of ACORN’s affiliate in France, there were vivid reports of huge actions in Grenoble, Rennes, and Paris. In each location stores and streets were blocked and the business was shut down for hours. The protests engaged students, unionists, and community organizations and were dramatic and militant. There was no pretense of workers’ striking, but straightforward protests aimed at McDonald’s wages and working conditions.

The picture in the paper, when it finally appeared in New Orleans, featured the back end of a straggling march down Canal Street in the center of town. Whether in New Orleans or elsewhere, it seemed to be a “tree falling that no one heard.”

The tactical dilemma is common: repetition blunts the impact, no matter how initially successful. In France, there was a newness. In the US, the action has become stale. That is not to say that it was irrelevant and unnecessary. Something has to be done. We have to maintain the pressure and the campaign. The challenge now is how to both keep the flame alive and exerting heat under McDonald’s, and with the actions seeming more rote and attracting less attention, there is a feeling of being stuck in a rut. Believing that workers in any real numbers will leave work to join protests at random stores might project strength, if it shut the store down, but in ones and twos and nones, it projects weakness more than strength. It underlines the fear and desperation of the workers, but to the public and in the mouths of company spokespeople it translates as lack of support.

The campaign has been wildly successful in lifting up the need to raise the wages of workers. Even Walmart has had to spend billions to bump up the pay scales. Now the organizing problem is how we can couple the pressure for more pay with the understanding that it requires workplace organization as the engine that delivers that result. We need solid tactics and strategies to build that bridge, but in any case we may need something new next year to keep the drive alive.

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