With a billionaire controlling the White House and union membership still tumbling to record lows nationwide, the labor movement might be recoiling in despair in Washington. But as workers across the country protest the nomination of a fast-food magnate as labor secretary today, they’re working to seize power on the local level.
Fair-scheduling regulations—which protect against companies’ erratically changing the schedules of workers—paid sick days and minimum-wage ordinances are all emerging as keystones of a nationwide push to restore labor rights locally. Progressive cities like Seattle, Los Angeles, and New York have already implemented or introduced policies that can help Trump-proof their jurisdictions.
Meanwhile, as the fastest-growing service sectors are non-union, often based on part-time, precarious jobs, alternative forms of worker empowerment have emerged locally as a way to enhance workers’ leverage.
The Fast-Food Worker Empowerment Act, one of several labor bills recently introduced in New York City, would enable fast-food workers to exercise more collective power at work without an official union. The act evolved out of the Fast Food Forward movement that has, since it was founded in New York, mushroomed into the nationwide Fight for 15 low-wage-worker campaign—the campaign now leading protests in various cities to oppose the nomination of fast-food magnate Andy Puzder as labor secretary.
The act doesn’t offer a specific benefit. Instead, it offers a structure for collective financial and institutional support for a movement.
Many corporations have effectively gutted or beat back unions by deploying sophisticated union-busting campaigns, pushing through “right to work” policies that constrain funding for collective bargaining and organizing efforts, and taking advantage of an extremely complex and bureaucratic majority-voting process under the National Labor Relations Act. But the overarching barrier to unionization in this sector is the legal loophole that enables McDonald’s (and other franchises) to define workers as “nonemployees” in the legal sense; the vast majority are considered employees of individual franchise operators, making it near impossible to set up a collective bargaining unit larger than a single restaurant. The issue is under litigation before the National Labor Relations Board but there’s little hope under the Trump administration for spurring any full-scale unionization in fast food.
The Empowerment Act would allow voluntary members of the organization to enroll in a dues-like payment system—essentially a recurring monthly contribution, which the organization would “deduct…from the employee’s pay and remit them to the covered not-for-profit organization.” The funds would go to support the long-term organizing efforts, but could also be put back into the workplace-based efforts to support workers, finance campaigns, and fund advocacy and publicity efforts.
A steady funding structure could prove crucial to municipally based worker movements, which are increasingly focused on building alternative structures, including informal worker centers, “minority unions,” and other models less reliant on maintaining formal workplace majorities. The Empowerment Act adds to these efforts by providing a financing stream that supports a community-based movement that needs a nimble structure to organize workers through informal networks and grassroots community-labor coalitions.
The legislation would also help strengthen local networks for community-based labor advocacy, which has played an increasingly vital role in cities like New York in uplifting quality-of-life issues, including equitable community investment and minimum-wage enforcement, an increasingly prominent issue as the city enacts a new $15 hourly floor wage.
And the role of fast-food workers at the front line of labor struggles nationwide is especially important now that Puzder, with his sordid track record of wage theft and workplace-safety violations as former CEO of CKE restaurants indicates that he will soon bring his management style to workplaces across the country.
According to Andrew Stettner, a policy analyst with the Center Foundation who has been tracking Puzder’s record, the Fight for 15 foreshadowed the fight now playing out over the impending Hardee’s takeover of the federal authority on workers’ rights.
“What’s most interesting is that the choice of Mr. Puzder has emboldened workers at Puzder’s restaurants and beyond…to reveal illicit labor practices, file legal complaints, deliver searing testimony to senators, with anger spilling into the streets.” As Fight for 15 activists rally in cities across the country today, he adds, “It’s no surprise to me that they are so vociferously defending the most important worker protections the nation has left.”
But New York’s fast-food workers hope to lead the pushback against the fast food labor model. Fight for 15 activist Jorel Ware tells The Nation, “Here we are making history again to get this law passed…and we’re going to get our dignity and respect back in our workplace.” Ware, who has been with the movement since the first strikes in 2012, says creating a homegrown worker-led organization helps them define their workplace-justice campaigns, which have generally been financed by SEIU for years, as an autonomous movement. The legislation could change the power dynamic at many fast-food workplaces.
“They’re used to being able to just run all over us, do whatever they want, pay poverty wages,” Ware says. “But when we have the law backing us up…. When you have that power behind you…[and bosses] know you’re going to fight for their rights no matter what, and there’s going to be consequences if they violate our rights, then they kind of back down [and say] I’m not on your side, but I’m going to follow the law.” As wage standards rise, he anticipates autonomous worker groups will aid with enforcement: “[Employers are] going to still try to violate the workers’ rights, right? So we can form an organization and we can retaliate”—for example by staging a picket or pressuring employers with a petition. “They have to weigh their options, they gotta give us what the law tells us that we can have, or we’re going to make you lose money.”
For the nationwide movement, Ware says, alternative workplace-justice organizations show the big-chain restaurants that “you’re not going to give us a union, but we’re going to form an organization [that is] going to be just like a union, and you’re going give us the rights that we deserve.”
With traditional unions withering across the country, if New York’s fast-food workers break new ground in establishing workplace representation, they will show that for a new wave of organizers, institutional barriers are no obstacle in times of crisis.