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.