Will the Fight for 15 (Officially) Go Union?

Welcome to The American Prospect’s weekly roundup highlighting the best reporting and latest developments in the labor movement. 

(Compiled by Justin Miller—Edited by Harold Meyerson

A Union for the 21st Century 

At the Service Employees International Union’s annual convention in Detroit, leaders of the National Organizing Committee for the Fight for 15 announced that their members will soon vote on whether they want to formally join the union.

Getting Fight for 15 workers to join up will be a big strategic step for SEIU, which is the chief architect and major funder of the burgeoning fast-food worker campaign. Thus far, the union has poured millions of dollars into the campaign despite the limited prospects of quickly unionizing those workers and turning them into dues-paying members—a strategy that has provoked some internal grumblings.

But the campaign’s unionization prospects could be looking up. The National Labor Relations Board is currently investigating whether the McDonald’s corporation is jointly responsible for employees at its franchise locations, which employ 90 percent of McDonald’s workers. The company, along with others in the fast-food industry, has argued that it can’t raise wages or negotiate union contracts with these workers because it isn’t their direct employer. But a recent NLRB decision,Browning Ferris, set a new joint-employer standard by ruling that companies are broadly responsible for the workers that are employed by their independent contractors and franchisees.

If the NLRB determines sometime this year that this joint-employer standard applies to McDonald’s, SEIU will have Fight for 15 members formally in its ranks and will likely launch union elections in several “hot shops” where workers are primed to organize. Corporate headquarters would then be required to come to the table, along with its franchisees, setting a huge new precedent for union organizing in sectors that have become fissured through arms-length employer-employee relationships.

In the meantime, Fight for 15 members of SEIU will be in a form of limbo. They will be hybrid-union members, for whom the union can advocate public policy reforms (which it already does: see, e.g., the $15 minimum wage) and continue to organize in ways either conventional (if the NLRB rules their way) or nontraditional. SEIU President Mary Kay Henry says the arrangement amounts to what is a “21st-century union” that relies on backdoor, roundabout organizing methods that don’t work within the traditional labor law framework. “We have never let an outdated labor law stand in the way of workers being able to stand together,” Henry told Cora Lewis of BuzzFeed News. “We did it 90 years ago for janitors, 40 years ago with every public employee, and 15 years ago for home care workers.”

Of the campaign’s “$15 and a union” battle cry, the media have reported widely on the $15 part while giving no more than glancing notice to the unionization demand. To be sure, the tremendous success that the Fight for 15 has experienced—winning $15 minimum in the nation’s two largest blue states (California and New York) and blue cities (New York and Los Angeles), not to mention San Francisco and Seattle, has been a huge story—one for the history books. If the Fight for 15 can also succeed in unionizing workers in previously “unorganizable” low-wage sectors, that will arguably be an even more significant achievement. Much depends on the NLRB case, which McDonald’s is fighting at every step of the way.

Warren Champions Gig Workers

Senator Elizabeth Warren has long been the most effective opponent of Wall Street greed. Now she’s expanding her portfolio to include improving the rights and economic security of workers in nontraditional employment. Last week, Warrendelivered a policy speech at New America calling out the on-demand economy. “For many, the gig economy is simply the next step in a losing effort to build some economic security in a world where all the benefits are floating to the top 10 percent,” Warren declared.

In her speech, she called for major changes to our antiquated worker classification system, which employers have exploited to get out of providing benefits and adequate pay to their workers. Warren also said she supports the right for contract workers to organize and bargain with the employer who actually controls their work, a nod to the Browning Ferris decision, and to Seattle’s ordinance that gives collective bargaining rights to Uber, Lyft, and taxi drivers.

Perhaps most notably, Warren proposed a policy that would require on-demand companies like Uber and TaskRabbit to pay into a system that provides workers with “portable benefits” as they move from gig to gig, or app to app. The policy was first floated by Seattle business leader Nick Hanauer and Seattle labor leader David Rolf in an article in the journal Democracy. (The Prospect recently posted Hanauer’s article “Confronting the Parasite Economy” from our forthcoming summer issue, while Rolf’s article, “Toward a 21st-Century Labor Movement” ran in our spring issue.)

Some contend that the prevalence of the gig economy and its workforce implications are dramatically overblown, and that systems like “portable benefits” or the creation of a third worker classification are giving into Silicon Valley’s insistence for special treatment rather than requiring that the tech industry to treat its app workers like traditional employees and pay into Social Security and unemployment insurance.

David Dayen argues in The New Republic that the policy is a recognition of the fact that many workers have become career free agents, floating from job to job without a traditional safety net, and that it’s very significant that Warren has taken up the cause. At the same time, Dayen writes that such “1099 employees,” as he has termed them, and their gig employers should have to pay into Social Security and unemployment insurance as well.

“Portable benefit packages are the next frontier of liberal policymaking,” he writes. “When Warren attaches her name and stature to a subject, it usually becomes part of the liberal policy framework.”

“If Hillary Clinton becomes president and Democrats win the Senate,” Dayen continues, “Warren will be able to start on this workplace agenda from the majority as a lead policymaker on the center-left.”


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