Wage protests stem from unions, not grass roots

Fast-food restaurants are bracing themselves for another round of coordinated wage protests scheduled to take place today in major cities nationwide, including Las Vegas.

These “strikes” have made national headlines for more than two years now, driven by largely sympathetic media coverage. The protest organizers argue that the event is simply the next phase of a grass-roots movement. But new union spending disclosures released by the Labor Department tell a very different story — one of union coordination rather than grass-roots employee motivation.

Running the show is the Service Employees International Union, whose organizers are demanding “$15 and a union” — that is, a $15 minimum wage and representation by the SEIU. In an unscripted moment, the SEIU’s lead organizer on this campaign admitted that the $15 demand was arbitrary. In his words, “$10 was too low and $20 was too high, so we landed at $15.”

But it’s union representation, and the associated dues payments, that are the real goal of the SEIU. The union’s 2014 Labor Department filings show that more than $17 million was spent last year in pursuit of this prize, via Workers Organizing Committees in cities including New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee and Chicago. These union-backed committees use the money to act as the hands and feet of the “grass-roots” fast-food protests.

Of course, they can’t do it on their own: To appear authentic and make a splash in the press, the campaign needs public relations help — and that help doesn’t come cheap. Controversial New York-based PR firm BerlinRosen was paid a cool $1.3 million for the job in 2014, up from $848,000 in 2013 and $393,000 in 2012. (Remember: These hefty PR retainers are funded from the paychecks of janitors and cafeteria workers.)

BerlinRosen is tasked with taking the stories of a handful of disaffected fast-food employees and getting the media to report on them as if they are the basis of a major labor uprising. The firm gives this story sizzle for each subsequent round of protests by including a new gimmick, like expanding the protests overseas or making promises of civil disobedience. For the upcoming protests, college students and campuses will take part.

Despite the big fees, BerlinRosen has made some bush-league mistakes. At a past protest, the Washington Examiner reported that numerous spokespeople — across different times and places — all relied exclusively on the same talking point about not being able to afford shoes for themselves or their children. One columnist who tried to reach a fast-food protester was directed to a PR agent — a vice president at BerlinRosen.

Last year, after my organization raised questions about the unintended consequences of a $15 minimum wage, one of BerlinRosen’s flacks responded by writing to editorial boards at major newspapers across the country, begging them not to publish our findings.

This sinister side of the fast-food movement—where dissenting voices are encouraged to shut up — was put into stark relief by SEIU organizer Kendall Fells, who oversees the fast-food protests. Asked in the spring of 2014 how they would respond if a restaurant employer resolved to discipline an employee walking off the job, he said: “We’ll bring 150 people and shut their store down, day after day after day.”

It’s true that the SEIU and BerlinRosen have identified some compelling stories of employees whose lives are difficult. But these challenging life circumstances don’t justify an unworkable wage mandate that only creates more hardship. The cities of Oakland and San Francisco are currently experiencing this firsthand: In the months since voters passed labor union-supported wage mandates of $12.25 and $15 an hour respectively, businesses have shed employees and in some cases closed their doors entirely.

It’s these closed doors and lost opportunities behind the SEIU’s slick PR campaign that represent the real story of these fast-food “strikes” — and the real “union label.”

Michael Saltsman is research director at the Employment Policies Institute, which received support from restaurants, foundations and individuals.

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