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Unions and the changing face of fast food

3 min read


I came of age at a time when foodservice jobs were mostly there to help us earn spending money on the way to becoming who we would be when we grew up. Many of us graduated from minimum-wage high-school gigs behind fast-food counters to tipped work in higher-end eateries and bars that let us put ourselves through college.

For the most part, we counted on our parents to take care of health insurance until we got a “real” job that came with benefits. Today, for many, those quickservice gigs are the real job, but the pay hasn’t kept up with changing times, and the jobs still largely come without affordable health care benefits. The issue has been debated for years, between workers who can’t make ends meet and restaurant chains that say paying higher wages and providing benefits would drive up prices and put the brakes on growth and job creation.

The issue seems to be coming to a head, as evidenced by backlash against restaurant executives and franchisees who threatened higher prices and job cuts under the health care law and by an unprecedented strike by about 200 fast-food workers at chains in New York City. In an analysis headlined “Unionizing the Bottom of the Pay Scale,” New York Times reporter Eduardo Porter profiles a 79-year-old Peruvian immigrant and a 28-year-old single dad from Atlanta, two men with seemingly little in common except their struggle to make ends meet through quickservice jobs and food stamps.

The men were part of the strike, a demonstration to highlight workers’ push to increase pay to $15 per hour — more than double the hourly wage for many foodservice workers — and gain the right to unionize.

This isn’t the first time fast-food workers have tried to unionize. In 2010, a group of Jimmy John’s employees from 10 Minneapolis stores narrowly voted down a proposal to join the Industrial Workers of the World, a union that has lost most of its clout in the past century.

This latest push is different, because it includes workers from chains and because it has support from bigger and more powerful forces, including the Service Employees International Union. SEIU garnered attention in the 1990s and 2000s for organizing low-paid janitors nationwide, finding success by turning the “Justice for Janitors” campaign from a unionizing effort into a broader movement.

The New York City fast-food workers’ strike also comes with a catchy name, Fast Food Forward. Its website says the effort is “part of the national movement of low-wage workers fighting for a better future.”

Despite SEIU’s success, unions have grown weaker in recent decades, and Porter concludes that unionizing the restaurant industry is likely an uphill battle. However, he warns that if wages and benefits don’t improve, more of the burden for making sure low-wage workers have food and medical care will fall on taxpayers.

Do you think the fast-food industry will ever unionize on a significant scale? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.