The well-publicized citywide fast food walkout in New York City on April 4, followed by another in Chicago on April 24, appear to be just the beginning of efforts to pressure fast food restaurants into paying higher wages.
Executive Summary: The well-publicized citywide fast food walkout in New York City on April 4, followed by another in Chicago on April 24, appear to be just the beginning of efforts to pressure fast food restaurants into paying higher wages.
On May 8, the actions spread to St. Louis and Detroit. In St. Louis, workers at a Jimmy John's restaurant walked out in what was described as a "surprise" strike. The next day the walkouts spread to other areas of the city and other restaurant franchises. Although several media outlets referred to the strikes as "wildcats," by May 10, St. Louis Post-Dispatch was reporting that the walkouts were "being organized by a coalition of community, labor and faith-based groups" in an effort to raise the minimum fast food wage to $15.00 per hour. The protests were not limited to workers; several restaurants faced large crowds of non-worker protesters. The protests included banners, picketing, and speakers with megaphones, among other actions.
These efforts come on the heels of organized labor's attempts to unionize various fast food and other retail locations in what is being called the "alt-labor movement." The AFL-CIO has a stated goal of opening "storefront" operations in every state under the name "Working America," in order to agitate for higher wages and better working conditions. Just recently in Minneapolis, the International Workers of the World union has been litigating with a group of restaurant franchisees over unionization attempts and allegations of anti-union activity by the franchisees. There have been other attempts by unions and splinter labor groups to organize restaurants and other retail businesses throughout the country in the past year.
The use of community organizations, faith-based groups, activist churches, and other groups in the loosely named "social justice community" is indicative of a "corporate campaign." The corporate campaign has gained prominence in the past fifteen years as an indirect method of union organizing. In a corporate campaign, the union teams up with other organizations in an attempt to put pressure on the employer through any means possible. This includes intensive use of media resources, filing of various charges (meritorious or, more often, not) with various government agencies, intrusive public rallies, and similar tactics. When taking this route, unions attempt to bypass traditional methods of organizing, and appeal directly to the public to put pressure on employers to voluntarily recognize the union or otherwise give in to union demands. In many cases, the protesters are not even particularly concerned about whether a union is recognized. Instead, they are trying to exert economic pressure on the employer by diverting its resources, or by convincing customers to take their business elsewhere.
Employers in the hospitality industry (particularly the fast food and other retail locations), who have traditionally not been the target of union efforts, should be aware that the situation is changing. From all accounts, the effort to pressure fast food restaurants is coordinated, going on nationwide, and likely to spread. The National Labor Relations Board has thus far been sympathetic to these efforts; in Minneapolis, the Board's Regional Office has twice issued complaints in cases involving the International Workers of the World. With a well-planned protest or collective complaint, restaurant employees can invoke the legal protections of the National Labor Relations Act and create real headaches for their employers. Employers in the hospitality industry need to be aware of what their employees' rights are. Just as importantly, employers need to know that they have the right to respond, and that they are far from helpless in the face of these efforts.
If you have any questions regarding the walkouts or your rights and limitations in responding to employee actions, please contact the author of this Alert, Alec Beck, email@example.com, who is a partner in our Minneapolis office, or the FordHarrison attorney with whom you usually work.