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Why Aren’t Fast-Food Workers Unionized?

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The state of collective bargaining in the fast-food industry.

STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

Last Wednesday marked the most recent series of protests by fast-food workers in an event three years in the making. The workers, along with service employees from other industries, resolutely demand an industry-wide wage increase to $15 an hour. The protests, dubbed "Fight For 15," have touched nearly every major city in the nation: But despite the national attention garnered by Fight for 15, most fast-food restaurants have been able to carry on with business as usual. This is largely due to the fact that fast-food workers have never successfully unionized, a fact labor unions are doggedly trying to change. Unions' ongoing efforts to organize the fast-food base are evinced by the Fight For 15 movement itself, with many protesters carrying signs reading "Whatever It Takes: $15 and Union Rights." Even more telling, the movement is backed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which according to the business-backed Worker Center Watch, has invested nearly $50 million in the protests (in September 2014, the New York Times reported that number stood at $10 million).

But what are unions, anyway? The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), also known as the Wagner Act, was enacted by President Roosevelt in 1935 as part of the Second New Deal. The Act provided much-needed reforms to the nation's labor system. Even in the pre-NLRA days, workers were free to organize and strike. However, employers were able to legally fire employees who unionized or went on strike, and during the Great Depression, finding replacement employees was not an issue. By 1934, labor unrest had reached new levels of chaos, with city-wide strikes frequently erupting in violence. The NLRA calmed the waters by granting employees the affirmative right to unionize and by prohibiting employers from engaging in unfair labor practices, including the retaliatory firing of union members.

The heart of the NLRA provides that "Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, [and] to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing." Collective bargaining gives employees more leverage to demand higher wages and other benefits by backing up those demands with the credible threat of strikes. When restaurant-industry workers have unionized in the past, they've been able to do just that: In March 2014, Culinary and Bartenders Unions in Las Vegas went on strike against nearly 10 resort properties around town; by June, the union had secured new culinary contracts with all the properties involved. However, employees must make the decision to unionize by a majority vote, something fast-food workers have largely failed to do.

Neither SEIU nor any other major union actually represents the nation's fast-food workers. Workers' rights advocates identify two primary reasons why fast-food workers have been unable to unionize. First, many states have hindered the ability of workers to unionize by enacting right-to-work laws, which resulted from the unprecedented gains unions made after the NLRA's enactment. From 1935 to 1947, union membership ballooned from 3,728,000 members to 15,414,000 members, an expansion 72 times larger than that experienced from 1925 to 1935. A Republican-controlled congress attempted to restore the equilibrium among workers, unions, and employers by enacting the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. In addition to imposing significant restrictions on union power, the Act also allows states to enact right-to-work laws, which prohibit unions from requiring non-union employees to pay representation fees similar to the dues paid by their union co-workers.

Unionized workers on strike in 1930. Photo:

Unionized workers on strike in 1930. Photo: Lambert/Getty Images

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, "under right-to-work laws, states have the authority to determine whether workers can be required to join a labor union to get or keep a job." Opponents of right-to-work laws argue the laws weaken unions by eliminating their long-standing ability to exact fees from non-union workers. Without these fees, unions fall victim to what economist Mancur Olson defined as the free-rider effect — during which those who benefit from resources anyway have no financial incentive to contribute to them — and are unable to finance their representation. The result: Existing unions weaken and new unions become difficult to form.

But unions have difficulty organizing fast-food workers even in states that haven't enacted right-to-work laws. This is due to the inherent characteristics of the fast-food workforce. Most of these workers view their jobs as temporary — a necessary means to a more lucrative and fulfilling end. This leaves many fast-food workers unwilling to pay union dues, as they plan to be long gone by the time a union is actually elected, negotiates a contract, and delivers employment benefits.

Opponents of right-to-work laws argue they weaken unions.

Unfortunately, things don't always work out as planned. Many fast-food workers are finding themselves trapped in a job they thought they'd have left behind years ago. The great recession is partly to blame, but so are the low wages paid by fast-food restaurants. According to a new study by the Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California, nearly 52 percent of all fast-food employees are dependent on public assistance. (This means taxpayers are effectively paying a huge subsidy to allow fast-food employers to continue paying abysmal wages.) In effect, the fast-food industry is a cyclical poverty trap for many workers. Workers won't unionize because they plan to leave the industry before they can reap the benefits of collective bargaining; they're also in a hurry to exit the industry because of the pay and benefits.

But the recent demonstrations might break the cycle. With thousands of people taking to the streets, it is becoming clear that many fast-food workers are not the awkward high schoolers we imagine. Fight For 15 has prompted a national discussion about the living wage: President Obama even joined the conversation last year when he proposed raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. Since the protests began, states, cities, and even individual businesses have taken it upon themselves to increase the minimum wage to which their workers are entitled. With this in mind, unionization may finally become a feasible option for fast-food workers — at least those residing in states that have not enacted right-to-work laws.

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