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Why Fast Food Workers' Right to Unionize Is More Important Than $15 Per Hour

If they do not unionize, it will be harder to keep fighting for wage increases and other rights like paid sick days.

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Fast food workers spent the past few years fighting for a livable wage — ideally $15 per hour — and the right to unionize. So far, they have seen a surprising amount of success with the former: The Fight for 15 campaign, which has been run and financed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), has helped to convince lawmakers in SeattleSan FranciscoNew York City, and Los Angeles to adopt a $15 per hour minimum wage, and has inspired smaller increases in other states and cities across the county. But a higher minimum wage will likely not solve the workers' problems, according to the Atlantic. Instead, the more important piece of the puzzle may be the right to unionize.

Many economists say that a higher minimum wage will likely result in "few jobs overall." If the low-paid labor force shrinks, it will be harder for them to get other minimum wage hikes or benefits like maternity leave enacted because they will have less clout. It's not a question of the workers wanting to unionize, and the SEIU wanting to unionize the fast food employees: The organization has spent $30 million on the Fight for 15 campaign so far, partially in hopes of reeling in dues-paying members to help the union grow. However so far, they haven't been able to unionize any fast food employees.

This is because unionizing workers on the "bottom rungs" of a company is very difficult. Often the workers are immigrants and are "terrified of being fired." Plus, many of the fast food workers are employed in "non-traditional" roles like part-time jobs or are working for a franchised business. When dealing with franchised business, each separate franchise owner must be convinced to unionize. Plus, some fast food workers have concluded that winning a $15 per hour wage is enough and unionizing is not necessary. Stephen Lerner, a strategist at SEIU, notes: "Just 1.7 percent of fast-food workers... belong to unions." Lerner adds that people "badly underestimate the level of resistance when you try to unionize a company."

McDonald's — one of the largest fast food employers — has been notoriously resistant to unionizing. One of the complications the SEIU must face is that only 1,500 McDonald's locations are corporate owned, so to unionize its workers, the SEIU has to convince each individual franchise owner as well. Plus, the chain just has no interest in having a conversation with the SEIU. A spokesperson told the Atlantic: "While the SEIU has spent tens of millions of dollars in an unsuccessful attempt to unionize McDonald's workers, it does not represent any employee in a McDonald's restaurant. Therefore, there is no reason for our company and the union to meet."

However, if the SEIU did manage to convince McDonald's to sit down and talk, it could inspire a "wave of copycat unionization" from other franchised restaurants like Subway and Dunkin' Donuts. This is good news for fast food workers who would then be able to continue to fight for additional rights like paid sick days. McDonald's has an incredible amount of clout in the industry: When the chain announced that it would no longer use antibiotic-treated milk and poultry, a number of other food companies followed suit shortly after. So whatever McDonald's decides to do regarding unions, the rest of the industry will likely follow.