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Fast Food Heaven for Labor Unions 5/21/2013

By: Ricardo Torres

In attempt to replenish declining membership, the AFL/CIO, SEIU and other traditional unions have begun partnering with so-called 'alt-labor' worker centers to target restaurant workers and other traditionally non-organized employees. Read on to find insight into how the recent fast food strikes are part of the unions' tactics to work with these groups to attack and destabilize small business franchisees in order to grow membership.

The union has dug their feet in once again with American fast food workers.  Hundreds of Detroit fast food workers recently walked off the job, marking the 4th major city to experience fast food restaurant strikes (with many more to come, according to reports).  In fact, the Detroit action was called the largest fast food strike in U.S. history.

These actions were carried out over the past few weeks and were directed by Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network; the Service Employees International Union (SEIU); the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW); and Good Jobs Now (a coalition of community, labor and religious organizations which, in itself, is very telling about the long term goals and responsibilities).

I, along with the AFL/CIO past organizing director Richard Bensinger, who is currently the UAW Organizing director, pushed for increased organizing efforts in the fast food industry as we were building the advanced organizing tactics at the George Meany center for labor studies. At that time, the organizing attention was directed towards the healthcare industry, and most affiliated unions were hopping aboard that train. Our position was that it was a shortsighted position to take.  My suggestion was that we treat the fast food industry the same as any other industry (i.e. newspaper, warehousing, healthcare, auto, hospitality, etc.). We put together the organizing foundation for the fast food industry, but it got very little attention until just recently.

Since that time, many changes have taken place in the labor movement. We have witnessed a split with the AFL/CIO federation and the introduction of the Change to Win federation which divided the affiliates into these two groups. This has caused internal disorganization and a need to realign their growth and fiscal priorities. The Change to Win federation is demonstrating with these actions that they are finally getting their growth plan in place. The two unions involved in the fast food walkouts are affiliates of Change to Win.

AFL-CIO President, Richard Trumka, has announced that he has commissioned a six-month internal audit of organizing tactics and target priorities to be announced at their National convention. Sources tell us that part of the commission will direct major resources to the fast food industrial.

First of all, why is the fast food industry a good target for union organizing? I will reveal some of the reasons and tactics we put together in our industrial plan.

When we put together these industrial organizing tactics, we examined the unchanging characters of the fast food targets we wanted to attack and the characteristics that make them easy targets.  When developing these tactics, we always looked at the exposed underbelly of our prey to achieve the biggest bang for the buck.Some of the characteristics that were true then and remain true today include:

  • Excessive turnover rate
  • High dissatisfaction rate among employees
  • Majority of stores are owned by franchisees
  • Large number of employees are under age 25
  • Enormous workforce (more than 2.6 million fast food workers in the U.S.)
  • Fast food workers receive low wages (current average rate is between $14,930 and $18,870 annually)
  • Industry has one of the highest injury rates in any employee sectors
  • Fast food employees typically work without medical benefits

These are only some characteristics of what we we called the “exposed underbelly” of the fast food industry. These characteristics drive highly emotional issues that unions use to attack and enrage employees into fueling union organizing efforts. We would hit these issues with laser-like precision to prevent management from representing the “good side” of working in this industry.  

First of all, our plan was to make all organizing efforts local efforts.  Inner cities were to be the first targets and then we would expand to the surrounding areas because the demographics of the inner cities would create a more supportive community based on the fact that the employees would travel less distance to work and be familiar with people in the area.  We planned on partnering with high profile interfaith religious groups to establish the social justice aspect of the efforts, for example the gross profit for the fast food industry is over 59% which is what the unions would attack as part of making these targets appear inhuman in their treatment towards their employees.

Our plan was to establish a fast food department comprised of non-experienced organizers recruited directly from workers in the fast food industry and giving them a perception of an opportunity (we referred to this perceived opportunity as “the carrot” in our report) for employment for the top organizing performers.  This was to be offered on a casual basis, which would have put them in a low-tier position within the union structure with no guarantee of future employment but provide us with industry experts at the same time. We would than send them to the George Meany center for labor studies to be trained.

We planned on creating a media blitz to make the industry nervous and bring free media attention to the so called abuse and injustice treatment of these employees to build widespread support.  

The youth of these employees plays a big advantage for the organizing efforts.  Younger workers have more energy and are more apt to take on their employers, so we would create a mob like atmosphere to fuel the natural rebellious nature of this age group.

Another tactic that we put into our plan was organizing with unpredictability. We planned on using guerrilla tactics without apparent form or consistency to keep employers off guard to make them jump at their own shadows. By doing this, we knew we would trigger them into making mistakes and create instability within their work force.

When we zeroed in on our targets that had 100% turnover rate, we would flood them with salts. Salts are employees who are union supporters or union employees that are sent into a target facility to gather information and to help fuel emotional issues associated with building a union campaign platform. Salts were paid small incentives to infiltrate the target and serve as our professional troublemakers. To ensure loyalty and stealth, we put together a network of local union outreaches where the new members would belong and we would hire college aged family members of the union members to work as the salts. This would also provide a tight circle of loyalty to the cause. We also planned on reaching out to the Central Labor Councils (CLS’s) for recruitment, logistic, community, political and sympathetic media support.

To soften our targets we planned on a campaign blitz attacking the fast food industry in general. Part of this campaign would include exploiting the following:

  • How the fast food industry is dominated by a handful of powerful corporations who are determined to aggressively drive production costs to a minimum. 
    • Low wages are a central part of their business plan. 
    • Every dollar employers have to pay in wages or benefits is one less dollar in their pocket.
  • McDonald’s, Burger King, and Yum (Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC) have been the most successful in applying this formula.
    • They employ more than 3.7 million people worldwide.
    • They operate a combined total of 60,000+ stores
  • Ray Kroc took over the McDonald’s franchises in the 1950’s. 
    • Kroc paved the foundation for the fast-food industry. 
    • Kroc described his business philosophy:  
      • “This is rat eat rat, dog eat dog. I’ll kill ‘em and I’m going to kill ‘em before they kill me. You’re talking about the American way of survival of the fittest”
    • When Kroc spoke of his competition he said:  
      • “If they were drowning I would put a hose in their mouth”
  • Making employees work harder for less money means more money for the owners. 
    • It is not a relationship of mutual benefit 
    • It is a relationship of a knife in the heart where owners make gains at the employees’ expense. 
    • We leveraged this as a means for members of the working class to fight as one against the corporate machine.
  • We painted the fast food industry as unsympathetic and a cause of the huge national healthcare expense 
    • “Individuals can still afford a Big Mac, but the public can no longer afford to pay for the fallout. The costs of fighting diet-related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease are becoming untenable. Obesity in the U.S. is now afflicting 34% of the population and is responsible for an additional $190 billion per year in healthcare costs,” as reported in Reuters.

These were just a few of the points that we developed to create an outrage, or at least a disconcerting view, of the industry with the general public. Our plan was to portray the fast food industry as arrogant, heartless corporate entities and their employees as exploited victims.

Union leadership knew the bottom line was to set the industry up for the kill. Once we selected which met our “easy target” criteria, we would do whatever it took to ensure quick victories and to set an example for future targets so that fear would prevent them from fighting against our organizing efforts out of fear.

Our detailed plan included hitting the first targets with a concentrated attack, with salts gamely employed at select locations. Good targets included locations belonging to franchise owners with multiple restaurants in close knit communities. We looked for ones with sympathetic employees with good stories to take to the media, which were to be manufactured by our salts if necessary.

According to our plan, the fastest way to bring each location to the table included a simultaneous slow down of business by sabotaging the sanitary conditions of the restaurant, destroying their reputation, holding spontaneous walk out actions, developing public support movements and bringing in the media to create public awareness. This campaign would run for an extended period of time (until we won) and be done in an effort to increase the employee turnover rate at the target locations.

We knew that the cost of reinvesting in new employees is very expensive. The US Bureau of National Affairs reports estimates that, even if you pay only 6 dollars an hour, it costs a company $3600.00 for each employee that leaves. According to research done by Sibson and Company, a fast food restaurant must sell 7,613 children’s combo meals at $2.50 each to recoup this cost.

Our plan was to hit them with a “one-two” punch before they even knew they were in a fight. We wanted to cause an unbearable increase in the cost of doing business.  With no referees in this fight to cry foul, our plan was to force them into retreat or force them out of business due to inflexibility. Either way, the union would win by twisting the truth to reflect the target’s closing because it was a weeding out the weak to make room for a better operation and we would portray it as a win for the community. This was our way of throwing down the gauntlet to other franchise owners.

The fast food industry is a fairly soft target for the unions. Today there is still a low overhead and significant profit gains. The industry has many positive aspects union organizing attempts would try to obscure. Right now, this industry is in need of a well thought out strategy to take a stand against the unions. Union organizing in this industry will take a huge bite out of the attractiveness that draws entrepreneurs into investing their life savings and devoting their hard work into making a difference in the communities by offering job opportunities. 

Today we see the unions preparing for battle with this untapped industry. The plan isn’t a new one, but it seems that they are finally ready to move forward with a strategy that I helped develop years ago. It would have worked back then, and it will work now. The unions have thrown down their gauntlets. The recent walkouts in the fast food industry were only the gun at the starting line. Owners in this industry need to wake up and realize that they need to prepare for a war. They must take a proactive stance and prepare for a long road ahead of them with the unions.

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