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unions in fast food industry

A Look At Labor’s Strategy To Organize the Fast-Food Sector

In October 2010, a union election was held at several Jimmy John’s restaurants in the Minneapolis, Minnesota area. Jimmy John’s serves sandwiches and generally competes with Subway, Quiznos, and others. What made this union drive unique was that there have been very few efforts to organize fast-food workers in the past. The company initially won the election- by a razor thin margin- but the National Labor Relations Board has since nullified the results.

Whatever the outcome of the litigation is, it is imperative that employers understand the interest that union organizers have in the fast-food industry and take proper precautions.

The beginning, not the end

The current organizing drive at Jimmy John’s was initiated by the Industrial Workers of the World. I.W.W.- also known as the Wobblies- has a long history described as ‘radical’ by The New York Times. Once boasting 100,000 members they now represent just 1,600 workers in the United States. But they have made a name for themselves by targeting low union-density industries. They have unsuccessfully tried to organize workers at Starbucks in the past, but those efforts continue to this day.

Historically, unions have shied away from the high-turnover fast-food industry which usually consists of younger worker, often teenagers still in high school, working part-time or seasonally. But the Wobblies aren’t the only union interested in breaking through. The Service Employees International Union, one of the most powerful unions in the country, has also recognized the untapped playing field and outlined a similar strategy.

Unions have broadly said they want to begin targeting low wage industries which employ a significant number of minorities, often in urban areas. An internal whitepaper from the SEIU states that they plan to “transform the low-wage economy by making the SEIU the dominant union…in seeking organizing breakthroughs in the fast food sector.”

The union hopes to begin efforts in Los Angeles and then target east coast markets, which would then be used as a “springboard for organizing and bargaining elsewhere.” They would start off by targeting “seven to ten” of the largest chains in the specific locations.

One IWW member at Jimmy John’s in Minneapolis told QSR Magazine, which covers the fast-food industry, that, “If you see one union get its foot in the door with a national chain, then you could see movement.”

In addition to having little competition, unions could be successful in targeting fast-food for other reasons. First, minorities- which tend to be overrepresented in the industry- are more likely to be receptive to unions than whites. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows African-Americans are more likely to be unionized than whites. Further, as they are likely paid a low-wage, usually around minimum wage, they would be open to the union’s message. Other traditional labor elements such as few (if any) benefits and a potentially dangerous working environment are also in play with the fast-food industry.

And by beginning with union-friendly cities such as Los Angeles, New York, or Minneapolis, they are likely to find supportive local politicians and community leaders who can put pressure on the company to comply with the union’s wishes.

What you can do

Too often, employers see a single event and believe it is just that when in reality it is part of a larger trend. But in this case, the SEIU and others have already spelled out their intentions. The fast-food industry, particularly in labor friendly metropolitan areas, needs to be aware of what may be happening around them or possibly within their own business.

Carolyn Richmond, co-chair of Fox Rothschild LLP’s Hospitality Practice Group in New York, states that in an effort to prevent unionization, employers should “self-audit their restaurants, checking diversity, wage and labor law adherence, and workplace safety conditions, while enhancing communication with employees.”

Projections, a leader in employee communication that has specialized in labor relations for over 30 years, encourages clients to take proactive measures. With forward-thinking preventive goals, clients can stay ahead of an active union organizing drive. In fact, no client of Projections that has adopted and maintained a preventative plan has been unionized in three decades. A custom IceBreaker from Projections is currently the number one tool for clients in industries such as retail and manufacturing which also have a major target on their backs from unions throughout the country.

Projections will also help you handle union activity in full compliance with the law. The election at Jimmy John’s has been nullified by the NLRB because of illegal actions. In addition to presenting your union-free message to employees, supervisors need to be trained on what is- and isn’t- legal so that does not happen to your company. Too often, supervisors- with little to no labor training- will innocently say or do the wrong thing that can potentially cost companies the election. A product like Supervisors Can Keep You Union Free will ensure that supervisors are knowledgeable and ready to help the company win.

About the author

Walter Orechwa

Walter is Projections’ CEO and the founder of UnionProof & A Better Leader. As the creator of Union Proof Certification, Walter provides expert advice, highly effective employee communication resources and ongoing learning opportunities for Human Resources and Labor Relations professionals.