You’ve probably noticed a lot of media attention swirling around calls for a higher minimum wage lately.
Groups such as Fast Food Forward and Fight for 15 are demanding a $15 per-hour minimum wage for fast food workers and organizing employee walkouts in cities across the nation. Meanwhile, employers and their business group allies are doing everything they can to resist these demands, pleading that their margins are already slim and higher labor costs will cripple them.
It’s the classic American labor struggle—one that pits worker empowerment against free enterprise. Pretty straightforward, right? Well, not so fast.
More Than Meets the Eye
We are in the midst of one of the greatest organized labor campaigns in recent history and calls for minimum wage are just a focal point to a larger effort. For those involved in advocacy, there are lessons to be learned.
First, a little perspective: It’s no secret that American labor unions are in decline. The behemoth that was union households has shrunk to just more than 11 percent in recent years (and that figure declines to 6.5 percent if you take out public employees).
We just don’t create heavy manufacturing jobs like we used to, and when we do, employers know they have to work with employees if they want to make union membership less attractive.
Traditionally, unions have responded to threats by increasing efforts to elect friendly legislators. The AFL-CIO and most other traditional unions still employ this tactic.
But one labor union has gone in another, more creative direction.
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has embarked on a costly and highly organized effort to organize workers in our new service economy. Which brings us back to restaurant workers.
One of the last great pools of unorganized labor is the hospitality industry (restaurants and hotels). Recognizing a new membership source, SEIU has its eyes on the prize and is diving into the challenge of organizing a traditionally transient subset of American of workers.
Heavy Lifting for Unions
SEIU has its work cut out for it as increasing the number of union contracts will take time, a lot of effort and a change in overall public attitudes. Enter worker centers like the Restaurant Opportunity Center (ROC).
A relatively new phenomenon, worker centers are structured as charitable educational resources that ostensibly exist to inform employees about their rights. Worker centers cannot legally conduct union-organizing campaigns, but they can help organize events such as demonstrations calling for higher pay.And they’ve been doing a good job of it with centers like ROC leading the charge for higher wages in front of local McDonald’s outlets and demonizing the hospitality industry as a whole as oppressive and exploitative.
Since 2014, SEIU has invested more than $20 million in worker centers. In a sense, SEIU’s investment has allowed it to deliver a call for unions without actually delivering a direct call for unions.
Just as SEIU hasn’t been completely transparent, the business community has not been entirely above board in its response to this turmoil.
Restaurant and hotel companies are on the front lines when it comes to dealing with sign-waving demonstrators, as these protests happen right at their front doors. Businesses are under a lot of pressure to keep the demonstrations from damaging their reputations. And the business community isn’t lying when it maintains that profit margins for the industry are traditionally slim and increased labor costs could have real consequences for individual franchises and chains.
But national business groups leverage the threat of job losses and business closures as a part of their proxy war against SEIU and other unions. Just as labor groups like to push sympathetic workers in front of the cameras, business organizations want you to see small business owners struggling to maintain their family companies.
Are These Winning Stategies?
In case you haven’t guessed it, the Democratic and Republican Parties care a lot about the outcome of this struggle.
Is the labor vs. hospitality industry fight another example of public advocacy groups manipulating legitimate policy issues for a hidden agenda? Answer: Yes.
Is it wrong to further a larger agenda by manipulating individuals this way? Well, it’s certainly a tactical decision.
Employing theatrics doesn’t take away the core policy debate at hand here and the upside is that, no matter what the larger motives, a serious discussion about wages is now underway in America.
What you should take away from all of this is something we should always keep in mind: When it comes to political fights, things are rarely as simple as they seem.
Whenever you see a well-organized, media friendly issue being debated, you should ask yourself: Who is really behind this? Who is really backing the opposing view? What do both sides stand to gain or lose when this issue is finally decided?
And always remember to enjoy the show.
This week’s post comes to you from Dan Colegrove, Senior Advisor to Goddard Gunster and President of ACME Public Affairs.