Are Labor Unions Ready to Stand Up For Today's Working Class?

Last Thursday, fast-food workers in 58 U.S. cities walked off their jobs to strike for livable wages and better working conditions. The workers, most of whom make little more than the national minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, often cannot afford basic necessities such as food and housing. Though workers in the fast food and other low-wage industries have long toiled under such conditions, most were unable to unionize, and the large labor unions haven't done much to champion their cause.

But things have changed, as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is dedicating unprecedented resources and energy to the fast-food demonstrations. The union is using an unconventional strategy: confronting an entire industry instead of trying to form bargaining units in individual franchises. Though this aggressive strategy represents a step forward for union activism, what really matters is the union's focus on low-wage service workers, who represent today's working class. If other unions follow SEIU's lead, instead of teetering on the brink of poverty, the working class may regain the political and economic power it held in the postwar years. Economic mobility, which many associate with the American dream, will become available to the majority and not just for the lucky few.

Since the fast-food strikes began in April, many employees have come forward with heart-wrenching stories of what it's truly like to work in the fast food industry. In a video posted on the AFL-CIO's Upworthy page, Chayna Scott says she has been living in a homeless shelter with her daughter for several months. Though she wants her daughter to have a real home, her McDonald's minimum wage salary simply isn't enough to pay for any other housing. Joshua Williams, who had been working at Wendy's for more than a year, is also living in a shelter and can't afford to move out.

Fast-food workers are a large, highly exploited workforce that in many ways resembles the industrial workers who formed the core of the very first unions. So why has the fast-food industry, along with big box retail, remained virtually union-free for such a long time? The most common answer is that the industry's extremely high turnover — as much as 75% — makes it difficult to form unions. The workers simply don't stay long enough at the same job to certify a union and bargain a first contract.

But the true barriers to unionization are deeper and more difficult to overcome. The U.S. labor law, which has been amended in the 1940s to favor employers, makes union-busting easy and essentially legal. The structure of the fast-food industry also hinders unionization. Fast-food workers are isolated in their franchises and the low pay actually encourages turnover.

In today's economy, the fast-food industry is not the exception but the norm. Last year, Walmart was reported to be the nation's largest employer with Kelly Services, a temp agency, coming in as a close second — and McJobs are only growing.

The large unions have been slow to adapt to this situation. In the heyday of the '40s and '50s, most working people were employed by large, stable companies and stayed on the same job for many years. Fighting for the legal recognition of a local union made sense: it gave collective bargaining power to a large number of people and ensured the financial health of the national union through members' dues. Though labor law favored employers since the Taft-Hartley act was passed in 1947, union-busting was not as common and systematic as it is now. Today, even if a local union at a single McDonald's or KFC gains legal recognition, its certification would be virtually meaningless. A small group of employees could not stand up to the global corporation.

Instead of attempting to form local unions, SEIU and the non-union group Fast Food Forward organize large-scale strikes that confront corporate brands and the industry as a whole. Similar actions by the Restaurant Opportunity Center (ROC) and UNITE HERE! have secured better wages for workers in Hilton hotels and upscale restaurants. A group called Make the Road New York has improved working conditions for low-paid employees scattered among the city's small businesses through a strategy called “high touch” unionism. Members of the group receive material benefits such as legal help and ESL classes in exchange for active participation in union activities.

Former union organizer Josh Eidelson coined the term "alt-labor" to describe non-union groups with innovative approaches; and their strategies have been much-discussed. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka has recently suggested that his powerful organization intends to back non-union labor groups in an effort to revitalize the labor movement.

While this shift in strategy is important, what's really at stake is the unions' renewed commitment to the working class. The unions' postwar success blurred the lines between the working and the middle classes. An auto factory worker in the 1950s could earn enough to maintain a middle-class lifestyle and send his children to college. Today's working class is largely comprised of low-paid service workers whose standard of living falls far short of the middle-class. What's even more alarming is that many low-wage workers are unable to change their circumstances.

As fast-food workers across the country take to the street, risking their jobs and their meager incomes, they are putting their faith in the power of a union. I hope that the SEIU keeps its promise to these workers by maintaining its support for the campaign until the employers agree to sign fair contracts. If the AFL-CIO and other unions become equally committed to unionizing the working class and improving its conditions, we may find ourselves in a much more egalitarian society, where upward mobility is more than just a dream.