Fast food industry seen as next frontier for union organizing as workers walk off the job in protest

In Milwaukee two weeks ago, fast-food workers from several different chain restaurants walked off the job and rallied for wage hikes to $15 an hour. It was not an isolated incident, though. Labor attorney Cliff Hammond of Detroit-based employment law firm Nemeth Burwell PC says the walkout is a national trend and similar activity has already been seen in Detroit, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri and New York as unions seek to expand membership amid a dramatic drop in traditional core union membership of manufacturing workers over the past 10+ years.

"Fast food workers are the next frontier for union organizing activities because that job sector represents a large group of potential members who, until recently, have been completely untouched by unions and their organizing efforts," says Hammond. "What is interesting about this particular trend is that the force behind the protests is not only the unions (UFCW/SEIU). This is a collaborative effort among unions, public interest groups and even religious organizations and leaders to bring attention to perceived low wages, part-time work hours and a lack of benefits. The groups view these types of actions not only as a means to organize employees into unions, but to publicize and draw greater attention to their common goals, including social causes and significant increases in minimum wages."

Hammond, who was employed as an attorney for the SEIU (the nation's largest service workers' union) prior to going to the management side of labor and employment law at Nemeth Burwell, knows first-hand about the recruiting tactics involved in obtaining new union members.

"Union organizing is a strategic sales strategy initiative. Enlisting church pastors, community organizers and other public interest groups is yet another way to draw attention to worker issues, gain sympathetic supporters and ultimately convert workers to union members. It's a survival strategy and it's a good one," says Hammond.

Hammond advises restaurant franchisees to be aware of the fast food worker organizing trend and communicate with their employees, community groups and local church leaders to foster good will, develop relationships and make an investment in the community. At the same time, employers in the fast food industry need to be prepared with a plan should there be a one day protest at one of their restaurants. Hammond says such a plan must consider the following:

* Deciding what discipline is appropriate for employees who walk out. The type of discipline should be consistent with how the restaurant has handled similar violations in the past.

* Replacement of employees who walk off the job. Restaurants may want to establish an ongoing relationship with a temporary staffing agency.

* Education of managers about the dos and don'ts of what to say or not say to avoid potential liability under the National Labor Relations Act.

* Determining where picketers may lawfully picket at a particular restaurant to insure the picketers are complying with the law and the restaurant can continue to operate.

Union organizing activity isn't dying out, even in states like Michigan where there has been a legislated shift to "Right to Work."

"Unions are aggressive and persistent by nature. In some respects, the new Michigan Right to Work law has stimulated union activity. The walk-out by fast food workers in Detroit is a perfect example," says Hammond.

Published: Tue, May 28, 2013

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