Alternative labor organizations are helping to coordinate a group many doubted would ever unionize.
On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, thousands of low wage fast food workers are expected to walk off the job in what could be the largest single-day protest in the history of U.S. fast food. In a $200 billion per year industry, workers across the U.S. have taken part in protests, calling for $15 per hour and the right to form a union without intimidation. What started as a protest involving a few dozen workers last year has grown into a national movement that could grow larger as workers encourage coworkers to join them in the call for fair wages and benefits.
“If you work in a fast food or retail store anywhere in the country, we urge you to join our growing movement,” said Terrance Wise, a father of three who earns $9.30 an hour after eight years at Burger King and $7.47 at Pizza Hut in Kansas City. “Get together with some or all of your co-workers and make plans to take to the streets August 29. Encourage your friends, family and neighbors to do the same. The more of us who go on strike that day, the louder our message will be that it is not right for companies making billions in profits to pay their workers pennies.”
What are alternative labor groups?
“I think what’s important is that each has been bigger than the last and it’s spreading across the country, said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at the Cornell University School of Industrial Labor Relations (ILL), in a statement to Mint Press News. “Each strike has had more participation and the numbers keep increasing. We were up to I think nine cities before this and now there may be 37 or 39, so it’s a big leap. It’s also going south. There’s this myth that labor doesn’t do anything in the South.”
The protests might be grounded in demands for fair wages at McDonald’s, Burger King and other major fast food restaurants, but it has been alternative labor organizations or “alt labor” groups that offer a support structure for workers who lack union recognition.
What are they? Alt labor workers’ organizations are nonprofit 501(c)(3) groups that can help organize workers, but by law cannot negotiate wages, benefits or contracts. It’s seen by many as a possible bridge to unionization in an era with record-low union rates across the U.S. Janice Fine of Rutgers University began counting these groups 20 years ago when there were only five across the U.S. Today there are 214 by her count.
History shows that although there is renewed interest in informal alt labor groups, they have actually been around for decades.
“The fact is that going back to the beginning of unions there have been community groups that were pre-labor organizations. There have been what people called workers’ centers where workers could come and immigrant workers could learn how to read or get help getting settled in a community. Because they are workers, they would ultimately start talking about their problems in the workplace, including not being paid the right amount, women being harassed at work and health and safety issues,” Bronfenbrenner said.
The groups do have their limitations. Under the law, alt labor groups cannot directly negotiate terms of employment and risk losing their nonprofit status if they do so. “If these organizations were to ever organize and start talking about terms and conditions of employment, they would lose their 501(c)(3) tax exempt status because they would become unions. Unions are nonprofit organizations, but they don’t have 501(c)(3) status. They have to be careful to be advocates, but they cannot be negotiating over terms and conditions of employment. They get their money from foundations, unions, almost none of them are dues-based,” Bronfenbrenner said.
“Ultimately these aren’t going to survive unless the long term goal is collective bargaining, and we see that. because these are funded by foundation money. Foundations usually fund groups for a short time and then move on to other groups. Right now, they are funding a lot of these living wage struggles,” Bronfenbrenner said.
Can it work?
There have been some recent success stories when it comes to advocacy through worker organizations. Low wage car wash workers won their first union contracts this week after years of working through workers’ centers and advocacy. It was an industry that many doubted would ever be unionized.
There are roughly 200 car washes throughout New York City, employing about 5,000 workers who earn minimum wage, many are denied overtime required by law. Those working for Lage Car Wash, Inc., a chain of 20 car washes throughout the city, complained of poor working conditions for years.
Some told stories of working more than 50 hours a week for about $6 an hour without tips, or about $7.30 including tips. Allegations of wage theft forced the New York State Attorney General’s office to investigate, leading to a $3.4 million settlement to cover back pay and damages after a federal lawsuit.
After working with alt labor groups like Make the Road New York (MRNY) and New York Communities for Change (NYCC), car wash workers in New York City gained union recognition, winning their first union contract earlier this month as members of the Retail Warehouse and Department Store Union (RWDSU).
“My coworkers and I are thrilled with our victory and feel very grateful for all the support from the community. Just as we won our election we are going to win a just contract. We hope that with the union contract we will win the respect we deserve,” said Omar Pineda, a 35-year old worker from El Salvador.
“These car wash workers who nobody thought could be organized have had some major successes. The connections here were made in workers’ centers and together they worked together with community support to help restrain employer opposition. Now after they organized several of them, just this week they got their first contract,” Bronfenbrenner said.
Wal-Mart and fast food
Car washes in New York City are one thing, but unionizing drives at fast food restaurants and Wal-Mart are in a completely different league. With 1.4 million workers across the U.S. and a long history of anti-union efforts, the big question looms: could a corporation like Wal-Mart one day go union?
Experts believe it is a difficult but realistic possibility if the burgeoning Our Walmart campaign gets enough support from unions and community organizations.
“If they get enough support from other unions and groups, Wal-Mart, the largest and most powerful company in the world, will be unionized. That will completely change the dynamic. They [employees] have taken the risk, which at Wal-Mart is an extreme risk. Everyone knows that anyone who stands up at Wal-Mart could be fired,” Bronfenbrenner said.
After 60 Wal-Mart employees in California were fired last month for taking part in Our Walmart protests for better wages and benefits, supporters appear unphased as they push forward with more protests in Washington D.C. later this week. When contacted for comment, Our Walmart offered Mint Press the following written statement about demonstrations this week:
“Following an aggressive uptick in illegal retaliation against workers speaking out for better jobs at Wal-Mart, a group of current and recently fired Wal-Mart workers are in Washington, DC this week to share their experiences and call for changes at the nation’s largest employer and company. The workers, part of the national organization Our Walmart, are speaking with local residents and elected officials, members of Congress and their staff and national leaders who are supporting their efforts.”
The announcement follows a decision by Wal-Mart to cancel construction of three new stores in the Washington D.C. area after the city council passed a living wage bill earlier this month that requires large corporations to pay employees at least $12.50 per hour. Although Wal-Mart claims to pay employees an average of $12.78, worker’s advocacy organizations like “Making Change At Wal-Mart” say that the average wage is actually closer to $8.81 per hour.
“We’ve had enough is enough of Wal-Mart’s lip-service and lies,” said Lucas Handy of Fort Dodge, Iowa. “We need full-time hours, we need better wages, and we need our jobs back with the promise that the retaliation against Our Walmart will stop.”
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