Union Calls For May 15 Fast Food Workers Strike In 26 Countries

Fast food workers are difficult targets for union organizing efforts, but it’s simply too large a market for unions to ignore.  Moreover, the fast food industry is an easy target for demands for a “living wage” and attacks on the use of temporary or part-time employees. (expect to see these themes more and more as elections approach).  Beginning in 2012, we saw protests in as many as 100 cities.   The protests, combined with other efforts, have resulted in a great deal of press for the “living wage advocates” and even resulted in National, State, and local laws raising the minimum wage.

Now the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers Association (IUF) has called for fast food worker strikes in as many as 150 U.S. cities and protests 25 countries next week on May 15 seeking “$15 an hour.”

Although the IUF and other unions are using the “living wage” demand as a vehicle, the union’s goal is to sign up members and organize restaurants.

I do not know how many workers will heed the call to “strike” on May 15.  Some of the previous protest efforts did not meaningfully affect customers.  Various papers reported “strike votes” in Chicago and elsewhere.

Regardless of whether May 15th radically disrupts fast food restaurant operations, employers should expect these tactics to increase in frequency and aggressiveness.  Unions are using embarrassing public pressure to try to force fast food employers to recognize the union as the employee’s bargaining agent without going to an election.  Unions may fear that they will lose elections because in a campaign, the employer has a chance to share their side of the story.  Of course, unions also claim that employers retaliate against employees and unlawfully discourage the formation of a union.  Therefore, the union approach is to make life so miserable for these employers that they throw in the towel and accept the union’s claim to represent employees without going to election.

Do not judge the effectiveness of these tactics by past fast food protests in 2012 and 2013.  While we doubt that employers will knuckle under to union representation demands simply because the unions hurt the restaurant’s brand, the union efforts may in fact harm the restaurant’s brand and create problems, especially if the employer is not prepared.

Fast food restaurants are tightly staffed and cannot afford many absences.  Similarly, the typical fast food restaurant does not have a large number of managers, and those managers may be completely unprepared for responding to union harassment.  Unions may hope that these employers respond in a knee jerk fashion and “fire” employees who “strike” because this would be unlawful.  This means that restaurants must be prepared to handle employees who engage in protected concerted activity and also must have staffing plans in place to respond to stores which experience meaningful no-shows.

Similarly, the National Labor Relations Act and other laws allow ugly and often untrue communications in labor disputes.  Restaurants must be prepared to respond to hand billing and public attacks on their brand.  Sometimes the best response may be no response.  However, there will be occasions for well prepared PR teams to effectively respond to claims, including by even offering promotional discounts and gift cards to customers disrupted by union efforts.

Also, union hand billing can cross the line and violate property rights, block suppliers or result in an unlawful secondary boycott.  On the other hand, protesters have certain rights on public right-a-ways.  In some jurisdictions, such as California, protesters, including labor protectors, enjoy certain rights to hand bill on restaurant property, including around drive-throughs and at the restaurant doors.  Fast food restaurants need to know their property rights and be prepared to enforce them as needed.

Restaurant brands and their larger franchisees will need to prepare “response teams,” including skilled managers to help affected restaurants, PR personnel, and security and legal advisers.

The union, UNITE-HERE’s efforts against the Hyatt chain show that unions and their affiliate organizations will also bring wage hour, “wage theft,” race and national origin discrimination claims, and many other individual and class action suits and complaints in a further effort to bring pressure on brands.  UNITE-HERE caused the Hyatt group problems by filing nationwide OSHA claims alleging ergonomic violations involving housekeepers, and pointed out that such alleged safety issues disproportionately affected minorities.  Unions are increasingly using safety complaints to put pressure on or embarrass employers or to drive a wedge between employees and management.  While the typical fast food restaurant may not present many of the serious hazards present in foundries and construction sites, there are many routine items which may be missed by under trained and harried store managers.  The unions know about this vulnerability.

An especially despicable tactic is for unions and their affiliated groups to pull hundreds of Health Department Inspection Reports on State and National chains.  The union then finds any reference to cockroaches, rodents or any other disturbing finding, and then may use this information to attack the entire chain or individual restaurants who have experienced glowing health inspection reports.

Some chains, such as Dairy Queen, have already articulately commented on the “living wage” issue, or as in the case of Subway, denounced improper pay practices.  Others have sought to explain the dynamics of the business.

May 15 may not create the disruption hoped for by the IUF, but this “strike” should serve as a reminder to fast food restaurants to be prepared.

(I’ll be running more material on the Fisher & Phillips LLP site).



About mavity2012

I am a Senior Partner operating out of the Atlanta office of Fisher & Phillips LLP, one of the Nation’s oldest and largest management employment and labor firms. My practice is national and keeps me on the road or in one of our 28 offices about 50 percent of the time. I created and co-chair the Firm's Workplace Safety and Catastrophe Management Practice Group. I have almost 29 years of experience as a labor lawyer, but rely even more heavily on the experience I gained in working in my family's various businesses, and through dealing with practical client issues. Employers tell me that they seldom meet an attorney who delivers on his promise to provide practical guidance and to be a business partner. As a result, some executives probably use different terms than “practical” to describe my fellow travelers in the profession. I don't enjoy the luxury of being impractical because I spend much of my time on shop floors and construction sites dealing with safety, union and related issues which are driven by real world processes and the need to protect and get the most out of one's most important business assets ... its employees. That's one of the reasons that I view safety compliance as a way to also manage problem employees, reduce litigation and develop the type of work environment that makes unions unnecessary. Starting out dealing with union-management challenges and a stint in the NLRB have better equipped me to see the interrelationship of legal and workplace factors. I am proud also of my experience at Fisher & Phillips, where providing “practical advice” is second only to legal excellence among the Firm’s values. Our website lists me as having provided counsel for over 225 occasions of union activity, guided unionized companies, and as having managed approximately 450 OSHA fatality cases in construction and general industry, ranging from dust explosions to building collapses, in virtually every state. I have coordinated complex inspections involving multi-employer sites, corporate-wide compliance, and issues involving criminal referral. As a full labor lawyer, I oversee audits of corporate labor, HR, and safety compliance. I have responded to virtually every type of day-to-day workplace inquiry, and have handled cases before the EEOC, OFCCP, NLRB, and numerous other state and federal agencies. At F & P, all of us seek to spot issues and then rely upon attorneys in the Firm who concentrate on those areas. No tunnel vision. I teach or speak around 50 times per year to business associations, bar and professional groups, and to individual businesses. I serve on safety committees at three states’ AGC Chapters, teach at the AGC ASMTC
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