Can Burger Flippers Unionize?

by Dish Staff

Jonathan Cohn relays the latest on tomorrow’s fast food industry strikes:

On Thursday, fast food workers across the country are planning to walk off the job and, in at least a few places, engage in civil disobedience. It’s part of a two-year-old campaign, backed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), to lift the wages of fast food workers and to make it possible for them to join unions. Presently, jobs in the fast food industry are the lowest paying in the country: The mean hourly salary for a cook is $9.07 an hour, which works out to a little less than $19,000 a year for full-time employment. But many people in fast food don’t work full time and, naturally, many of them make less than the mean.

He sees this as a fight worth fighting:

SEIU’s president, Mary Kay Henry, has apparently taken some grief for spending so much of the union’s money on an effort unlikely to swell the organization’s ranks anytime soon. But labor has always been at its best when it was an advocate for all working people, not just those paying dues.

Megan McArdle is skeptical:

I would like to believe in the possible success of this effort. But I find it hard to suspend my disbelief. The classic union successes were in mass industries that enjoyed large economies of scale and few ready substitutes for their products. That meant a union only had to organize a handful of firms with workers concentrated in a few large plants. Once they had unionized those plants, it was easy to extract wage and benefit gains for the workers, because when economies of scale are high, so is worker productivity. The average auto worker generates hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of output; the average fast food worker, much less. That matters a lot. …

If unions want to turn fast-food operations into “good union jobs,” there may be a way through the government: getting the National Labor Relations Board to help them unionize McDonald’s rather than picking away at its franchisees, or pushing governments at various levels to pass a much higher minimum wage. I’m skeptical of either plan, for reasons I have outlined before. But they seem much more likely to work than another high-publicity, low-participation walkout.