01 Sep 2015
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State of the Unions

AFL-CIO’s Damon Silvers on the link between fast-food worker protests and organized labor
by Janelle Nanos

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A McDonald’s employee takes part in a March protest calling for unionization and higher minimum wages for fast-food workers.
(© David Eulitt/TNS/ZUMA Wire)

In May, thousands of McDonald’s employees swarmed the company’s Oak Brook, Illinois, headquarters to let their corporate bosses know that when it came to their pay, they weren’t lovin’ it. A few weeks earlier, protests had broken out in more than 225 cities across the country, with fast-food workers carrying signs and banners saying “We’re Worth More” and pushing to be paid $15 an hour. Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, succumbed to ongoing protests, announcing in February that it would up the base salary of its employees to at least $9 an hour.

Despite statistics that show that unions are in decline throughout the country—the US Department of Labor reports there were just 14.6 million American union members in 2014, down from 17.7 million in 1983—there has been a surge in pro-labor activity among low-wage workers as of late. Damon Silvers (MBA 1995, JD 1996), policy director for the AFL-CIO, says he’s heartened by these grassroots organizing efforts. These “low-level insurrections” are the result of the economy’s slow uptick and have led to a resurgence of “collective bargaining by megaphone,” he says. “People feel a little safer and have the sense that if they protest and get fired, they can find another job.”

Silvers believes these protests are also tied to other nationwide demonstrations in response to police violence, noting that the lack of economic opportunity has been “catastrophic” to inner cities that have seen massive disinvestment. “These things are related,” he says, in part because the economy hasn’t worked for the majority of Americans over the past several decades. “Our labor market is broken. Wages don’t move with productivity, and they haven’t in any sustained way for decades.”

While these new labor movements are promising, Silvers says the adjustment in wages paid to fast-food workers and Walmart employees are too low to move the needle when it comes to the overall economic impact in the United States. Real middle-class wage growth requires collective bargaining. “In an era where I think an awful lot of people see wage stagnation as a major problem in the American economy,” he says, the negotiations continue to be the “most significant lever we have in the mainstream workforce to move wages upward.”

Over the course of 2015, the AFL-CIO will negotiate the contracts of more than 5 million union employees. The most high-profile collective bargaining agreement takes place this fall, when the United Auto Workers (UAW) sits down with Detroit’s Big Three automakers to hash out a contract. “The auto industry is a top-of-the-food-chain type of employer,” says Silvers, explaining that most labor organizations look to the UAW as a role model for negotiations across the country and a signal about the direction of the labor market.

Still, he says, even if the low-level protests aren’t likely to result in the kinds of substantial, immediate changes that high-level negotiations can, there’s an important historical link between the two. While the autoworker contract negotiations today follow a highly formalized routine that’s been in place since the 1930s, Silvers says, it didn’t begin that way. “It started as a kind of semi-insurrection and uprising.”

Not unlike, he adds, the fast-food worker movement currently under way.

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Class of MBA 1995, Section G

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