Union spends big on low-wage campaign, endgame unclear

Minimum wage campaign makes surprising progress

(Reuters) — Tens of millions of dollars and counting. That's how much the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has spent so far on a three-year campaign to improve the plight of low-wage retail and fast-food workers, an analysis of public filings shows.

The money, which has gone to labour groups, lawyers and others involved in the effort, has provided financial firepower for a movement that has made surprising progress in its push for lifting wages, successfully making the issue part of the public conversation.

In recent months, cities have passed or introduced laws to require higher minimum wages within their boundaries. Wal-Mart Stores and McDonald's Corp, among a number of big employers, have raised minimum pay. And on Wednesday, organizers say, tens of thousands of people will fan out across 200 U.S. cities in the biggest rally since the campaign got its start in late 2012.

But the union's critics are focused on another number: zero. That's the tally of fast-food workers who have joined SEIU's membership rolls since the campaign began. And with McDonald's and other deep-pocketed fast-food chains determined to fight back any attempts at unionization, organizing the industry is an objective that even labour advocates warn might not be achievable.

The lack of organizing success to date has led some to ask whether the union should continue spending large sums to better the lives of workers who are unlikely to become members. One SEIU organizer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said members would get "restless" if progress on boosting membership wasn't evident after a few years.

U.S. fast-food workers have been notoriously difficult to organize due to high turnover and a fragmented industry structure. Most outlets are independently operated by franchisees and have generally been considered legally separate from the parent chain. That means organizing efforts would have to be waged restaurant by restaurant.

“The SEIU is on a failed mission,” said Rick Berman, a powerful lobbyist for the tobacco, alcohol and food and beverage industries, who is using his groups such as the Center for Union Facts (CUF) to oppose SEIU and low-wage workers. “Most of these fast-food strikes are the equivalent of a Potemkin village."

Mary Kay Henry, president of the SEIU, which has nearly 2 million members, disagrees, saying the McDonald's and Wal-Mart pay hikes have helped shift the balance of power toward workers. She said pundits and business groups had underestimated the movement's impact on wages and was doing so again on its prospects for unionizing low-wage workers.

"We are quite confident there will be a breakthrough in having the union recognized as part of this growing movement," she told Reuters. "We think a settlement in fast-food would be catalytic for other kinds of workers in the service sector, like Wal-Mart, like home care workers, like childcare workers, like workers at airports all across this nation."

The SEIU wouldn’t say exactly how much it has spent in its efforts on behalf of low-wage workers. But the Employment Policies Institute (EPI), a research arm of Berman's CUF, estimates the union has spent some $50 million on an array of local worker committees, lawyers and consultants that have worked on a broad campaign to help low-wage workers, including efforts to influence legislation at the state and city level.

Of that total, Reuters was able to independently verify in SEIU's annual filings $24 million allocated to 8 worker organizations whose stated purpose, as cited in labour department filings or online job advertisements, was to work for better conditions in the fast-food and retail industries. That compares to the approximately $28 million the union put toward getting Barack Obama elected president in 2008.

SEIU's annual report showed a pattern of increased spending last year. For instance, outlays to the Fast Food Workers Committee, one of the worker organizations, more than doubled to $3.8 million, while public relations firm Berlin Rosen took in $1.3 million, up from around $850,000 in 2013.

Tough opposition

Henry said the SEIU in the United States is following examples set in Australia and Denmark, where unionized fast-food workers have hammered out labour agreements. The union here faces well-funded opposition on myriad fronts, however, something that was not as big a factor in the other countries.

The National Restaurant Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which are among the roughly two dozen business groups to have opposed raising the minimum wage, together spent $342.4 million to lobby U.S. lawmakers from 2012 to 2014, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets.org.

Groups such as Berman’s CUF fight the fast-food industry’s public relations battles. And, the International Franchise Association, which represents large franchisors and franchisees, is flexing its political muscle as well.

Still, Sarita Gupta, executive director at Jobs With Justice, a worker advocacy group involved in the "Fight for 15" campaign, said worker groups will continue to target state and city efforts to improve pay and working conditions for workers whether or not they are in unions. She cited as an example a bill introduced in Connecticut, co-sponsored by the local SEIU chapter, that would fine large employers who fail to pay at least $15 per hour.

For SEIU the question of whether it can turn fast-food workers into dues-paying members is nevertheless important. Critics say failure to make gains quickly could raise doubts among the more highly skilled workers whose dues are financing the campaign.

SEIU's Henry brushed aside such critiques, saying union members were solidly behind the movement and seeing tangible benefits. She pointed to the Los Angeles Unified School District and Johns Hopkins Hospital among employers who had agreed to a $15 an hour wage floor in recent negotiations with SEIU members.

"Frankly I'm not worried about it," she said.

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