Organized labor is making noise as unions add muscle to low-wage worker campaigns

On Labor Day 2013, organized labor is showing some oomph.

Union members in Kansas City and around the country have taken to the streets in support of nonunion, low-wage workers, particularly in the fast-food industry.

Twice this summer, on July 29-30 and again last Thursday, unions have put their organizing expertise and funds into a collective campaign to help stage fast-food employee walkouts, rallies and marches through city streets.

Here’s one reason union members are marching:

“Organized labor recognizes that low-wage service jobs are replacing better-paying manufacturing jobs, and people have to rely on them to make ends meet,” said Gina Chiala, a Kansas City lawyer and board member of the Midwest Center for Equality Democracy, which works to organize low-wage workers.

“If we’re going to improve the overall economy, we’re going to have to improve service industry wages, and that will help everyone.”

And here’s another reason: Low-wage workers are fertile organizing ground.

“It’s just as in the 1930s, when experienced organizers went into factories and helped workers to stand up against working conditions,” said Judy Ancel, professor in the Worker Education and Labor Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “The same thing is necessary now to start a movement.”

The low-wage organizing campaign gives a different feel to this Labor Day compared with recent years, when an overriding theme was the dwindling authority of organized labor in the American labor market.

Two years ago, organized labor was consumed with fighting to retain public union bargaining rights, most notably in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Idaho, Tennessee, Illinois, Nebraska, Florida, Michigan, Iowa, Oklahoma, California, Nevada, New Jersey and New Mexico.

Last year, preservation of jobs in the airline industry, auto manufacturing and other historically large union employers demanded attention.

This year, there has been a slight uptick in positive public opinion about unions. There’s a reconstituted National Labor Relations Board deemed more sympathetic to labor. And there’s a new labor secretary, Thomas Perez, who has vowed to be even more aggressive than his predecessor, Hilda Solis, in cracking down on employers who mistreat workers or skirt labor laws.

To be sure, the share of workers covered by collective bargaining hasn’t reversed course from its small but steady slippage. According to the 2012 tally from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 12.5 percent of working Americans were represented by collective bargaining agreements.

Only 11.3 percent of workers were actually union members. And that small share owes what little heft it has to the public sector, not private industry. More than a third of government workers are union members, compared with just 6.6 percent of private-industry workers.

Still, there’s some wind back in the sails of unions. Gordon Clark, a representative for the Transport Workers Union of America, thinks this year feels a bit different for labor.

“I’m encouraged that the younger generation is looking at trying to improve a lot of things that we’ve let fall to the wayside,” Clark said. “This Labor Day may be the most important in the last five or 10 years because more people are recognizing the importance of having decent wages and benefits.”

Wage goals

The jury is out as to whether the low-wage campaign’s national goal of $15 an hour for fast-food workers has a prayer of being met anytime soon. There’s plenty of opposition among business owners, think tanks and legislators.

Fifteen dollars an hour is a far more aggressive target than other ongoing campaigns and congressional bills that aim for more modest raises in the federal minimum wage from $7.25, where it has been since 2009.

President Barack Obama this year called for $9 an hour, with an inflation adjustment. A bill in Congress would increase the federal minimum to $10.10 an hour by 2015, also providing for inflation adjustment.

The campaign’s goal of $15 an hour leapfrogs both proposals. Even some organizers admit it may be an overreach in lower-cost-of-living areas such as Kansas City. But, as any collective bargainer knows, it’s a starting point for a wage discussion.

“Unless we lift the wage floor, we will have more workers slipping from the middle class,” said Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, which backs higher wages for entry-level workers.

Owens noted the economic reality that real wages — the measure of what incomes can buy — have been falling for years. A recent report from the Economic Policy Institute, which advocates for public policy that improves the lives of low- and middle-income workers, said the bottom 60 percent of working Americans are earning less now than 13 years ago.

Organizing aims

Organizing fast-food and retail employees could increase that paltry 6.6 percent share of workers covered by collective bargaining in private industry, and it would provide a higher baseline wage from which some union contracts are negotiated.

Union organizers say they have been working to educate their own members about why they should care about nonunion, entry-level pay.

“A lot of people don’t realize that fast-food workers aren’t just kids trying to buy a car. They’re adults with families who need to pay the bills,” said Donna Birks, financial secretary of U.A.W. Local 31 at the Kansas City, Kan., General Motors Fairfax plant. “We’re hoping our members are waking up to what’s going on in this economy and understand what labor has fought for over the years.”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicate that the median age of fast-food workers is 28, and the median age of “big box” retail store workers is 30.

Birks, like many labor advocates this year, said she felt a strong tie between last week’s 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the current labor movement.

“Martin Luther King fought for jobs and justice,” she said. “That’s the same thing we’re fighting for.”

At the advocacy organization Jobs With Justice, Kansas City organizer Justin Stein echoed Birks.

“Low-wage workers are fighting for issues that affect all of us,” Stein said. “We think everyone is willing to pay a nickel more for their hamburger if that means that the workers can be self-sufficient and pay their bills. We’re talking billion-dollar corporations that are paying poverty wages. That’s like what happened in manufacturing in the last century, and it’s only when workers organized that they were able to create middle-class jobs.”

Foes push back

There’s strong opposition to any attempt to elevate the wage floor, particularly when organized labor is involved.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business and other business-oriented think tanks are united in opposing any mandated increases in the wage floor. The chamber argues that higher wages impede business and job growth. NFIB says small businesses can’t absorb higher wage minimums and any increase would be “job killing.”

Mike Saltsman, research director at the Employment Policies Institute, which expresses employers’ interests in respect to low-wage worker issues, said he takes issue with organized labor’s stance that it’s fighting large corporations. He said three-fourths of McDonald’s restaurants, for example, are owned by franchisees who don’t have the deeper pockets of the parent companies.

“These workers already have the right to unionize,” Saltsman said. “Labor is doing this to strengthen their numbers. That’s it.”

Richard Berman, executive director of the Center for Union Facts, an anti-labor organization, submitted for publication a Labor Day essay that attacks the AFL-CIO for creating “worker centers.”

He said these centers are “labor union front groups,” registered as nonprofits exempt from organizing rules under the National Labor Relations Act and the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act.

“In practice, they organize paid pickets who protest and advocate in lockstep with their labor union parents for policies like living wage laws, mandatory paid leave, and more,” Berman wrote, calling their efforts “nuisance strikes.”

One such group, Interfaith Worker Justice, is involved in the Kansas City area fast-food effort that has been using the umbrella name of StandUpKC.

On a national scale, the “OUR Walmart” organization, backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, is one of the most active examples of the way organized labor is helping nonunion workers make headlines this year.

Berman called the organizing efforts a desperate “hail Mary” pass to shore up flagging union membership.

Others involved in this summer’s campaigns say they’re more focused on the goal of economic dignity and a living wage for all workers.

Molly Fleming-Pierre, policy director of Communities Creating Opportunity, a nonpartisan, faith-based organization participating in the StandUpKC campaign, said: “Working with labor unions on this is new to us, but we’re overwhelmingly about meeting the minimum level of basic needs and finding the creative solutions that get us to that level. It’s about getting the community together to figure that out.”

Vernon Howard, senior pastor at Second Baptist Church, said he stands with labor on this issue because “paying a living wage will lift up our families, help alleviate the strain on social services and help restore a vital financial stream to our local economy.”

Labor Day festivities

Kansas City labor unions have scheduled Labor Day observances today.

A “Tribute to the Fallen” is planned for 10 a.m. at Main Street and Pershing Road. It will commemorate the Sept. 12, 2001, hoisting of the flag on the crane in New York and will include music, a 21-gun salute and “Taps.”

After the opening ceremony, a parade will move from Pershing Road to Penn Valley Park, where a festival will offer more music, a barbecue cook-off, inflatables and clowns.

From its staging site on Main, the parade route is: East on Pershing to Grand, north on Grand to 20th Street, west on 20th to Main, south on Main to Pershing, west on Pershing to Kessler, south on Kessler to Penn Valley Park.

All the events are free and open to the public.

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