Labor Pains: Because Being in a Union can be Painful

Labor’s Potemkin Villages

If you believe the headlines, I’ll forgive you for thinking that vast swaths of retail and restaurant employees are in the midst of engaging in general strike-sized demonstrations across the country. The trouble is that tracking down an actual walk out is next to impossible—trust us, we’ve tried. Instead, most reporters seem content to rehash union-trained spokes-workers complaints about not being able to afford shoes for their children.

That’s what makes Thomas Franks’ article “Home of the Whopper,” in Harpers so interesting. Franks reports first hand from Raleigh-Durham, NC (subscription required):

There have been countless news stories on the national wave of fast-food strikes, but what I saw that day in North Carolina wasn’t exactly a strike in the traditional sense of the word. In several other cities, cashiers and fry cooks walked off the job in sufficient numbers to close restaurants down. That didn’t happen in Raleigh-Durham. What I saw was more protest than work stoppage, and the most visible organization at the rallies was not a union but a community-organizing outfit called Action NC. Very few people, if any, were actually skipping their shifts.

Not surprisingly, then, the workers I met seemed a little unfamiliar with the customary rules of labor agitation. One protester wore a stylish black dress and high heels — as she told me, she hadn’t anticipated how physically demanding picketing could be. The protesters made little effort to dissuade customers from entering the restaurants, and as the day got hotter, some went inside themselves to order cold drinks. Several of the people I interviewed also seemed to assume that they needn’t fear retaliation by management. These were all innocent mistakes, of course — and the kind of confusion you would expect to see in the least unionized state in the Union.

None of this is news, but Franks is one of the few journalists to accurately report these these “strikes” are little more than run-of-the-mill pickets, led by (union-funded and run) community organizations.

(Crossposted from

Categories: Workers Center