The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), backed by the “workers organizing committees” and worker centers that it funds, are demonstrating against fast-food restaurants they hope to organize today. And while in the past the SEIU wanted to appear at least somewhat distant from the demonstrations the union has funded to the tune of $50 million, this time there’s no illusion. SEIU locals in Los Angeles, Massachusetts, Baltimore, New Jersey, Ohio, and Florida all promote various events related to the demonstrations.
Perhaps more interesting is the focus of the demonstrations this time. While previous efforts had been principally targeted toward union organizing, these protests are aimed at the ballot box. SEIU and its allies are vowing to “sway the 2016 presidential election” with their demonstrations, according to a USA Today report. It should therefore not be surprising that the headline demonstration in today’s protests should come as counter-programming to a presidential primary debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
This is a classic case of what one might call “dual purpose” political spending by unions. The SEIU can write off “Fight for 15” expenses as “representational activities”—for example, in 2014 the SEIU classified $1,311,921 of expenditure to Berlin Rosen, the political consultants driving the campaign, as “representational”—on the grounds that they are directed to union organizing.
But a Reuters report indicated that SEIU organizers had growing concerns that the campaign wasn’t paying off in terms of new members. The SEIU’s membership trend, which is relatively flat since the campaign started in 2012, suggests it isn’t either. So the real-world effects of the “Fight for 15” are principally political, even as the expenses are ostensibly not political. This channels SEIU member dues money into politics, whether members want it or not.
We’ll see if SEIU’s maneuver pays off. Either way, the evidence that the “Fight for 15” is a political play rather than a worker-driven effort continues to mount.