The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has long puppeteered the push for a $15 minimum wage. As we’ve noted before, the SEIU has spent as much as $80 million on the Fight for $15 since the campaign began in 2012.
But the SEIU’s fight is for “$15 and a union.” That second part is key: The union’s end goal has always been to increase membership and swell its ranks of dues-paying workers—the financial underpinning for the union’s political activities. The Fight for $15 isn’t so much about raising the wage as it is about using the issue to bolster the labor movement. In These Times recently quoted the Fight for $15’s organizing director, Kendall Fells, admitting as much: “Since the campaign began, the workers have always had two demands. It’s $15 and a union, not $15 or a union.”
But the former hasn’t really come to fruition. The SEIU has seen no substantial gain in membership as a result of the Fight for $15. In fact, the union lost about 5,800 members from 2014 to 2015, prompting some anxiety among union sympathizers. “There’s a turn to liberalism and the raising of the social wage,” labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein told In These Times. “But the dilemma is it’s not helping the trade union movement institutionally.” Pro-union author and activist Bill Fletcher, Jr. also chimed in: “You can win these [legislative] victories but if you don’t have organization, it all goes poof.”
For the SEIU, unionizing McDonald’s and other fast-food chains remains a tall task. The union has managed to rally dozens of workers at a time for fast-food strikes, but it needs tens of thousands of pro-union workers on board to even secure a union election in the fast-food sector. In These Times has some perspective:
According to New York’s Department of Labor, there are 63,587 fast food workers in New York City, a little over half of whom would have to file a card with the NLRB in support of the union. The challenge of triggering a fast food union vote at 50 percent plus one with the NLRB is, therefore, gargantuan. Even triggering a union election at just one of the chains—say, McDonald’s—would prove difficult; the company employs approximately 760,000 people across the country spread across over 10,000 restaurants in the United States.
It means rough waters ahead for the SEIU, which now must entertain a scary thought: Maybe employees don’t want a union after all.