By Eric Boehm | Watchdog.org
MINNEAPOLIS – They’re back, and they’re expensive.
Protests outside fast food restaurants flared up in cities around the country Thursday, organized by groups with plenty of ties to prominent labor unions. The front groups organizing the protests — with names like Citizens Action of New York and Fast Food Workers United — use a mix of Occupy Wall Street populism and Big Labor tactics to draw attention to their cause.
But the real goal seems to be drawing more members into the union, rather than generating better working conditions for America’s legions of burger-flippers.
The Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, is one of the biggest backers of the effort to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour and to unionize fast food workers. The union is heavily invested in the effort, having spent more than $38 million, directly and indirectly, in 2013 alone.
“Economics have driven this campaign since its inception more than two years ago. The SEIU has dumped millions of dollars into quasi-union worker centers to create the mirage of an organic movement,” said Ryan Williams of Worker Center Watch, a nonprofit that tracks union spending and opposes efforts to raise the minimum wage.
— AFL-CIO (@AFLCIO) September 4, 2014
Worker Center Watch recently tallied the SEIU’s expenditures on fast food protests by sorting through disclosures filed with the U.S. Department of Labor.
According to their own reports, SEIU spent more than $9.1 million on directly organizing fast food workers’ protests in 2013. The union organized “fast food workers organizing committees” in seven states last year to direct the protests and other activities.
Separately, the SEIU funneled more than $14.7 million to so-called “workers centers” — nonunion groups that don’t have to follow national labor laws and are therefore free to engage in disruptive protests and other tactics unions are barred from using.
The union spent another $7 million on legal fees, about $2 million on public relations and $2.5 million on manufacturing studies and reports from think tanks to back up their claims about the benefits of higher wages, according to Worker Center Watch’s analysis.
The union and its workers centers brought all those elements to bear Thursday, with protests held in most major American cities. In Philadelphia, Boston and elsewhere, protesters were arrested after shutting down streets and causing disruptions — events sure to draw more attention on social media and in news coverage.
Wisconsin Jobs Now, a workers center that got $45,000 in SEIU funding in 2013, tweeted pictures of protesters in Madison.
The Texas Organizing Project, which received more than $600,000 from SEIU in 2013, tweeted pictures of protesters in Houston waving banners outside a McDonald’s and getting arrested by local police.
Other SEIU-funded projects, such as like the Seattle-based Working Washington — $2.5 million from SEIU in 2013 — and Grassroots Illinois Action — $250,000 from SEIU in 2013 — joined in as well.
But is the union making the best use of its dollars? With a pension fund that’s severely underfunded, even some members are questioning whether it’s worth spending millions go after potential new members and push for higher minimum wages.
“Within the SEIU, there has been some grumbling about why has the union spent millions of dollars to back the fast-food workers when they are not in the industries that the union has traditionally represented,” the New York Times reported earlier this week.
Williams said unions like SEIU are growing desperate for new members, as labor union membership in the private sector has dwindled over the past few decades.
“If the union chose to invest that money in its members’ pension fund or career advancement programs, perhaps it wouldn’t have such a difficult time persuading workers to join the union,” he said.
It’s not just the SEIU doing it, though it’s certainly leading the way.
As Watchdog.org reported, the AFL-CIO sees workers centers and fast food workers as the next wave of union organizing in America.
“All over America, workers are organizing in all kinds of ways, and they call their unity by all kinds of names — workers’ unions, associations, centers, networks,” Richard Trumka, president of the national union, said last year.
The United Food and Commercial Workers union funds front groups such as Our Walmart, which is aimed at unionizing workers in so-called “big box stores” and usually makes headlines each year on Black Friday.
Boehm can be reached at [email protected] and follow @EricBoehm87 and @WatchdogOrg on Twitter for more.