Unions take Fight for $15 to U.S. brands overseas

McDonald’s long ago went global. Lately, the anti-McDonald’s campaign has started following it around the world.

The union-led effort to raise wages and organize workers at fast-food chains in the United States is expanding its focus beyond organized protests at home — its key point of leverage for almost three years — to highlighting McDonald’s actions abroad in hopes that foreign regulators will bring further pressure to bear on the company.

The efforts are intended to build on the success of the anti-McDonald’s campaign in raising wages for fast-food workers in the United States, particularly in New York State.

Fast-food workers and supporters gathered on Wednesday in Manhattan to watch a live video of the wage board’s decision. The governor hailed it as an example of New York’s progressiveness.New York Plans $15-an-Hour Minimum Wage for Fast Food Workers demonstrated for better pay outside a McDonald’s in Midtown Manhattan last week. Similar rallies are planned in 200 cities on April 15.

But it is also a tacit acknowledgment that the campaign’s second major goal, a union for workers at McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants, remains elusive. The activists plan to turn their attention to McDonald’s in the overseas markets where its operations have been more lucrative recently as a way of drawing the company to the bargaining table in this country.

Scott Courtney, the Service Employees International Union official who is the architect of the so-called Fight for 15 campaign, laid out the new approach in his first on-the-record interview since he started working on the effort in 2012.

“I see this conversation as a departure point from a campaign that publicly has been seen as strikes and demands around $15 and the union,” Mr. Courtney said. “We intend to lay out what we can, what we know at this point, then embark on taking our case to other forums over the fall, into next year as we need to.”

To that end, dozens of legislators, union leaders and McDonald’s workers from around the world have converged this week in Brasília, the capital of Brazil — most of them at the S.E.I.U.’s expense — to draw attention to their accusations against McDonald’s.

The events will reach their climax on Thursday, when Mr. Courtney and several legislators and workers will testify before a committee of the Brazilian Senate. The witnesses are expected to describe what the campaign says are abusive labor practices at McDonald’s restaurants around the world, the corporation’s efforts to evade taxes in Brazil, and tax evasion and anti-competitive practices across Europe.

“In Europe, we have austerity policies,” said Jutta Steinruck, a member of the European Parliament from Germany who will also be testifying on Thursday. “If we don’t take in taxes, it’s an issue of social policy. We will not be able to pay subsidies for poor people, for their health care.”

The escalation of the international side of the campaign comes at a time when the financial performance of McDonald’s has flagged, particularly in the United States, where the company acknowledges that business has been in decline for nearly three years. By contrast, growth in many European countries, particularly Britain, has been stronger.

The poor performance recently prompted a leadership change at the company, whose new chief executive, Steve Easterbrook, has begun what he has called a turnaround plan that would “return critical markets to sustainable growth by regaining customers’ trust and loyalty.”

Mr. Easterbrook has also vowed to transform McDonald’s into “a modern progressive burger company.” One of his first major acts as chief executive was to raise the minimum wage the company pays employees at all of its corporate-owned stores to one dollar over the locally-mandated minimum wage.

Despite the financial strains and more conciliatory posture from Mr. Easterbrook, however, most analysts say the odds of a successful unionization effort at McDonald’s remain daunting. There is little evidence that investors take the threat seriously: There was not a single question about the possibility during the company’s second-quarter conference call with analysts in July, or even about the various regulatory actions unions have helped initiate abroad.

Meanwhile, the company’s on-the-ground defenses against unionization appear next to impregnable.

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