Union power leans on presidential hopefuls to force collective bargaining

The SEIU wants McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King to be summoned to the negotiating table.
Photograph: Shutterstock

The restaurant industry’s largest and most politically influential labor union called on candidates in the 2020 presidential campaign to pledge they’d force collective bargaining on the nation’s three largest burger chains if elected.  

“Many of the 2020 presidential candidates have been out on the strike lines with fast-food workers, and that’s good,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), in a high-profile address Wednesday in Milwaukee. She was referring to the walkouts that have been coordinated by Fight for $15, an affiliated effort to set a $15-per-hour minimum wage. “But to truly transform the lives of fast-food workers, those candidates have got to commit to put McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King at a national bargaining table and make them bargain with 4 million fast-food workers to improve wages, hours and working conditions for every fast-food worker in this nation.”

The veiled threat is that SEIU, traditionally one of the nation’s largest contributors to political campaigns, will deny the organization's deep support to any candidate who refuses to make the pledge.

There was nothing veiled about the four-part additional demand that Henry aired to kick off what the SEIU describes as an extension of Fight for $15, a new initiative called Unions for All. It aims to enroll all American workers in a labor organization by using the federal government’s might as leverage. She sketched out the four pillars of the program: 

  • Corporations would be summoned to meet with government and worker representatives to renegotiate labor contracts. 
  • States would be freed to adopt stronger pro-union measures than what’s currently permitted under federal law.
  • All government contractors would be required to facilitate the organization of their employees and pay at least $15 an hour. 
  • Unionization would be integrated into any economic redevelopment or restructuring plan. Said Henry: “We are asking every presidential candidate to put Unions for All at the center of their economic platform.

“If candidates cannot commit to these four things, they cannot count on our support.”

That support is considerable, though there’s disagreement about how considerable. Estimates of the SEIU’s contribution in the 2016 presidential election range from $70 million to $25 million to $19 million. The number is hard to peg because the dollars usually don’t come directly from the union, but rather from its members and related groups. Plus, the tallies can include noncash contributions such as having members distribute campaign literature or make calls on a candidate’s behalf. 

In contrast, the National Restaurant Association, the restaurant industry’s leading political watchdog, donated $1.2 million to candidates in 2016, according to

Tough talk and lofty goals are not unusual for unions during a presidential campaign. The language used yesterday by Henry suggests that SEIU may strive to be more active in the 2020 campaign because of the apparent opportunity for Democrats to increase their power in Washington, D.C. The traditional ally of organized labor currently controls only the House of Representatives, with Republicans in charge of the Senate and the White House.

Her speech yesterday also signaled that the SEIU intends to make economic disparity a topic of the run-up to the November 2020 election. Among the statements that drew applause from the audience was a comparison of what a local McDonald’s worker makes and what’s in the paycheck of the chain’s CEO, Steve Easterbrook. She cited the real-life example of a Milwaukee crew member who hopes someday to rise to manager. 

“She makes less than $10 an hour,” said Henry. “The CEO of McDonald’s earns $10,000 an hour. This is not an accident.”

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