Fast-Food Workers Claim Victory in a New York Labor Effort
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Author: Steven Greenhouse
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New York Times

With labor unions seeing their influence wane, more than 200 organizations have sprouted nationwide to help low-wage workers. But nearly all these groups say they are hampered by a lack of dependable funding because, unlike unions, they cannot rely on a steady flow of dues.

To the dismay of many business groups, New York City enacted an innovative law last year that many labor advocates hope will become a model to finance such organizations across the nation.

Under the law, fast-food employees who want to contribute to a nonprofit, nonunion workers’ group can insist on having the restaurant they work for deduct money from their pay and forward that money to the group. But before a group can receive these contributions, it must get 500 workers to pledge to contribute.

One such group, Fast Food Justice, planned to announce on Wednesday that 1,200 New York fast-food workers have signed pledges to contribute $13.50 a month to the organization.

“This has been a lot of hard work, but we think this is great,” said Shantel Walker, who works at a Papa John’s in Brooklyn and is a member the new group. “We want to bring change not only in the fast-food industry, but in our communities.

The new group will not seek to negotiate contracts as unions do, but its leaders say it will most likely push for a higher minimum wage and for many other issues fast-food workers support, including affordable housing, immigration reform, better police-community relations and improvements to New York’s subway system.

The Restaurant Law Center — the legal arm of the National Restaurant Association — has filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to overturn the law. Among the center’s arguments is that requiring the restaurant owners to forward money to workers’ groups is unconstitutional forced speech under the First Amendment.

“We think this law is a way of trying to get restaurants to fund groups” that “will harass restaurants with money from the restaurants,” said Angelo Amador, the law center’s executive director. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

When the New York City Council passed the law — which applies only to the fast-food industry — there were questions about whether an organization could persuade 500 workers to contribute.

But Janice Fine, associate professor of labor studies at Rutgers University, said: “The fact that they’ve signed up 1,200 is impressive. It’s a kind of initial proof of the concept.”

“When I speak to people in other cities, they get really interested,” she added. “They can imagine a law like this one where they are.​​​​​​

The Fight for $15 campaign and the Service Employees International Union, which has contributed tens of millions to that effort, pushed hard for the New York law. While the Fight for $15 has won major victories — getting Seattle, California and New York State to enact laws calling for a $15 minimum wage — the movement has not achieved its goal of unionizing fast-food workers.

Fight for $15 leaders are concerned that even if they were to persuade workers at dozens of McDonald’s locations to vote to unionize, it would be extremely difficult to get McDonald’s or its franchise operators to agree to a contract.

Without a formal union, the Fight for $15 has been eager for a reliable way to finance a fast-food workers’ group. The New York City law, which was enacted in May and took effect in late November, is the first of its kind.

“What’s important about this law is it provides for a way for fast-food workers to help sustain a nonprofit organization that’s dedicated to advocating for issues that members say is important to them,” said Tsedeye Gebreselassie, chairwoman of Fast Food Justice’s board and a senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project. For example, the group’s leaders said many members were interested in pushing for reduced transit fares for low-wage workers.

Fast Food Justice’s leaders say they hope to get 5,000 workers to contribute by the end of 2018, and 10,000 by the end of 2020. (New York City has about 65,000 fast-food workers.) Contributions from 5,000 workers would mean revenue of more than $800,000 a year.

The Restaurant Law Center’s lawsuit asserts that the New York law and Fast Food Justice are merely mechanisms to help the service employees’ union ultimately unionize fast-food restaurants. Its lawsuit also argues that the law should be overturned on the basis that the National Labor Relations Act already regulates labor organizations.

Fast Food Justice asserts that it is not the type of labor organization regulated by federal law. It also argues that the New York law doesn’t violate restaurants’ First Amendment rights because the money being forwarded belongs to the workers and not the restaurants. But the Restaurant Law Center says even having to process the payments violates employers’ free-speech rights.

Even though LaShawn Herbert said her employer, Shake Shack, treats her well, she is a strong backer of the Fight for $15 and Fast Food Justice. She noted that when the Fight for $15 started in New York City in late 2012, the minimum wage was $7.25 in the city. Since then, it has jumped to $13.50 for fast-food workers and will rise to $15 at the end of this year.

“It’s come a long way,” she said. “The whole point is help people so they can make enough take care of their family and so they don’t have to be on welfare.”

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