A New Strategy in the Union Playbook

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A New Strategy in the Union Playbook

By Joe Kefauver, Align Public Strategies - 12/10/2014

Backed by top congressional Democrats, labor activists took to the podium earlier this fall to announce their latest campaign targeting nonunion employers: the “Fair Workweek Initiative.”

While Fair Workweek may not have the same populist ring as “Fight for 15” or “Jobs with Justice,” labor’s newest endeavor could undermine the franchise business model and provide unions a decisive path to organizing the restaurant, retail and convenience store industries.

Behind the polished rhetoric of a nationwide campaign to purportedly give workers “predictable, stable, transparent schedules” is an effort by organized labor years in the making.

A union-backed New York City worker center known as the Retail Action Project (RAP) launched the “Sustainable Scheduling Campaign” in late 2012. While RAP may have limited name recognition outside New York, its tactics are familiar to dozens of retailers within the city limits. With backing from the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), RAP has staged numerous protests against both boutique stores and national chains.

Like other worker centers, RAP has based many of its attacks against workers’ claims of wage theft and labor law violations. But the organization discovered its niche with the issue of sustainable scheduling. By surveying a limited number of retail workers, RAP realized that some employees wanted to dictate their own schedules. Moreover, RAP (and the UFCW) quickly found that the public and media didn’t grasp what employers know all too well when it comes to scheduling: whether it’s the number of hospital patients or customers in a checkout line, consumer traffic dictates the number of employees on the clock.

Within months of launching the “Sustainable Scheduling Campaign,” the effort quickly proved successful. The issue resonated with retail workers, allowing RAP to recruit more members while also having a unique talking point as it courted reporters and culled support among elected officials. The campaign name itself was clunky, however, so RAP renamed its effort the “Just Hours” campaign in early 2013 — just in time to protest a speech by Walmart’s CEO at the National Retail Federation trade show.

Fast forward to May of this year. After more than a year of incubating “Just Hours” in New York, labor decided to move the campaign to a nationwide platform.

Carrie Gleason, former executive director of RAP, took a new post at the Center for Popular Democracy, a confederation of labor and activist groups. In advance of a national media push, the campaign once again got a new name: “The Fair Workweek Initiative.” By mid-July, the New York Times, New York Post and others began picking up the story of labor’s efforts to win more hours for part-time workers, as well as predictable scheduling for employees — with a focus on the retail and restaurant industries.

In late July, less than two years after launching its campaign, Gleason joined Reps. George Miller and Rosa DeLauro to announce federal legislation mandating fair scheduling and predictable hours.

While even the sponsors of this proposal acknowledge it will serve as little more than a “messaging” bill, don’t expect labor to give up on the issue. Labor groups have a vested interest in continuing the predictable scheduling campaign.

The real goal of the campaign — which few business groups have recognized — is to support full-fledged organizing drives within the restaurant and retail industries, including convenience stores.

As Bloomberg News recently reported, the Service Employees International Union’s Fast Food Forward/Fight for 15 campaign is pressing the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to leap over independent small business owners (franchisees) to bargain directly with parent companies (franchisors). At the same time, unions are pushing the Browning-Ferris case toward the same end, seeking to redefine independent contractors in the retail sector.

These two cases are part of a larger series of lawsuits and unfair labor practice charges that unions have pursued over the past few years, the majority of which have failed.

The Center for Popular Democracy, which according to its website is an expert at “merging technical and legal expertise with deep organizing experience,” is now spearheading labor’s ongoing effort to eliminate the distinction between franchisees and franchisors, using scheduling practices to bridge the legally separate entities.

Similar to the other efforts to deconstruct the franchise business model, labor’s ultimate goal is to establish that scheduling practices constitute “joint-employer” liability between the franchisor and franchisee, effectively demolishing the franchise business model.

Without the coveted “joint-employer” liability, unions cannot seek neutrality agreements or begin to organize systemwide. Union organizing drives have previously failed for this reason: organizing the entire country, one small business at a time, hasn’t worked. In one fell swoop, however, labor bosses hope to negotiate with entire restaurant and retail brands. And despite the certainty of efforts stalling at the federal level, “Workers Bill of Rights” proposals have already passed in San Francisco and are being debated in Vermont.

When all the rhetoric over predictable schedules and additional hours is stripped away, the ultimate goal of the "Fair Workweek Initiative” will be what labor leaders envisioned less than two years ago in New York City: a beachhead to unionization.

Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.