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Can the Fight for $15 Turn into a Unionization Campaign?

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Obviously, SEIU and other low-wage worker unions have hoped that supporting the Fight for $15 would turn into a unionization campaign that would pay off in dues money (unions are complex and expensive organizations after all and need some kind of return on their investment). And there’s little question that these workers involved in this would certainly like to be union members.

The National Employment Law Project, a pro-worker advocacy and research group, recently commissioned a survey of low-wage workers that showed strong support for both thrusts of the Fight for $15, including increased interest in registering and voting if their wage and union rights were clearly supported by at least one presidential candidate.

NELP executive director Chris Owens was impressed by the survey’s findings that half of low-wage workers had heard of the Fight for $15 and that workers were more willing to engage in politics with the right candidate message. “What I feel that’s really different,” she said, “is the heightened awareness that unions could make a difference, and there is also heightened awareness when people see workers like themselves put themselves on the line, take risks for higher wages and a union, there will be more interest in forming unions.”

Sixty-nine percent of low-wage workers favor raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and the same fraction thinks it should be easier for them to form a union, while 72 percent approve of unions in general. That’s a higher approval than among the general public, despite an increase in generic approval of unions revealed in an August Gallup poll to 58 percent, up 5 points from last year. Black workers (87 percent approval) showed the strongest support for unions, followed by young workers (82 percent), then Latinos (79 percent), but strikingly 77 percent of low-wage workers in the South, long considered a region hard to organize, favored unions.

But will they actually be able to join unions? There are so many obstacles there.

The battle over low-wage worker unionization has unsurprisingly spilled over into Congress and the campaigns, with the Democratic Party already endorsing a $15 an hour minimum wage for its platform. Meanwhile, Republicans in the Senate are promoting legislation that would overturn a recent National Labor Relations Board decision that franchisors, like McDonald’s Corporation, and franchisees are likely to be considered joint employers with responsibility for workers’ wages and treatment on the job. Democrats, like Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), are trying to stop the move.

On Tuesday Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), with support from Brown and other progressive Democrats announced introduction of a new Workplace Democracy Act (much less ambitious than Sanders’ previous legislation under the same title and despite its similarities, even less comprehensive than the Employees Free Choice Act that the labor movement had hoped would pass in the early years of the Obama administration). It would permit workers to gain recognition of their union through either a demonstration of majority signing support or through an election, and it would give either labor or management prompt recourse to mediation and then arbitration if the two parties could not reach agreement on a first contract reasonably quickly.

There’s no way even an extremely weak version of the EFCA passes at this point, not with Republicans determined to crush any vestige of unionism in this country. It’s probably going to take more Democrats in the White House with more NLRB appointees to move this along, which is certainly not the kind of strategy one wants to rely upon in the long term. But you do what you can do when you can.

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