The latest congeries of quickie strikes at fast food restaurants -- one day (or one shift) affairs in most cases -- were staged to maximize publicity for the nascent fast food organizing movement.  Lots of press, some strong optics, and eleven p.m. news sound bites, but the organizers ended up with only a kid’s-meal sized meal to chew on – if that.

Consider the latest mass walkout of August 29th.  Reports stated that “thousands” of workers walked off their jobs at “1,000 stores” in “60 cities” nationwide.  But sources admit a “precise headcount is not available.”  In truth, the scattered nature of these demonstrations renders accurate tallies impossible.  Where images were published, it was impossible to tell how many demonstrators actually were employees, and how many simply were sympathizers brought in for the cameras.

Taking the reports at face value, it is plain that the demonstrations have affected only a tiny fraction of the targeted stores (and employees) in the industry thus far. In fact, although styled as an uprising of fast food workers, employees from non-food retailers were enlisted to swell the ranks of protesters.  To the extent they made any public statements, employers did not report more than minor impacts on their operations.

Nonetheless, the organizers’ efforts have succeeded in capturing the public’s attention, to some degree, which likely is their objective.  Their stated goal, a $15 an hour wage (more than double what many fast food workers receive), appears unattainable as a practical matter.  What then is their realistic goal? 

Perhaps that can best be answered by posing another question: who is organizing these campaigns?  Officially, these events are fronted by many local activist groups.  It is, however, an open secret that the Service Employees International Union provides funding, expertise, and manpower for the demonstrations.  The SEIU (and perhaps other unions) professes promotion of  this campaign to advance the cause of social justice (and not overtly to gain new union members). ,  The union even sought to capitalize on the March on Washington’s 50th anniversary to cast the demonstrations as a legacy of that historic endeavor. Commentators say this represents a new model of union representation – the union as catalyst to social change, outside the parameters of traditional collective bargaining.

Public demonstrations and publicity certainly can create leverage against an employer.  However, only time will tell whether union and other advocacy groups’ resources have limits.  Ultimately, the union’s revenue source is the dues it collects from its members.  Is that where this really is headed?  The SEIU is betting that waving the banner of social justice will be good for its business.  Its non-traditional campaigns in healthcare and building service have resulted in remarkable growth for that union, even while most other unions have foundered. Thus, “Fast Food Forward” is probably best seen as the newest tool of traditional union organizing in the industry.