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Vedder Thinking | Articles Are Unions the Newest Item on the Menu? A Look at the Restaurant Unionization Movement


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In August 2013, employees at more than 1,000 fast-food restaurants in over 50 cities staged work stoppages. Employees took to the streets demanding a wage increase to at least 15 dollars an hour, twice the federal minimum wage. These protests were supported by organized labor as well as community groups such as Justice at Work, a nonprofit organization that provides legal services to support and encourage organization of low-wage immigrant workers. Even though UNITE HERE has traditionally been seen as the main union representing food service workers, it was the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents more than two million workers in health care, janitorial and other industries, that provided financial support and training for local organizers across the country in preparation for the strikes.

While the protesters represented a tiny fraction of the fast-food workforce and an even smaller fraction of the overall food service industry, various forces are at work attempting to build momentum for additional concerted labor actions. The August walkouts should serve as a reminder to employers that organized labor will continue its efforts to establish a foothold in the food service industry. Indeed, these protests came on the heels of a series of strikes last year in New York City and a nationwide one-day strike staged by 2,200 fast-food workers in seven cities. Fast-food worker strikes have even taken place in the South, which has traditionally been far less welcoming to unions than the North.

Meanwhile, groups such as Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United) are attempting to focus attention on non-union restaurant establishments that they characterize as "bad actors" in an effort to advance their own brand of worker justice. Using a multipronged approach, ROC United attempts to secure paid sick days for food service workers, a higher minimum wage for tipped employees and greater opportunities to advance within the restaurant industry. Despite its relatively recent founding in January 2008, ROC United is attempting to organize employees on a national scale to advocate for workforce justice. It started as a local group in New York City, ROC-NY, founded after September 11, 2001 to provide support to displaced restaurant workers and to advocate for improved working conditions. Based on the local chapter's successes in New York, ROC United was founded to serve as an intermediary to help establish Restaurant Opportunities Centers, such as ROC-NY, in other areas, including but not limited to the following: the Bay Area, New Orleans, Miami, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Houston, New York City and Washington, DC.

In each region, the respective center studies local restaurant workers' needs and creates training and placement programs to place workers in those restaurants that it views as taking the high road in terms of workplace fairness. Overall, the group boasts that it has won 13 workplace justice campaigns, obtaining over $7,000,000 in judgments for its members along with improvements in workplace policies. In Chicago, for example, ROC United has partnered with at least one legal clinic that routinely brings wage and hour lawsuits against restaurants and other small employers. ROC United has even launched a smartphone app that people can use to see how a particular restaurant rates in certain areas relating to workplace fairness, the idea being that consumers will be inclined to patronize those establishments with higher ROC ratings. If ROC United gains traction, we would expect to see a noticeable uptick in efforts to organize all types of restaurants, from fast-casual to fine dining.

Given recent organizing efforts, the increased focus on and awareness of wage and hour compliance, and pressure on the industry, now is the time for restaurant employers to ensure that their workplace policies and procedures comply with the law, that their managers are trained, and that they understand how to effectively manage their employees to create a positive and productive work environment so their employees will not feel the need to seek union support.

If you have any questions about the restaurant unionization movement or how it may impact your organization, please contact Aaron R. Gelb at +1 (312) 609 7844 or any other Vedder Price attorney with whom you work.

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