ADDISON, Ill. — As labor gatherings go, this one was highly unusual: 68 workers arrived on charter buses from St. Louis, 100 from New York City, and 180 from Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas. Fifty flew in from Los Angeles, and two dozen from Seattle.
These were not well-paid carpenters or autoworkers heading to their annual convention, hoping to sneak in a round of golf. Rather, they were fast-food workers — 1,200 of them — from McDonald’s, Burger King, and other chains, eager to pursue their ambitious goal of creating a $15-an-hour wage floor for the nation’s 4 million fast-food workers.
Crowding over the weekend into an expo center in this suburb west of Chicago, many wore boldly lettered T-shirts proclaiming “We Are Worth More” and “Raise Up For $15.”
“If we win $15, that would change my life,” said Cherri Delisline, 27, a single mother who earns $7.35 an hour after 10 years as a McDonald’s cashier in North Charleston, S.C. “I get paid so little money that it’s hard to make ends meet, and I’ve had to move back in with my mother.”
It was by far the largest gathering of fast-food workers, and it was largely underwritten by the Service Employees International Union, a powerhouse with 2 million members known for unionizing hospital workers, home care aides, and custodians.
Mary Kay Henry, the union’s president, said the SEIU has adopted the fast-food workers’ cause to lift low-wage workers and combat income inequality.
Henry said in her keynote speech that “a selfish few at the top are using their power to hold down wages, no matter how much that hurts families and communities across the country.”
She attacked the CEOs of McDonald’s and Yum Brands, which owns KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, for receiving executive compensation of more than $10 million a year. They make more than twice as much in a day as many fast-food workers earn in a year.
Glenn Spencer, executive director of the US Chamber of Commerce Workforce Freedom Initiative, said the SEIU wasn’t pumping $15 million into the fast-food campaign merely out of beneficence.
“You don’t put that kind of money in just to have a sense of altruism,” he said. “You have a plan for how that transfers into new members.”
The SEIU does hope to somehow unionize throngs of fast-food workers, but those efforts may prove difficult, given that most fast-food employees are scattered among thousands of different franchised restaurants. Moreover, the franchisees and fast-food chains are likely to mount a fierce battle against unionization.
The two-day convention, with 150 tables spread across the expo center’s floor, highlighted the campaign’s growth since November 2012, when 200 workers went on a one-day strike at 60 fast-food restaurants in New York. In the most recent strike, in mid-May, workers walked out at restaurants in 150 cities nationwide, with solidarity protests held in 30 countries. The focus increasingly includes unionizing; the movement’s motto has become “$15 and a union.”
“My sense is there’s been a recognition on the part of the SEIU that to get the labor movement out of the very deep rut it’s in, it’s going to take more than an individual local organizing drive — that this is a moment to do a large-scale, high-visibility effort to alter the climate for labor,” said Janice R. Fine, a professor of labor relations at Rutgers University. “They have taken a sector like fast food where the conditions are well known: low wages, part-time hours, irregular hours, often no benefits.”