Service with a Card? Broken Arrow-Based Consultant Warns Restaurant Owners to Prepare for Unions

Article excerpt

Could fast-food restaurants be the next target of labor unions?

A Broken Arrow-based labor relations consultant believes so, based on recent union debates.

"QSR companies are sitting ducks, and they better prepare immediately for a rapidly changing labor environment," said Phillip Wilson, president of the Labor Relations Institute and an adjunct labor relations professor for Northeastern State University.

Such speculation about quick-service restaurants (QSRs) draws from union politics and intrigue circulating around the 2.2 million- member Service Employees International Union.

Two weeks ago a leaked memo suggested the fast-growing SEIU might seek to enter the grocery sector, primary stomping grounds of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW). New President Mary Kay Henry disavowed that, only to be confronted with a leaked December 2009 document suggesting the SEIU sought to infiltrate the fast-food sector, one thriving segment in this recession that can't move its jobs overseas to evade union contracts.

National Labor Relations Board records point to increased union focus on the restaurant industry. Wilson said 53 union petitions have been filed with food services and drinking places so far this year, just eight short of all those filed in 2009 and equaling the number sought in 2008. He projects the year-end 2010 tally may soar to 106.

"The union movement is in desperate straits and the UFCW has proven unable to unionize these workers," said Wilson in a telephone interview. "The SEIU pretty much says we are the best union and we need to go after these workers. What they'll do is do exactly what they said. They'll say, 'Oh, no, that's a mistake,' and then go out and do it."

Several facets of the fast-food industry - high employee turnover, youthful demographics, transitory job natures, limited career perceptions - present challenges for union activity.

"Most of those firms hire primarily part-time," said James M. Kenderdine, professor emeritus of marketing and supply chain management for the University of Oklahoma Michael F. Price College of Business. "It means they have a large number of people that work for them. It also means you can't make enough at one job to support yourself, so most people are going to have multiple jobs. They're not likely to have the financial pockets.

"The big weapon that unions have is the ability to strike," he continued. "There's a lot of people out there that would take those jobs and chances are the people who would go on strike don't have a lot of money to hold out a long time."

But Kenderdine said today's economic pressures also provide steppingstones for union entry.

"As the recession deepens, it could have a counterintuitive effect and it could make workers more receptive to a union talking about what we can do if we get organized," he said. "If the union plays its cards right, it's fought out on the 6-oclock news. The union doesn't have to spend a lot on public relations, and they've got a darn good case."

Wilson said large, well-known fast-food chains provide highly visible targets for national public-relations assaults. …