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Fast Food Workers' Movement: Union 2.0

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Last week, a sea of about 2,000 McDonald's protesters marched to the company's headquarters. In anticipation of the protesters, McDonald's closed their offices in suburban Illinois, and police barricaded the roadway entrance. When demonstrators tried to cross, 100 of them were arrested. Workers like Drelynne Finley say that they are there to fight for a $15 wage for all fast food workers.

DRELYNNE FINLEY, MCDONALD'S EMPLOYEE: This won't be, you know, just for me. It'd be for others. And that's what make me feel good about it. It's not just about me. It's for others as well.

DESVARIEUX: But behind these faces of fast food workers there is a powerful organizing force. Among those arrested was the president of the second-largest union in America, Services Employees International Union, or SEIU. President Mary Kay Henry Tweeted this out after her arrest:

"I am proud to stand w fast food workers & anyone else willing to fight for dignity & respect for these workers".

With membership of about 2 million workers, SEIU has been organizing fast food workers for the past two years. They've hired a private PR firm and listed organizers, and have allegedly financially supported the movement with hundreds of thousands of dollars. That's according to an expose by In These Times, which featured 40 different sources, like low-wage workers, union officials, and labor organizers.

We spoke with SEIU employee and executive director of Fast Food Forward Kendall Fells, who confirmed that SEIU has been supporting the fast food workers financially.

KENDALL FELLS, EXEC. DIR., FASNT FOOD FORWARD: Oh, our members are sympathetic to the fight that these fast food workers are having, and they want to see them win, because our members understand SEIU specializes in building worker leaders amongst a workforce that is going to profit from trying to organize for a union.

SEIU has also provided financial support for these workers, you know, to make sure that, you know, they can actually win this campaign.

DESVARIEUX: But why would SEIU invest their time and money into a private-sector labor group that has been so difficult to organize in the past? Some critics say it's because of the downward trend of union membership. With only 11 percent of wage and salary workers in unions today, critics see SEIU's support as looking to enlist this 4 million person workforce.

SEIU president Mary Kay Henry responded to critics with this in an interview with MSNBC last year.

MARY KAY HENRY, PRESIDENT, SEIU: This is not about growing unions. This is about our nation respecting the value of work again and helping workers come together and restore their ability to bargain with employers and be able to work hard for a living, expect to do better, and have a life where we can pass something on that's better for our children. And that basic promise has been broken in this economy. So this is way beyond the question of an institutional interest of a union. This is about how work pays, again, in our economy.

DESVARIEUX: But in the economy of the past, unions were the force behind pay increases, like the strikers of 1930s in Flint, Michigan, that waged sit-ins on General Motors. And historically, fast food workers have not had that same organizing potential, the number-one reason being that the majority of fast food workers used to be teenagers with no long-term plans of staying on the job.

But that face has changed. A report by the Center for Policy Research found that only 30 percent of fast food workers are actually teenagers. The vast majority are adults, with more than 25 percent of them raising at least one child. John Smith is one of the authors of the report.

JOHN SCHMITT, SENIOR ECONOMIST, CENTER FOR ECONOMIC POLICY RESEARCH: --Fast food worker is. It's not teenagers who are earning a little extra money while the go through high school or college, maybe. In fact, only about 30 percent of fast food workers are teenaged, and more than half of them are in their twenties or older. So it's certainly not that.

The other thing that we found that was quite surprising relative to the stereotype is that at least a third of fast food workers have some college or even a college degree. So they're a much higher level of education than, I think, is, like, again, in the stereotype of what a fast food worker's like.   
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