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A Union Opportunity

The campaign Fight for $15 has had major successes this year in efforts to raise wages for fast-food workers, thanks to its embrace of unorthodox organizing tactics. That is partly because older strategies for improving working conditions have not worked in the fast-food industry. That may be about to change.

The modern workplace has become “fissured,” say labor historians. Innovative business models, like outsourcing supervision, help maximize profits but tend to worsen working conditions and wages. Noting that almost three million U.S. workers are now employed through temporary agencies, on Aug. 27 the National Labor Relations Board revised a definition of the term joint employer that has hamstrung organizing efforts since the Reagan era. The ruling means that companies cannot obscure their obligations to employees through franchise agreements or by subcontracting staffing to third parties. Unions struggling to organize workers will now be able to bargain with the parent company that is ultimately calling the shots.

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Kendall Fells, organizing director of the Fight for $15, celebrated the ruling by pointing out the obvious: “McDonald’s is the boss.... The company controls everything from the speed of the drive-thru to the way workers fold customers’ bags. It’s common sense that McDonald’s should be held accountable for the rights of workers at its franchised stores.”

What comes next is up to the national unions currently competing to organize fast-food and low-wage retail workers. They should seize this opportunity to coordinate their efforts and avoid disheartening labor turf squabbles. For their part consumers should be attentive to those national chains that cooperate with the N.L.R.B.’s intent and direct their dollars accordingly.

Another Border Crisis

To the sea of images of migrants making their way across borders we can add one more: families carrying mattresses, luggage, even what appeared to be an air conditioner, across a river separating Venezuela from Colombia (New York Times, Aug. 27). In recent weeks, roughly 1,000 Colombians living in Venezuela were forcibly deported by the government of President Nicolás Maduro. Many more—an estimated 15,000—fled in fear as the government began its crackdown.

The image tells the story: Here are families who had started new lives in Venezuela. When the government targeted their homes for demolition, they decided to pick up and leave. President Maduro closed the border with Colombia in late August when three soldiers were wounded in a skirmish that he blamed on the Colombian paramilitary. Soon Colombian immigrants were targeted in a deportation campaign that has been roundly denounced as scapegoating. Mr. Maduro has been the subject of intense criticism as the Venezuelan economy suffers from extreme food shortages. Once again, he is pointing the finger of blame at outside forces to bolster his own political standing. Meanwhile, in a bit of bewildering political theater, he has pledged to take in 20,000 Syrian refugees.

Bishops from Venezuela and Colombia met in early September to discuss the growing animosity between the two countries. Pope Francis called the meeting a “sign of hope,” but unfortunately the bishops in Venezuela do not seem to have much influence in Caracas. As the country looks to elections in the fall, world leaders should not be afraid to reprimand Mr. Maduro for his increasingly desperate and dangerous antics.

Drilling Down

Many environmental activists accused President Obama of hypocrisy during his recent trip to Alaska, which focused on climate change, because of his administration’s approval of offshore drilling permits in the Alaskan Arctic just weeks before. Approving a permit for any new production of fossil fuel sources, they charge, amounts to accelerating global warming.

In an article in Nature last January, Christophe McGlade and Paul Ekins suggested that in order to meet the broadly agreed-upon goal of holding global temperature increase to two degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average, “a third of oil reserves, half of gas reserves and over 80 percent of current coal reserves should remain unused from 2010 to 2050.” If we must make a commitment to leaving some fossil fuels in the ground, then issuing new drilling permits does not make any sense. The trouble, however, is that constraining the development of new supplies is neither a sufficient nor a fully coherent response to the problem.

It might help the argument to note that burning all the available Arctic reserves would damage the climate more than any of President Obama’s other initiatives would help it. But our attention and energy would be better spent on comprehensive responses to climate change, like pricing or taxing carbon emissions or developing competitive renewable energy. And we urgently need a political discussion about how to achieve real solutions, not just set environmental tripwires that we dare not cross.

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Tom Fields
2 years 11 months ago
The Left targets McDonalds and WalMart. So, let's unionize. It used to take about one million dollars to open a McD. And take at least a year to come out even. I remember a McD where Iot coffee every morning. An old man was sweeping the parking lot. The manager spoke Spanish and in a few months the old man was inside--learning better English and earning more. We got a McD job for a near-homeless woman--whose child was taken away. She had no previous sense of how to hold a job. An Iraqi refugee we know got her first job at McD. McD employees can be shift managers, and store managers and receive good benefits. -----So, the1920's Lefties say unionize! This will cause more automation; fewer opportunities for entry level jobs and basic job training, higher prices, fewer opportunities to lean English and move up to better job opportunities. Go after the policies that cause poverty, government dependency, destruction of the family. Leave the entry level job creators aline
Ernest Martinson
2 years 11 months ago
A rising carbon tax allows the market to address petroleum pollution. So far the market has been hamstrung by government subsidies. It should not be President Obama’s job to approve offshore drilling permits in the Alaskan Arctic. It is for the market to do the approving and I do not see the market doing this if profits were to be untaxed and oil depletion and pollution were to be taxed. Unconventional oil is simply too risky and too costly.
Leonard Villa
2 years 11 months ago
Your comment on Alaska and fossil fuel assumes human-caused global warming which is still a matter of dispute. (Remember not that long ago the warning about the coming ice-age? Now it's warming.) It is excellent that you shine the spotlight on Venezuela and the Chavez-Maduro repression and the realization that immigration is not just about the U.S. How was the amount $15 arrived at for the fast-food workers? Why not $16, $20 or some other amount? Will the work-force be cut because of the increase?
Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 11 months ago
“…the best customer of American industry is the well-paid worker.—Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the 1950’s, median income rose nearly 30%. In the 1960’s, median income again rose nearly 30%. Median income is now lower than in 1970. In 1982, the US had 13 billionaires. After Reagan’s trickle down legislation, the number of US billionaires more than quadrupled by 1988. Today the US has over 400 billionaires. Did the baby boom generation forego (unknowingly perhaps) nearly a lifetime of income gain for an iPhone and a billionaire bubble?
Joseph J Dunn
2 years 11 months ago
The changes in NLRB regulations and in minimum wage laws are intended primarily to benefit workers who are now trying to live on wages that were originally set to attract teenagers to after-school jobs or retirees to supplement their pensions or Social Security payments. I hope these changes work as intended, but I have some concerns. Whether the McDonald’s (or other store) is corporate-owned or franchisee-owned, the business, including wages paid, is entirely financed by the sales of products to customers at that store. There is no magic source of additional funds. Can the customers in low income neighborhoods afford to pay the higher prices that will be needed to pay the higher wages? The Store Locator function on the McDonald’s with Starbucks websites illustrate this difference. There are currently McDonald’s restaurants in distressed areas of Camden, New Jersey, Washington DC, and many other cities. Starbucks, which has more generous pay (slightly) and benefits (very much so) and much higher prices, is absent from these neighborhoods. Will the new pay scales at McD’s boost the pay of those most in need, or will they bring about the closure of McD’s in low-income neighborhoods, with loss of those jobs? The new wage laws are an experiment. I hope all this works as intended, but that is no sure thing. http://www.starbucks.com/careers/working-at-starbucks.
J Cosgrove
2 years 11 months ago
Since you are from Philadelphia, you are familiar with Wawa and its kiosk system for ordering sandwiches. To those who are unfamiliar with Wawa, it is the most successful convenience store chain in the US and operates mainly around the Philadelphia area but has stores in Virginia and Florida. When one orders a sandwich in Wawa, they never give their order to a human but use a computer screen that allows them to choose from among thousands of options. The customer takes a slip to the cashier and then picks up the sandwich which was made by employees who view the exact sandwich order on a computer screen. It won't be long before the cashier is by-passed but there will still be need for the sandwich maker. However, at places like McDonalds, a lot of this can be automated by computers and machines that will help make the hamburger easily. Not a complete elimination of human help but substantially reducing it. To see how some farming has been automated, see the following video http://apps.npr.org/tshirt/#/cotton Thirteen people do the work that thousands used to. The days of "tote that barge, lift that bale" are over and all the monotonous back breaking jobs with it. One driver can pick 100 acres of cotton a day — and he barely needs to touch the steering wheel.
Joseph J Dunn
2 years 11 months ago
Yes, I'm very familiar with Wawa. The company is privately held, fast-growing. I have known several people who worked at Wawa stores, including a nephew, and the employment practices are fine, from what I have heard. Lots of promotions from within, which provides upward paths for many who start there in entry-level jobs. Also well respected for civic engagement (financial and volunteer support of local causes, etc.). With no published financials, I have no idea what the profits are like. But lots of people really value employment there. And the stores provide a real service to the communities they are in. Yes, they automate where possible, which helps keep prices low and thus preserves all the other jobs these stores provide. Wawa is very present in low- and middle-income neighborhoods, but missing from distressed neighborhoods. Even with automation and really efficient processes, I guess they just can't make it work in distressed areas.

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