It’s no secret that the restaurant industry has a well-deserved reputation for being one of America’s premier workforce training grounds.
Industry data demonstrates that countless people have entered the workforce through restaurant doors and have used it as a stepping stone to forward their education, embark on a meaningful career within the industry and develop the skill set to help them advance in other careers.
Ironically, those in the organized labor community have also realized this industry is a great place to cut their teeth as well. The “Fight for 15” and “Fast Food Forward” campaigns led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) have provided inroads and insights that the labor community is trying to replicate in other parts of the service sector, such as lodging and retail.
But the tables have turned a little, and one new effort facing the industry has actually been underway in the retail sector for some time. In 2012, a union-backed New York City worker center known as the Retail Action Project (RAP) launched the “Sustainable Scheduling Campaign.” While RAP may have limited name recognition outside New York, its tactics are familiar to dozens of retailers within city limits. With backing from United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), RAP has staged numerous protests against both boutique stores and national chains. Like other worker centers, RAP based many of its attacks on workers’ claims of wage theft and labor law violations. But the organization discovered its niche with the issue of sustainable scheduling.
The essence of their campaign is to advance the narrative of a crisis of “underemployment,” which they contend is caused in large part by the practice of retailers not only utilizing part-time scheduling, but also by abusing on-call and “just-in-time” scheduling practices. These practices are allegedly facilitated by scheduling technology and are shifting the burdens of market fluctuations onto the backs of workers.
Within months of launching the “Sustainable Scheduling Campaign,” the effort quickly proved successful. The issue resonated with retail workers, allowing RAP to recruit more members while also having a unique talking point as it courted reporters and culled support among elected officials. But the campaign name itself was clunky, so RAP renamed its effort “Just Hours” at the beginning of last year — just in time to protest a speech by Walmart’s CEO at the National Retail Federation Expo in New York.
A path to unionization
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Fast forward to May. After more than a year of incubating “Just Hours” in New York, labor leaders decided to move the campaign to a nationwide platform.
To that end, Carrie Gleason, former executive director of RAP, took a new post at the Center for Popular Democracy. In advance of a national media push, she gave the campaign a new name: “The Fair Workweek Initiative.”
By mid-July, the New York Times, New York Post and other major publications began picking up the story of labor’s efforts to win more hours for part-time workers, as well as predictable scheduling for employees, with a focus on the retail and restaurant industries. And to keep the momentum going, in late July, less than two years after launching its campaign, Gleason joined with U.S. Reps. George Miller and Rosa DeLauro to announce federal legislation that would mandate fair scheduling and predictable hours.
While the “Fair Workweek Initiative” may not have the same populist ring to it as “Fight for 15” or “Jobs with Justice,” labor’s newest endeavor could undermine the franchise business model and provide unions a decisive path to organizing the restaurant and retail industries.
The aforementioned Center for Popular Democracy, which, according to its website is an expert at “merging technical and legal expertise with deep organizing experience,” is now spearheading labor’s ongoing effort to contractually connect franchisees and franchisors, using scheduling practices to bridge the legally separate entities. Similar to the other efforts to deconstruct the franchise business model, the unions’ ultimate goal is to establish that scheduling practices constitute “joint-employer” liability between the franchisor and franchisee, effectively demolishing the franchise business model.
In addition to the federal legislation, which its sponsors concede is really a messaging bill with little chance of passage, the broader effort is already taking root on the ground in the form of “Workers Bill of Rights” proposals in labor-friendly places like San Francisco and Vermont.
There are many facets to this issue that should be alarming to restaurant operators. Not only is the short-term narrative around scheduling an easy one for anti-business groups to rally around and an equally difficult one for operators to effectively explain, this issue is part of a broader strategy to not only engage workers, but more importantly to undermine a business model that is a foundation of the restaurant and retail sector.
When all the rhetoric over predictable schedules and additional hours is stripped away, the ultimate goal of the "Fair Workweek Initiative” will be what labor leaders envisioned less than two years ago in New York City — a beachhead to unionization. Restaurant operators would be wise to treat it as such.