Hundreds of demonstrators at fast food restaurants around the country alleging that restaurant managers regularly steal employee wages are actually astroturfed protesters agitating in favor of a higher minimum wage, critics said.
"Fight for 15"—an organization that favors increasing the minimum wage for fast food employees to $15 per hour—organized the protests nominally aimed at combatting the theft of employee wages. The group, which is supported by prominent labor unions such as the SEIU, organized several similar protests in 2011 and 2012 demanding higher wages.
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Fast food locations are generally owned and operated by individual franchise owners who pay a set amount to parent companies to do business under the company umbrella. Wage theft perpetrated by franchisees has attracted increasing attention in recent months after lucrative lawsuits and state investigations into big-name brands, including Dominos and McDonalds.
Mike Paranzino, spokesman for ROC Exposed, a union front group watchdog, said the protesters are trying to force parent corporations to pay up for the misdeeds of franchise owners.
"They’re going after the heart of the franchise model which has been a huge success across America for small business people and millions of workers," he said. "By suggesting that anything done by any franchises should be attributed to the global brand, these groups are trying to force the responsibility on the brand itself … that would give the union deep pockets to go after."
Additionally, critics said Tuesday’s protest was just a "poorly-disguised" extension of Fight for 15’s broader political agenda.
Michael Saltsman, research director at the Employment Policies Institute, criticized the group as union political activism masquerading as a worker justice movement.
"Backers of this poorly-disguised effort by the SEIU to organize restaurants are alleging widespread theft of wages," he said in a statement. "Call us skeptical: When the union is referring plaintiffs who were previously spokespeople at fast food strikes, the credibility of the whole effort is called into question."
Union officials have not been shy about their close ties to the movement. A Midwestern union organizer told union-funded publication In These Times in November that the SEIU was the backbone of the entire movement.
"Without SEIU this shit would not have happened," he said. "Fast-food workers are not going to self-organize. They’ve been so beat down for so long by circumstances and an anti-labor environment. You look at the Civil Rights Movement—a lot of that was top-down, orchestrated movement."
Many of the protest sites featured placards provided by the SEIU. Saltsman accused the union of trying to boost its membership numbers and dues by organizing workers in some of the nation’s largest employers.
While the SEIU has targeted recognizable parent companies, such as McDonalds, local franchise owners and small business owners would bear the brunt of the $15 wage, which is nearly double the current average salary of $8.70.
"The goal of the SEIU … is to shift focus from small business owners to corporate parents that are more easily demonized," Saltsman said.
Saltsman said that wage theft does exist, but is something that should be handled by the judicial system rather than politicians and the press.
"The courts will ultimately decide these suits, but economic research has already provided a clear-cut judgment on the wisdom of a dramatic increase in the minimum wage," Saltsman said.
Saltsman added that workers are not likely to see the benefits of steep salary increases, since higher costs could encourage layoffs and the replacement of laborers with machines.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated that President Barack Obama’s $10.10 could eliminate as many as 1 million jobs with nearly all of those losses coming from the low-skilled service sector. Saltsman said that the $15 wage could be even more devastating.
"The ‘fight for $15’ is a fight against common sense. The idea that fast-food restaurants can absorb a $15 wage mandate without consequence is so outlandish that even liberal economists acknowledge the costs," Saltsman said. "It's ultimately employees who will take the hit in the SEIU's $15 ‘fight.’"