WASHINGTON — With union membership on the decline, labor leaders are getting more creative — and some say more desperate — to boost sagging numbers and rebuild their waning clout.
Unions are helping non-union fast food workers around the country hold strikes to protest low wages and poor working conditions. They are trying to organize home day care workers, university graduate students and even newly legalized marijuana dealers. Members of a “shadow union” at Wal-Mart hold regular protests at the giant retailer, which long has been resistant to organizing.
Labor leaders say unions must create new models and new ways to represent workers to reverse a steady slide in the union ranks. Those efforts have taken on greater urgency since the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported earlier this year that union membership had declined to just 11.3 percent of the workforce — its lowest point in nearly a century.
“To be blunt, our basic system of workplace representation is failing to meet the needs of America’s workers by every critical measure,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a recent speech.
The most high-profile tactic has seen hundreds of low-wage workers at McDonald’s, Burger King and other fast food chains walk off their jobs this week in a series of one-day strikes to demand better pay and the right to unionize. Workers are demanding wages of $15 an hour, more than double the current federal minimum wage of $7.25.
The actions in New York, Chicago, Detroit and other cities are being coordinated by local worker centers, nonprofit organizations made up of unions, clergy and other advocacy groups. While not technically labor groups, they receive generous financial support and training staff from the Service Employees International Union and other unions.
“Our primary goal is to help workers boost wages,” SEIU President Mary Kay Henry said. “We think a key part of that is helping workers form organizations where they can directly bargain for wages with their employers.”
Labor strategists say the fast food campaign has long-term potential for unions. If unions can’t organize through traditional methods, they see the smaller mobilizations through worker centers as a way to show low-wage workers how coordinated action can win some concessions from employers. That might make workers in the rapidly growing fast food industry more sympathetic to the idea of joining a union later on.
“The fast food and Wal-Mart strikes are exciting examples of workers reinventing the strike, going on offense and challenging inequality,” said Stephen Lerner, a labor and community organizer and architect of the Justice for Janitors campaign in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
But the tactic has raised the concern of business groups, which say these organizations are merely “union fronts” designed to operate outside labor laws so they don’t have to follow restrictions on secondary picketing, boycotts or file reports with the Labor Department. House Republicans wrote a letter to the Labor Department last week asking officials whether the groups need to abide by labor laws.