DETROIT, Mich. — This past weekend, the walls of Cobo Center on the Detroit River reverberated with more than the usual amount of cheers and chants, endlessly repeating a two-pronged demand: A minimum wage more than double the level of the federal baseline, and a labor union for the fast food industry.

“We work, we sweat, put $15 on our check hey hey we work, we sweat, for $15 on our check hey hey!” shouted scores of people dancing and clapping on-stage, as the crowd of hundreds in the ballroom before them joined hesitatingly, and then enthusiastically. Moments of silence with fists raised punctuated speeches and more hype sessions, as contingents of mostly black and hispanic low-wage workers from different cities sought to out-cheer each other.

“Kansas City in the hooouuuse!” “Raise up Greensboro!” “Where you at Oakland!” Young people got on chairs and beat on tables, with chants erupting spontaneously from all corners of the cavernous room.

It was the second convention put on by the massive Service Employees International Union for the “Fight for $15,” a three-year-old series of protests and walkouts aimed at raising the minimum wage in cities and states. The union has poured tens of millions of dollars into the campaign, and since last year’s gathering in Chicago, it’s shown a lot of progress.

A $15 minimum wage, which once seemed outrageously high, actually passed in San Francisco and Los Angeles, following Seattle. Legislation on the federal level has pushed the minimum from $10.10 to $12. Chicago decided to go up to $13. Just recently, $15 proposals have surfaced in St. Louis and Kansas City. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has specifically instructed a wage board to examine how much fast food workers should be paid. And on Sunday, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton made a surprise call in to the convention to voice her full-throated support.

Despite so much movement on the wage front, however, for the other part of the workers' demand — the full slogan is “$15 and a union" — the path appears much less clear. As far as the campaign is aware, fast food workers haven’t actually tried for union elections at any of their employers. For them, a “union” means something different from the strict work rules and grievance processes common to organized labor.

"A union is nothing more than workers standing united. The process is too small and the movement is too big. The process goes store by store, the movement has no boundaries, not by store, not by city, not by state.
— Fight for $15 organizing director Kendall Fells

"A union is nothing more than workers standing united,” explains Kendall Fells, organizing director for the Fight for $15. "The process is too small and the movement is too big. The process goes store by store, the movement has no boundaries, not by store, not by city, not by state. So all these workers standing together means ‘I can win stuff, if I get fired I can get my job back.’"

And indeed, some fired workers have gotten their jobs back, or gotten their hours restored, or gotten their checks on time, after workers banded together. "In my store, we’re already a union, not by paper, but by feelings and emotions,” says Skillet Johnson, 21, a McDonalds worker in St. Louis.

It is an open question, though, whether that kind of organic power can sustain itself without the kind of financial backing that the SEIU’s 2 million members have been providing to the movement. It’s hard to generate a revenue stream without a formal union, and right now, fast food workers are still a long way away from getting one.


Of all industries, the fast food industry has been among the most difficult for labor to crack. McDonald’s, for example, is built to be union-proof: Since it’s made up of lots of little workplaces, the work of organizing is grinding and expensive.

So instead of having elections in individual restaurants, the SEIU started filing complaints with the National Labor Relations Board every time franchisees retaliated against workers for organizing at McDonald's, naming the company as a “joint employer” with its franchisees. Last December, the NLRB's general counsel decided to group all those cases together as a test for whether McDonald’s should in fact be liable for the actions of its franchisees.

If the SEIU prevails, McDonald’s could count as a single employer for the purposes of a union election, potentially allowing its workers to take one nationwide vote rather than thousands of individual ones. The franchising industry worries that could undermine the business model.

“What SEIU doesn't want people to understand is that you need employers before you can have employees,” says Matt Haller, a spokesman for the International Franchise Association. "Unfortunately for these workers, the union wants to get rid of the small local franchise business owners who employ the vast majority of potential new members they seek to represent.”

SEIU president Mary Kay Henry thinks that it won’t necessarily come to that. In some countries, like Denmark and New Zealand, the largest fast food companies already bargain with powerful unions over issues like wages and scheduling. She thinks unionization in the U.S. fast food industry would require a similar step change -- similar to how the United Auto Workers have a system of “pattern bargaining” that allows it to set the same wage standard with Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler.

"When the fast food workers make this breakthrough, we will introduce to the United States a form of organization that is as powerful as what the autoworkers birthed in the 1930s,”
— SEIU President Mary Kay Henry

"When the fast food workers make this breakthrough, we will introduce to the United States a form of organization that is as powerful as what the autoworkers birthed in the 1930s,” Henry said in an interview. In the mean time, minimum wage hikes fueled by the non-union fast food workers' campaign is helping SEIU locals win wage increases for their own members.

Here’s the catch: In order for the union drive to be successful, the corporate headquarters will have to decide to participate, Henry thinks. “What’s essential is that McDonald's, Burger King, or Wendy’s makes a decision that instead of litigating whether workers can get a seat at the table, that they set a table that workers can join and collectively bargain.”

And there’s no sign yet of that happening.


Of course, managing a movement while keeping workers on the front lines is a delicate dance. And given the machine behind the Fight for $15, it can’t help but feel a little inorganic.

It’s hard to pin down exactly how much the SEIU has spent on the campaign, with the amount of staff time devoted to it. Much of the media is managed by the public relations firm BerlinRosen, which distributes statements from workers on request. Renting out Cobo Center isn’t cheap, nor is busing in more than 1,000 people from around the country, feeding them, and putting them up in blocks of hotel rooms — which is the kind of thing you have to do when running a gathering of people who can barely make the rent.

Nonetheless, the SEIU insists that everything is run by workers — namely, the national organizing committee, a group of about 40 workers who have been particularly active in their local communities. Committee members have weekly conference calls and meet up every few months to plan major events like the convention, the agenda for which they were still hammering out hours before it was scheduled to start. Henry says she’s not even sure whether the national organizing committee plans to endorse a candidate for president, and would have no say in the decision if it did.

If it’s any indication, though, the people on that organizing committee feel real ownership of the campaign. And members like Darius Cephus, being a part of it has been personally transformational.

“The only thing that’s been keeping me level is this campaign. If I’m not working, I’m in trouble."
— Darius Cephus

“The only thing that’s been keeping me level is this campaign,” says Cephus, a soft-spoken guy whose words nevertheless pour out like he might not have enough time if he slows down. “If I’m not working, I’m in trouble."

Cephus, 24, has been working at a McDonald’s in Boston for two and a half years. He had started going to school for criminal justice until his mother had a stroke, and he had to drop out to take care of her. He never went back.

With the reduced hours he’s been getting since starting to go on strikes at the end of 2013, he’s had to supplement the $9.25 an hour he receives at McDonald's with a side job as a bouncer. Still, that’s only enough to buy him a spot on a floor in Dorchester for $200 a month. He doesn’t even have a phone, so he has to go see people in person to keep in touch. So at the moment, he has not much to lose.

“My manager tells me if I receive $15, my hours are going to get cut. My hours get cut anyways, so it’s not going to make a difference,” Cephus says. "When I went on strike for the first time, it shook ‘em, and they gave me an extra quarter.  To me it was just an insult.”

Since the protests first started in Boston, Cephus has seen legislators commit to raising the hourly wage from $8 to $11 an hour in 2017. But that’s not going to be enough to send him back to school, or get an apartment.

“We need $15 and a union, because I could afford a place to live, I could afford a bus pass,” he says. “I don’t have to borrow, I don’t have to take, I don’t have to walk three miles to get to work. All these little things that should be easy,” he finishes, snapping his fingers as if to make it so.

It may take years for a union to actually form. But for Cephus, when it does, it will feel like the formalization of something that already exists.