Saturday Jul 20

Winter 2020

“Narrative” Campaigns

 Recently, a colleague forwarded me a fascinating essay written by an old ACORN colleague and comrade, Madeline Talbott.  She was writing in an online journal about her experiences in recent years running a piece of the Fight for $15 campaign, as part of the larger Fight for a Fair Economy effort funded by the Service Employees International Union. 

For more than a decade, ACORN and other community-labor coalitions had paved the ground with Living Wage Campaigns, but especially when winning these efforts at the ballot, as significant as they were in state after state, city after city, we were constrained by what we thought we could win, not what we thought lower waged workers and their families needed and deserved.  This has been an amazing effort and SEIU’s role in this campaign has been unparalleled and unique.  With federal minimum wages stuck for the last dozen years at $7.25 per hour in the United States, the fact that the incoming president – and virtually all Democratic candidates – committed to moving the wage up to $15 per hour would signal that we are on the verge of a huge accomplishment.  One of the few areas in which there can be little doubt is that workers will finally see an increase in the minimum wage, and it is becoming more and more likely with Biden’s victory that $15 will be goalpost, even if stretched over a number of years. 

What has been somewhat confusing to both labor and community organizers is whether this effort was an organizing campaign with the objective of unionizing lower waged workers, especially in fast food enterprises, notably McDonalds, or was an advocacy campaign being spearheaded and financed by SEIU to raise the wage floor both in general and underneath some of its underpaid and underappreciated service workers in health care, cleaning services, and elsewhere.  The strikes were dramatic, the workers courageous, and often featured some level of civil disobedience, but seemed more symbolic than broad-based with more supporters than workers often on the picket lines, less industrial action than publicity and pressure on a global brand. 

This was a headscratcher.  SEIU was a union, right?  How was it hoping to see members at the end of millions in expenditures in dues?  What was the end game here?  Talking to union colleagues, much of the strategy to win depended on leverage.  The NLRB under President Obama seemed positioned to rule favorably on co-employer status between the larger companies and their franchisees.  Much was premised on Hilary Clinton winning in 2016.  Others saw events in Brazil as key, and at one point the SEIU organizing director was in the New York Times speaking to the Brazilian congress about franchise issues.  Clinton lost and the Brazilian Workers’ Party lost power, so both of those hopes were dashed.  France was another weak link to be exploited, but, outside of the Bakers Union’s efforts to organize several McDonalds’ stores in the England, there seemed to be little in the way of actual direct union organizing of workers anywhere else in the world.

Madeline’s piece focuses on the role of Chicago organizations in breaking the early ground for the campaign and the way in which the Fight for $15 intersected with the ambition to organize McDonalds’ workers.  She is proud of the work and appreciative of the SEIU support, but it is impossible to read her report without seeing the disappointment come through and understanding that she was likely as confused as a participant, as many of the campaign’s observers were.  At a critical juncture, hoping to see the $15 campaign become the movement to broadly organize lower waged workers, a dream we all share, she reports being informed that this effort was less an organizing campaign than something called a “narrative” campaign.  The objective was less to build worker power through organization, than it was to change the way lower waged workers were seen.  In that theory of change, altering the narrative meant bringing corporate overlords to heel by having the public recognize the plight of low waged workers. 

Calling it a narrative campaign explains a lot, since it clearly was not a union organizing campaign in any classic sense that most would understand.  In fact, for example in France, organizers were specifically instructed not to organize workers, even when they were expressing interest.  Madeline treads gently, but firmly over this ground in Chicago.  Coming to the recognition that there was little appetite for actually unionizing low wage workers in the Fight for $15, her successor in this effort followed a different path with her support. 

There is much to learn here and think about.  Should a union, especially one of the nation’s largest, be an advocacy organization?  Perhaps, and why not, if that’s supported by its members and leaders.  Maybe part of the “new” unionism some talk about, envisions unions as less about exercising worker power, and more about creating worker voice. 

As for changing the narrative of low wage workers, 2020 is different than the scene in 2016, as the Fight for $15 has ebbed in recent years, not withstanding a huge election victory in Florida recently.  In the pandemic, the narrative has changed dramatically for many low waged workers, now that they are understood as not just expendable, but in fact essential.  Soon, we will see if that new recognition adds up to money in workers’ pockets.  Somehow, even as the narrative may be changing, I see too many signs that without strong and powerful worker organization, the change is as likely to be temporary and fleeting, as it is to be permanent and sustainable.