Eatery ‘strikes’ just PR bluster from big labor
Author: Michael Saltsman
Publication Date: September 2014
Newspaper: Boston Herald
Topics: Minimum Wage
Today, a series of fast-food “strikes” will return to the nation’s major cities — including Boston. They’re organized, as always, by labor unions facing a historic decline in membership and desperate for new dues-paying members.
But the real story isn’t the protest — it’s the millions of dollars that have been paid to BerlinRosen, a New York-based public relations firm, to stage-manage the entire affair.
These “strikes” have always been heavy on paid union staffers and light on actual employees, which isn’t surprising: Polling commissioned from ORC International a few years back found that just 13 percent of non-union households were interested in joining one. New data from Gallup shows that public approval of labor unions remains near an all-time low, which suggests the ORC results haven’t changed much.
It’s BerlinRosen’s job to make the handful of disaffected employees identified by the union appear to be a nationwide fast-food movement. Each successive protest typically includes a new gimmick — expanding the protests overseas, for instance, or the promise of civil disobedience — in an attempt to provide a new story for reporters to cover.
The Associated Press described the playbook: TV crews in large urban areas are alerted to a specific time and location for a rally; a labor-organized crowd packs the restaurant at the appointed time; the crowd then breaks up or moves on to another restaurant after 30 minutes or so.
Without sympathetic press attention, the protests would barely register — a lesson BerlinRosen learned the hard way in March of this year. In a poorly-managed attempt to tamp down criticism, the organizers kept a lid on the spring protests until the last minute. Organizers for the Service Employees International Union turned out as always, but the press greeted it with a collective shrug.
BerlinRosen has also applied its “grassroots” touch for other union clients, including the UFCW’s protests of retail giant Wal-Mart. The firm has been paid handsomely for its efforts: Data from the Labor Department indicate that BerlinRosen received $8.2 million from labor unions in just the last two years.
Of course, faking a grassroots movement occasionally yields embarrassing moments. Last year, the Washington Examiner reported that numerous spokespeople at the fast-food protests — across different times and places — all relied on the same anecdote about not being able to afford shoes for themselves or their children. One columnist who tried to reach a fast-food protester was directed to a PR agent — a vice president at BerlinRosen. And in the ill-fated protests in March of this year, one labor organizer tweeted a photo of fast-food “workers” who were carrying purple and yellow SEIU signs.
With millions of dollars and big labor’s future at stake, it’s a certainty that the fast-food “movement” will continue apace with BerlinRosen at the helm. Still, the press and the public should treat these “strikes” as what they really are: stage-managed media events.