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More low-wage worker strikes are set for August 29

Fast-food and other low-wage workers who have staged strikes in a handful of cities around the country in recent months are planning to take their efforts nationwide on August 29.

Strikers and their supporters are calling for $15 an hour as well as more protections for workers interested in unionizing. The latest wave of strikes occurred during the week of July 29 in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Flint, Michigan.

The strikes coincide with an effort, championed by President Barack Obama, to raise the minimum wage. In February, Obama asked Congress to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour in stages by the end of 2015 and to index it to inflation thereafter.

Although not currently unionized, the strikers are getting support from unions as well as religious and community groups. Unions traditionally haven’t targeted fast-food and other low-wage workers because turnover is high and wages are low. Also, fast-food outlets once were often staffed with teens, but since the recession, more bread-winner adults have entered the industry. If they’re successful in winning higher pay, they could become more attractive to unions, including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which has been lending organizational and financial support to the strikers.

SEIU President Mary Kay Henry has frequently spoken out on behalf of the strikers, and in an August 8 blog post on the SEIU website, she wrote of her union’s support of the strikes and said, “We know we have to reach out to the growing service sector of low-wage jobs in retail and fast food.”

NLRA concerns

The strikes serve as a reminder to employers that they must be careful not to interfere with employee rights ensured by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which protects both union and nonunion employees engaged in “protected concerted activity.” Employees have rights under the law to act in concert with or on behalf of fellow employees to improve their wages, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment.

John P. Hasman, a partner with the Armstrong Teasdale law firm’s St. Louis office, says employers must be cautious in disciplining workers striking over their pay, benefits, or working conditions since such discipline could violate the NLRA.

Not all kinds of striker activity are protected, though. For example, workers may be unprotected if their actions are calculated to cause harm to the employer, “such as a cook walking away from an open flame,” Hasman says. Also picket line violence would be unprotected.