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Do as I say, not as I do: SEIU and the ‘Fight for $15’ campaign

by Michael Barnsback

What organization funds and organizes a national movement for a $15 minimum wage and increased unionization, but does not pay the people it employs to support the movement $15 an hour and is antagonistic to their joining a union? The answer is  Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

On August 12 and 13, the Fight for $15 “movement” held its inaugural convention in Richmond, Virginia.  According to the Fight for $15 website, it “started with just a few hundred fast food workers in New York City, striking for $15 an hour and union rights. . . . [and now it’s]  an international movement in over 300 cities on six continents of fast-food workers, home health aides, child care teachers, airport workers, adjunct professors, retail employees—and underpaid workers everywhere.”

The Washington Post reported that SEIU is the “primary financial backer of Fight for $15.” Further, according to The Washington Post, “[t]he inaugural Fight for $15 convention, slated for Aug. 12-13, springs from the now four-year-old push to increase government-mandated minimum wages and expand worker access to unions.”

Ironically, during the convention it became apparent that there was one class of workers that the Fight for $15 movement overlooked—its own field organizers and paid protesters.  According to, paid organizers for the Fight for $15 movement protested against the SEIU during the convention, seeking their own $15 minimum wage and the right to unionize.

After the convention, The Wall Street Journal reported that although SEIU responded to the protest by stating that it supported the ability of all workers to unionize, including the Fight for $15 organizers, it claimed that the organizers are directly employed by other entities.  The Wall Street Journal noted that this was the same argument that McDonald’s made in response to SEIU’s unfair labor practice complaints seeking to organize as a single bargaining unit all the employees of the McDonald’s separately owned franchises.

SEIU employees are represented by the Union of Union Representatives (UUR), which wants to organize the protesting field organizers and paid protesters.  On the surface, it is surprising that SEIU, a union that represents nearly 1.5 million service workers, would fight the efforts of UUR to organize the Fight for $15 employees.  However, SEIU has a long history of opposing the organizing efforts of UUR.

In 2009 during its push for the pro-labor Employee Free Choice Act, SEIU laid off 75 of its field staff members and organizers.  According to the The Washington Post, UUR claimed that in conducting the lay off, “SEIU is engaging in the same kind of practices that some businesses use: laying off workers without proper notice, contracting out work to temporary-staffing firms, banning union activities and reclassifying workers to reduce union numbers.”

UUR filed an unfair labor practice complaint against SEIU (05-CB-010653) asserting a section 8(b)(3) violation of the National Labor Relations Act for refusing to bargain/bad faith surface bargaining.  That complaint was resolved through an informal settlement.

SEIU appears to be engaging in similar practices with the Fight for $15 employees in claiming that they are employed by local organizations and not SEIU.

The way I see it . . . .
Fight for $15 claims that, “we won’t stop fighting until we turn every McJob into a REAL job.” Until SEIU leads the fight by example and turns its low paid, non-union Fight for $15 organizer “McJobs” into “REAL” jobs, the movement lacks credibility.

Michael Barnsback is an attorney with O’Hagan Meyer, practicing in the firm’s Richmond, Virginia. He also is an Adjunct Professor of Labor Law at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University. He may be contacted at