Labor Day always evokes wistful nostalgia from union bosses who regale the glory days of the labor movement. During the Golden Age of labor, unions were powerful organizations that made great strides for American workers; but just like tailfins and rumble seats, the union model is dated. There is an old colloquialism popularized around that same time - “a hammer only sees nails.”  So while the union model may have expired, union leaders know nothing else. As a result, they are trying to rewrite U.S. labor law to force their outdated model on a modern American economy. 

For unions, the biggest nail that needs hammering is the franchise business model. Labor leaders realize, however, that hammering small business owners isn’t popular. Ergo, the SEIU has shifted its public positioning – proclaiming that it supports franchisees while abhorring their parent companies. Following a decision by the National Labor Relations Board against McDonald’s last month, Micah Wissinger, an attorney who brought cases on behalf of the SEIU in New York, was quoted as saying, “McDonald’s can no longer get away with reaping all the benefits and the profits while saddling their franchises with all the risks and the costs.” Around the same time, the SEIU amped up its support for a franchisee-backed bill in California, launching a paid ad campaign. Politics is politics, and diverse coalitions form around specific legislation everyday, but any business owner should be warywhen the SEIU approaches them with open arms.


Even while posing to support franchisees, labor still quietly asserts that system-wide unionization is their ultimate goal. Kendall Fells, executive director of Fast Food Forward has said, “SEIU specializes in building worker leaders amongst a workforce that is going to profit from trying to organize for a union. SEIU also provided financial support for these workers, to make sure they can actually win this campaign.”

In truth, the SEIU sees the franchise business model as a major obstacle to their national organizing campaign, and behind all the rhetoric, they are determined to dissect and exploit its vulnerabilities. They faced similar challenges organizing independent contractors in the “Justice for Janitors” campaign, realizing success only after they established in law that building owners and janitorial subcontractors were co-employers, allowing them to pit contractors versus building owners. Similarly, the union deftly plotted a course organizing home healthcare workers by establishing that Medicare and Medicaid recipients were “employers of record,” co-opting “employers” by making the case that the government would pick up the tab for union membership. A similar approach seems to be playing out within the franchise community.

No one should be fooled by the union’s seemingly pro-franchisee rhetoric. Their tactical approach is to publicly divide the franchisee community while actively seeking to lump small business owners in with parent franchisors. Whether a business is a franchisee or franchisor, the end result will be the same. Once the rhetoric is stripped away, the franchise community is left which one reality – Big Labor’s divide and conquer strategy is being executed with really only one interest in mind – their own. While unions stage fast food strikes this week in a continued campaign to resurrect their once successful model, it’s important to note that times have changed, even if organized labor hasn’t.

Williams is an adviser to Worker Center Watch and a former spokesman for Govs. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.) and John Sununu (R-N.H.).