Franchise association chief ready for battle

Franchise association chief ready for battle
© Greg Nash

Steve Caldeira is at the center of the storm as the chief representative for franchise brands in Washington.

From an increase in the minimum wage to ObamaCare to new attempts at union organizing, Caldeira is doing battle on multiple fronts in a midterm election year, where populist politics are running hot.

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“He’s a guy that puts on the jersey and straps on the headgear and goes right at the problem,” said Rob Engstrom, national political director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Caldeira’s group, the International Franchise Association (IFA), represents global brands including McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts and Marriott that operate through locally owned franchises. Those businesses have been thrust into the spotlight by a national campaign aimed at organizing franchise employees and increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour.

The day Caldeira spoke with The Hill, fast food workers and union organizers were orchestrating walkouts nationwide, just a few days after President Obama visited Wisconsin for Labor Day to rally with union workers for a minimum wage boost.

Caldeira said the attention-grabbing protests were a politically motivated ploy by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

“It’s a special interest play by the SEIU to garner attention ... try to turn the tide on their dwindling member ranks and coffers,” he said.

Caldeira vowed the franchise association would mount an active response to the campaign.

“We’ve been very aggressive in pushing back, and we’re going to continue to be aggressive,” he said. “We will keep the pedal to the metal, I can assure you.”

The SEIU is quick to rebut the claims of Caldeira and other business groups, and noted that hundreds of fast-food employees were arrested during the protests last week.

“Last Thursday, nearly 500 fast-food workers were arrested because we took a stand to say we should be paid enough to afford three meals a day, bus fare and rent,” said Terrance Wise, a Kansas City, Mo., Burger King
employee. “Fast-food corporations keep trying to pretend that we don’t exist, but while they are burying their heads in the sand, our movement is growing. We’re not going to stop until we win $15 and union rights.”

Caldeira is leading an IFA that is stronger than ever before, thanks to growth in membership and revenue during his tenure.

The IFA was pulling in $10.1 million in funding in 2010, the year Caldeira came on board, but is projected to clear $16 million in the next fiscal year. The association has expanded from 32 employees in 2010 to 45, with most of the new hires joining the government relations and communications teams.

“We were always good. I think Steve has put us to great. We really are a go-to trade association,” said Jon Luther, chairman and former CEO of Dunkin’ Brands, where he worked with Caldeira before joining the IFA.

Caldeira hopes to leverage the group’s resources for increased political clout. Under his watch, the IFA has grown its political action committee, raising roughly $1.2 million in 2012 and $894,000 in 2014, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

The group has doled out nearly $432,000 to candidates this election cycle, mostly to Republicans, compared to just $304,000 back in 2010.

Caldeira said the increase is part of a “more aggressive” stance he wants the association to take by getting involved early in campaigns and making its case at every opportunity with policymakers and in the media.

“We’ve been much more aggressive in our willingness to get out there and tell the story,” he said. “The nature of the game has changed.”

The influence of the IFA chief has spread beyond his own group. Caldeira also works closely with the Chamber of Commerce, sitting on several committees within the nation’s largest business lobby.

The Chamber has received intense media attention for its decision this election cycle to jump into races at the primary level, boosting business-friendly candidates while looking to oust lawmakers, including some Republicans, who have voted against their interests.

Engstrom said Caldeira was one of a handful of people who pushed the Chamber to make the leap into primaries.

“Steve, in particular, helped us lean forward more fully in primary season ... he’s one of the architects of that primary strategy,” he said. “Literally, there’s not a week that goes by that I’m not on the phone with Steve at all hours of the days and night.”

The IFA has had its hands full over the last year or so, battling against efforts to hike the minimum wage at both the state and local level.

Caldeira argues a higher minimum wage would upend a franchise business model that has outpaced other sectors of the economy since the recession.

The challenges of being a fast-food worker are familiar to Caldeira, who spent time flipping burgers at a Burger King during his senior year at Providence College in Rhode Island. He said his paycheck went toward gas money and drinks and dinner with friends, and said the jobs should only be temporary for people.

The minimum wage “was never meant to support a family of four,” he said. “It was meant to be a wage that got people into the workforce, taught them important skills.” 

While the economic downturn forced many laid-off adults into minimum-wage jobs, Caldeira said it’s unfair to expect franchises to shoulder a heavier burden just because the broader economy isn’t producing higher-paying jobs.

In Seattle, the IFA is leading a lawsuit against that city’s recently enacted $15 minimum wage. Specifically, the group is challenging a provision of the law that treats franchises as parts of a large business, rather than individual small ones. That means franchises need to begin paying the higher wage much more quickly, compared to small businesses that get a longer transition.

Before joining the IFA, Caldeira spent several years working in the private sector, in trade associations and on Capitol Hill. He joined the IFA after working as an executive for Dunkin’ Brands, where he was charged with a similar task of boosting the messaging for the company and its profile.

In the political arena, Caldeira put in stints at the Chamber, and has served as New York political director for former Sen. Al D’Amato (R-N.Y.) and legislative assistant to former Rep. Greg Carman (R-N.Y.).

While the IFA represents some of the biggest corporations in the world, Caldeira emphasizes it also represents small businesses nationwide that make those franchises happen. Later this month, the IFA will fly in hundreds of small-business owners to Washington, who will take to Capitol Hill to make their case.

“There’s no greater spokespeople than these local entrepreneurs,” he said.