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Policy: Labor

A homeless, minimum-wage worker with a union PR agent?

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Diana Furchtgott Roth,Columnists,Labor unions,Labor,Corruption,Analysis

National protests at fast food chain establishments are occurring in New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Flint, Mich.

Restaurants that have seen strikes so far include McDonald's, Domino's, Wendy's, KFC, Taco Bell, Burger King, and Subway.

Protesters want a raise for fast-food workers. No matter that protesters' demands of a "living wage" of $15 an hour would hurt young and unskilled workers, who protestors supposedly represent. Fewer people would be hired, and the young and low-skilled would lose job opportunities.

Fewer than 3 percent of U.S. workers earned minimum wage or below in 2011. About half of minimum wage employees are under 25, more than half of them work part-time, and they are highly concentrated in the leisure and hospitality industry. Most are young people trying to find their first job.

The protests are organized by Fast Food Forward, led by the New York Communities for Change, founded in 2010 after scandals caused Congress to ban the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, ACORN, from receiving tax dollars. That led ACORN to shutter its operations.

But ACORN reinvented itself as New York Communities for Change, led by Jon Kest, who formerly headed the New York's ACORN, at the same address in Brooklyn.

Tactics include using union public-relations firms to place atypical fast-food workers on leading radio shows such as National Public Radio.

Fast-food worker Terrance Wise was featured on NPR's show "On Point with Tom Ashbrook" last week. I was also a guest on the show. Wise is 34, homeless, with three daughters, and has worked for fast-food restaurants for 18 years. Wise was advocating an increase in the minimum wage.

Wise is not your typical fast food worker. Most minimum-wage workers move on after a couple of years, because turnover in the fast food industry is rapid.

When I asked NPR how to get in touch with Wise, the producer, Dean Russell, gave me the name of his publicist, Daniel Massey. A minimum-wage worker with a publicist? That's something.

Turns out Massey works for the Berlin Rosen public-relations firm, which has an impressive list of union clients, including the SEUI.

According to Berlin Rosen's website, "We work with our union clients to develop hard-hitting campaigns that bring together eye-catching member-to-member mail, persuasive TV ads, phone programs, web campaigns and earned media to help deliver your message and win the day."

Wise was part of Berlin Rosen's messaging campaign, not a typical fast-food worker.

Worker centers such as NYCC are the new face of organized labor. They purport to represent employees. But, unlike unions, they are not selected as employee representatives.

Under current law, workers are entitled to choose their agents using a democratic process that usually involves a secret ballot election. Worker centers attempt to represent employees without their consent.

NYCC does not have to file the union financial disclosure forms with the Labor Department. That means that employees — supposedly represented by the worker centers — do not have access to the organization's finances.

NYCC is using demonstrations, lobbying, and community organizing to bully and shame employees into submission, tactics that unions are not permitted to use.

NYCC is funded in part by unions, including the Services Employees International Union. The SEIU is skirting the law by paying the NYCC to do what the union isn't permitted to do.

The SEIU, which held a National Day of Action to advocate for higher wages on July 24, has contributed over $100,000 to NYCC. In addition, NYCC received $353,881 from the United Federation of Teachers between August 1, 2011 and July 31, 2012.

If protests were successful, there would be fewer jobs for entry-level workers and more youth unemployment. With July's teen unemployment rate at 24 percent, and African American teen unemployment rate at 42 percent, how much higher do the protesters want these rates to go?

DIANA FURCHTGOTT-ROTH, a Washington Examiner columnist (dfr@manhattan-institute.org) and former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

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