Fast-food strikes: What's in it for the union?

Protester holds a sign at the fast-food worker walk off in Wilmington.

Last week's fast-food worker walk offs relied on a big and growing union, the Service Employees International Union, for technical support. But what's in it for the union?

Worker solidarity -- it's all good, but in the end, unions, and any membership organization, need dues to keep the lights on and the computers running. How likely is it that the tens of thousands of dollars, if not more, that the SEIU is putting out in the salaries of organizers and media people will be lead to fast-food workers becoming dues-paying union members, in general, and of the SEIU, in particular?

"We’ve decided not to make that question the question," said Gabriel Morgan, Pennsylvania state director for the SEIU. "The labor movement has been in a general decline for 50 years. Our union has grown, doubled in size in that time. We’re in the service sector, where we have that potential. We don’t believe that way the labor unions [can grow] is by attempting to recreate the organizations that existed in 1945. Our experience has been that isn’t what works. We have never approached the work like we were trying to organize a factory in 1945."

Of course, Morgan said, it's an important question.

He reached into history for an example: The United Mine Workers, he said, reached into the growing automotive industry and also into the steel mills to organize. No doubt, he said, they hoped to bring those workers into their fold. Instead, the workers created the United Auto Workers and the United Steel Workers.

"At the end of the day, a union is not a business," Morgan said. "It's not that there isn't money and it's not that there aren't dues. It doesn't mean we don't want to be financially stable and it doesn't mean that we don't want to continue organizing workers into our union directly.

But "the labor movement is part of the broader economic social justice movement. The more that we understand that and act accordingly, the better it is for our members, for the union and for America as a whole," he said.

 "I think the labor movement is under attack in the worst way in 100 years," Morgan said. "The labor movement has to change, it has to fight and grow. I don’t want to call it the last hurrah. The labor movement has got to be a movement that can support as many workers as humanly possible. We can’t measure by who will be a union member next week.

"If those workers take enough action, how do you then sustain that into a permanent organization? We are absolutely supportive of this and yeah, like any other organization, we want to see our organization grow," Morgan said. But, first, there has to be enough momentum for that to happen.

And if it does, he said, and if workers want to form a union and bargain collectively, perhaps with SEIU's help, "we'll cross that bridge when we get there."

You can click here to read my story about the fast-food workers strike in Wilmington, and here to read my Labor Day story about labor's growing reliance on community partners, and here to read my coverage of Monday's Labor Day parade.

More on this topic Wednesday.