Young Socialists and SEIU Lead NYC’s Growing Fast-Food Protests

by Josh Encinias
Alternative-labor leaders are using fast-food workers to “revitalize the Left in the U.S.”

Across six continents Thursday, a union-financed labor front-group called Fast Food Forward held protests for a higher minimum wage. The group organized a number of demonstrations in Manhattan, and National Review Online was there to investigate.

Young leaders wearing Communist-party buttons and Socialist Alternative T-shirts led an event in Manhattan’s Herald Square, calling for a minimum wage of $15 an hour and the right to form unions without retaliation.

At the intersection of 33rd Street and Fifth Avenue, the relatively meager crowd of 200 or fewer, by my count, did their best to make up for their lack of numbers with the noise. A raucous drum line was accompanied by protesters belting out “They Don’t Care About Us” by Michael Jackson.

A resident of the nearby Herald Towers apartments heard the cacaphony and was curious about the crowd across the street. He asked your reporter what was going on, and I explained it was about raising the city’s minimum wage. With a smirk on his face, he explained he sells automated-cash-register systems and that he’s “all for the minimum-wage increase.”

This is Leon Pinsky, an employee of Socialist Alternative, an American socialist political party:

He’s also a volunteer for Fast Food Forward, an organization financed by the Service Employees International Union, a far-left labor organization that increasingly supports a range of “alt labor” groups.When we asked if that meant he was one of the leaders of the protests, he responded that it had been organized by fast-food employees.

But it clearly appeared that the event was orchestrated by a small team of leaders, with Fast Food Forward directing the fast-food employees present. The workers appeared to be trained in media talking points to speak with journalists.

The FFF staffers kicked off a series of chants and would pull in fast-food employees to keep them going. The man in the suit featured in the picture above was an FFF organizer appeared to be leading the event, and pulled together protesters for photos, speeches, and other media attention-grabbing moments. The green-V-necked FFF worker, milling about, would start the occasional chants.

When asked about his Socialist Alternative allegiance, Pinsky suggested that the protests had a much broader purpose than the interests of fast-food workers. ”I think this movement to demand $15 an hour is going to rebuild the Left and the trade unions in the U.S.,” he said, “after many years when we’ve been losing the war against the bosses time after time — and I want to be part of it.”

Kendall Fells, the organizing director of Fast Food Forward in NYC, told USA Today, “At the end of the day, there is more than enough money to pay these workers $15 an hour.” Fells might understand that well — he drew a six-figure salary from SEIU in 2010.

Fast-food chains did respond to the event, with McDonald’s releasing a statement clarifying that it doesn’t set wages globally or nationally: 

At McDonald’s, we offer part-time and full-time employment, benefits and competitive pay based on the local marketplace and job level. . . . It’s important to know approximately 80 percent of our global restaurants are independently owned and operated by small-business owners, who are independent employers that comply with  local and federal laws.

Although the protests could have disrupted business, McDonald’s said it welcomed today’s protest: ”[We respect] our employees’ right to voice their opinions and to protest lawfully and peacefully,” the corporation said in the statement. ”If employees participate in these activities, they are welcomed back and scheduled to work their regular shifts.”

MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow joked on his show Thursday, during favorable coverage for the protests, that they might mean Americans wait ”a little longer” for their burgers today. But National Review Online visited a Wendy’s and McDonald’s in Midtown after the protest and found out they were fully operational before, during, and after the protest. No one wanted to miss an opportunity to make money just to protest, it seemed.

Mike Paranzino of ROC Exposed, a group dedicated to publicizing information about another alt-labor group, the Restaurant Opportunities Center, said in a statement, “Today’s fast food protests spend SEIU union dues for staged events that distract workers from what would really help them: continuing education, hard work and government policies that promote economic growth.”

That seemed to be precisely who showed up in New York Thursday: front groups organized by union activists, financed by union dues, and relying on low-wage workers who have little understanding of how or why they would unionize, dedicated to pursuing the Left’s larger goals. Those goals obviously did include a $15 minimum wage, which, one might add, would likely reduce fast-food jobs but would definitely mean raises for many workers on union payscales.

The global protests were bigger than related events in the past, and got a sliver of attention in the mainstream media and some excited attention from the far-left press. But Fast Food Forward and their relatively small number of pawns don’t seem about to become the new socialist vanguard. At least one of them got on The Colbert Report

— Joshua Encinias is an Agostinelli Fellow at National Review Online.

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