Here’s How the NYT Covers Fast-Food Minimum-Wage Protests

by Patrick Brennan

The New York Times has a piece in Tuesday’s paper on a new facet of the multimillion-dollar efforts of the Service Employees International Union and related groups to push for a $15-an-hour minimum wage and new union-organizing privileges in the fast-food industry — they now want it to apply it to home health-care workers, too. The reporter, Steven Greenhouse, writes:

The next round of strikes by fast-food workers demanding higher wages is scheduled for Thursday, and this time labor organizers plan to increase the pressure by staging widespread civil disobedience and having thousands of home-care workers join the protests.

The organizers say fast-food workers — who are seeking a $15 hourly wage — will go on strike at restaurants in more than 100 cities and engage in sit-ins in more than a dozen cities.

But by having home-care workers join, workers and union leaders hope to expand their campaign into a broader movement.

“On Thursday, we are prepared to take arrests to show our commitment to the growing fight for $15,” said Terrence Wise, a Burger King employee in Kansas City, Mo., and a member of the fast-food workers’ national organizing committee. At a convention that was held outside Chicago in July, 1,300 fast-food workers unanimously approved a resolution calling for civil disobedience as a way to step up pressure on the fast-food chains.

The organizers don’t offer him anything in the way of explanation about why home health-care workers deserve the same wage floor as fast-food workers. Greenhouse does relay some of the relevant criticisms: Some say SEIU is trying to aggrandize its political power with these expensive efforts, rather than serve its dues-paying members, while business interests insist the wage regulation would wipe out the fast-food industry’s profit margins. President Obama’s measured praise for the effort is included. Unmentioned is the fact that industries don’t just let their profit margins get wiped out — they raise prices or cut costs, i.e., stop hiring people, in order to maintain profits for shareholders so they can keep attracting capital.

But it’s not exactly shocking Greenhouse leaves this out, because he doesn’t seem to have much respect for the other side of these still-minuscule protests. Here’s how he, a straight-news reporter on the labor issue, promoted his story on Twitter:

Adam Ozimek of Modeled Behavior, a tweep but hardly a free-market kook, delivered the appropriate smackdown:

Indeed, to most economists the idea of paying the least-productive fast-food worker $15 an hour is ludicrous, and quite worthy of mockery. Greenhouse’s story doesn’t mention that — it’s busy taking this absurd effort and playing it up big. The modal fast-food worker, also, doesn’t seem very interested: Greenhouse relates supporters’ comments claiming that the last big set of minimum-wage protests, in May, had an impact, but they can only cite the fact that “several” restaurants were closed for “part of” a day, in what was supposed to be a nationwide protest. (Josh Encinias reported for NRO on the lackluster, worker-light protests in NYC.)

A couple related notes: President Obama’s National Labor Relations Board issued a tentative opinion a few weeks ago aimed at giving these fast-food-unionization efforts a boost, by arguing that national corporations like McDonald’s can be held accountable for the labor practices of their independent franchisees. And Richard Yeselson, a labor activist and intellectual, mentions in an interview today with The New Republic’s Nate Cohn that he is optimistic about the opportunities for unionization in low-wage retail work but notes, as he did in a long, influential article for Democracy last year called “Fortress Unionism,” that most non-union industries aren’t about to be unionized rapidly (various “alt-labor” and progressive groups, he’s suggested, might be the right way to support workers in these industries for now).

UPDATE: Greenhouse points out that he covered what economic experts think the effect of a $15-an-hour wage would be in a December 2013 piece, and argues he was constrained by length in this one. It still seems important for readers to know that economists agree that the measure SEIU is pushing for would put a noticeable number of these people out of work down the road (a 1,200-word piece on the topic in the Times in July did not mention it either). I would note one noticeably good thing about today’s story from Greenhouse, and his reporting on the campaign in general: It makes the role of SEIU quite clear, which I don’t think has come through in a lot of other reporting.

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