Salon Interview on Resolving the Fast Food Stand-Off

Benjamin Sachs

Benjamin Sachs is the Kestnbaum Professor of Labor and Industry at Harvard Law School and a leading expert in the field of labor law and labor relations. He is also faculty director of the Center for Labor and a Just Economy. Professor Sachs teaches courses in labor law, employment law, and law and social change, and his writing focuses on union organizing and unions in American politics. Prior to joining the Harvard faculty in 2008, Professor Sachs was the Joseph Goldstein Fellow at Yale Law School.  From 2002-2006, he served as Assistant General Counsel of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in Washington, D.C.  Professor Sachs graduated from Yale Law School in 1998, and served as a judicial law clerk to the Honorable Stephen Reinhardt of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. His writing has appeared in the Harvard Law Review, the Yale Law Journal, the Columbia Law Review, the New York Times and elsewhere.  Professor Sachs received the Yale Law School teaching award in 2007 and in 2013 received the Sacks-Freund Award for Teaching Excellence at Harvard Law School.  He can be reached at [email protected].

Salon just posted their Q & A with me on the fast food campaign and my proposal to create a workers council at McDonald’s.  The piece provides good background on the campaign, highlights the big issues in play, and explains why a workers council could facilitate a resolution.  The interview questions link the idea of workers councils in the fast food industry to some of the other major contemporary organizing campaigns, including Uber and Wal-Mart.  The interview also points out the connection between my proposal and the ongoing developments at Volkswagen. The full interview is here.  Some excerpts are below:

[Y]ou’ve written a few posts at On Labor recommending both sides embrace a negotiation mechanism that you’re calling a workers council. What will that look like?

In some ways, it’s just amazing — to me, anyway — that we have these huge national corporations with tens of thousands, sometimes millions of workers, and there’s literally no way for management to communicate [with] the workers as a group. That mechanism just doesn’t exist. When there’s a union we do have that mechanism, but we have unions in less than 7 percent of the private-sector today, so for the vast majority of people employed in the United States, there’s just no way for workers to talk to management.

That, in essence, is what a workers council [provides]. It’s a way for workers to elect representatives and to communicate through those representatives with management.

Some of the most successful companies in the world operate with workers councils. Volkswagen is a great example. The management at Volkswagen speaks about its workers councils in glowing terms. They use the phrase ‘constructive cooperation,’ that is to say, a workers council gives management and workers a way to be constructively cooperative with one another about the running of their operations.

. . . .

Sticking with the Volkswagen example, then, how should we interpret what happened earlier this year between Volkswagen, the UAW and those factory workers in Tennessee? Any reason to see it as a foreboding sign in regard to getting workers councils off the ground?

The salient fact about Volkswagen in Chattanooga, from this perspective, is that the workers council question was tied to the question of joining the UAW. The parties in Chattanooga believed, at least for a time, that the only way to have a workers council there was to first have the UAW organize the plant. The fight there was about the UAW, not about the workers councils.

What I’m suggesting for McDonalds is that they do a workers council now, that they don’t need to wait for the conclusion of a unionization campaign that workers may or may not ever get. This way, workers and the employer can sit down at this table and begin to talk about these issues together, rather than battling it out in the street.

Is there a specific potential future issue you’re trying to anticipate with the workers council? Do you worry that the protest movement could fizzle out, or something like that, if it doesn’t lead to a more concrete form of negotiations soon?

I don’t think it makes any sense to have an indefinite protest movement when what is ultimately needed is negotiations. We need to create the forum for those negotiations to take place.

I don’t want to hazard a guess about what happens in two years if we don’t have a table; we’re going to need a table. Eventually, if the movement continues, if workers continue to mobilize, there’s going to be a moment when the two sides need to sit down and talk. And when that moment comes, I want to make sure we have the forum for those negotiations.

I want the negotiations to be democratic. I want the workers to have an elected representative voice to express their demands and negotiate with management. That’s part of the virtue of the idea of a workers council; and from management’s perspective, being able to engage productively with the workforce potentially brings of a lot of added value. It’s a much more productive resolution to this than just a continuing string of protests.

I should say: I am not in any sense advocating an end to the mobilization; you don’t replace the mobilization with the workers council. Workers need [mobilization]. Consumer support, political support and their own mobilization — that’s the source of their power. It’s just that we need a way of channeling that [mobilization] into constructive dialogue.

. . . .

So the question is, what do we do? There’s no single answer; there’s no magic solution to all this stuff. What we ought to want to strive for is some mechanism that can, number one, increase economic and political equality in the country; and, number two, give workers a collective voice in the terms and conditions of their work lives. Workers councils are one possible way of moving forward, and you can do it in all of these setting. We could have a workers council at Walmart; we could have a workers council at Über; we could have a workers council at McDonald’s.

Whether the workers councils would be the first step in something broader or the be-all and end-all remains to be seen, but what we know is that it would give workers who don’t have a collective voice in setting the terms and conditions of their work that kind of collective voice, and it would give management a way of engaging, as Volkswagen says, in constructive cooperation with their workforces.


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