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Commentary By Diana Furchtgott-Roth

Who Is Terrance Wise, the Strong Voice In the Fight for 15?

Economics Employment

On Thursday many Americans saw photos of fast food worker demonstrations on national news. Some thought that the workers themselves were going on strike.  Although some went out on strike, these demonstrations were not a spontaneous display of employee dissatisfaction with wages.  Rather, they were organized by unions and unelected worker centers that are desperate to attract new members.

Leading the strikes were the Service Employees International Union and its worker center, Fast Food Forward, also known as Fight for 15, which called for $15 an hour wages and a union.  Most fast food workers make the hourly minimum wage of $7.25 and have not voted to be represented by a union. There’s a good reason for that—unions take not only dues, but initiation fees, which can take a big bite out of a low-wage worker’s paycheck.

There is no better example of how unions are organizing these strikes than the story of  Terrance Wise, who is featured in today’s New York Times in an article by Steven Greenhouse. The headline reads “Strong Voice in ‘Fight for 15’ Fast-Food Wage Campaign.” Wise, age 35, apparently works two jobs in fast food, at Burger King for  $9.30 an hour and at Pizza Hut for $7.47 an hour. Greenhouse writes that he has been employed in fast food jobs since the age of 16, and ostensibly he has three daughters and a fiancée who works as a home health aide. He is described as homeless or living in substandard housing without heat.

Greenhouse does not mention, and perhaps does not know, that Wise is not a typical low-income worker. He is represented by the public relations firm Berlin Rosen. Its lengthy list of clients includes the Service Employees International Union, the union behind the fast food strikes, as well as Making Change at Walmart, and the Communications Workers of America. 

I discovered all of this when I appeared with Wise on National Public Radio’s show On Point with Tom Ashbrook in July 2013. Then, he had the minimum wage job, the fiancée (it’s been a long engagement), and the three daughters.  It struck me at the time that Wise was not your usual minimum-wage worker. The turnover rate for fast food restaurants is about 150 percent, and most employees move on within a year. His story evoked my sympathy, and I wanted to contact him to suggest that he might qualify for training programs in high-return fields at local community colleges so he could get some more skills and move up.   

When I asked NPR how to get in touch with Wise, they said they had no contact information, but they gave me the name of his publicist, Daniel Massey at Berlin Rosen.  Who knew that fast food workers had publicists?  Wise is certainly an atypical minimum wage worker in more ways than one.

According to Berlin Rosen’s website, “We help public relations clients articulate their story in a way that persuades and moves, and then we work to develop messaging, talking points, and briefing materials to tell it with impact.”  Also, “We use our unparalleled media contacts to earn consistent high-quality and high-profile public relations media coverage for our clients across print, online, and broadcast media, both mainstream and targeted.”

Kendall Fells, national organizing director of Fight for 15, cited in the New York Times, describes Wise “a natural-born leader, and he is doing a good job bringing in other leaders.”  With his community organizing skills, Wise could get a better job.

Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that fewer than 3 percent of American workers make minimum wage.  Generally, they move on to an above-minimum wage job. Some become managers of fast food establishments and others move to other employers. Yet Wise has worked for 19 years in minimum wage fast food jobs ostensibly without being offered other employment.

Are Wise, his fiancée, and his three daughters part of a carefully-developed story by Berlin Rosen?  Has Wise received payments from the SEIU, from Berlin Rosen, or other sources connected with organized labor?  How did Wise come to have a publicist?  The answers to these questions are all worth knowing.

The SEIU has an extensive public relations network.  It funds Fast Food Forward through centers such as Jobs With Justice, whose board of directors includes Joseph Hansen, president of the Union of Food and Commercial Workers, and Mary Kay Henry, president of the SEIU.  It also funds New York Communities for Change (formerly ACORN), launched in 2012, which works with Fight for 15. 

The SEIU is orchestrating these protests because it is concerned about its future. Union membership continues to decline among private sector employees.  Only 6.7 percent of private employees today belong to unions, compared to 12 percent in 1990 and 16.8 percent in 1983. 

Labor unions cannot use extended picketing, disruptive protests, or secondary boycotts, but worker centers--which do not include the targeted employees--are not prohibited from these activities. The  SEIU is using worker centers to do its dirty work. Groups such as Fast Food Forward claim to represent employees, even though not one worker has voted for them. 

The push for a $15 an hour minimum wage—an increase of over 100 percent increase from the current level of $7.25—shows the strikes are more about style than substance. Few people go on strike for a 100 percent pay raise.  

Under American labor laws, employees decide whether or not to be represented by a particular entity through a secret-ballot election.  It is not the organization that decides whether to represent employees.  Organizations that sponsor worker centers attempt to represent employees without their consent.  

In addition to elections, workers have a right to full access to the union's books to determine their finances. No worker has access to the books of Fast Food Forward.

Unions have to file financial disclosure forms, such as the LM-2 form, with the Labor Department, so dues-paying union members know how their money is being spent.  The required filing of this form to the Labor Department offers union members a degree of financial transparency.  Fast Food Forward has not filed any forms with the Labor Department.

The Fight for 15 movement is based on a mirage, an illusion purposefully created to persuade the American public to sympathize with low-wage workers.  Actual workers do not go on strike for 100 percent pay increases. Actual workers do not want a third party such as a union to garnish their wages before they see them. Actual workers do not have publicists, much less for high-priced agencies such as Berlin Rosen.  Actual workers do not pose for New York Times articles.  Actual workers don’t have the life stories of Terrance Wise.  Actual workers work hard, and many move on to better jobs without the benefit of a union. That is the inconvenient truth for Fight for 15,  the reality that spurs the movement to create its mirage.

Diana Furchtgott-Roth, former chief economist of the U.S. Department of Labor, directs Economics21 at the Manhattan Institute. You can follow her on Twitter here. 

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