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Do’s & Don’ts

Got protesters? Here’s a playbook for minimum-wage strikes


Beth Ewen

“Hey hey, ho ho, $7.40’s got to go,” chanted a group of fast-food workers this fall at a McDonald’s and later at a Church’s Chicken in Detroit, as well as Burger King, Wendy’s and many more in three-dozen cities across the country.

Like other such strikers, they were protesting low wages at the restaurants and demanding $15 an hour—a ridiculous sum to the business class but perfect bait for the TV cameras that inevitably appear when the strikers gather.

“McDonald’s and Burger King are part of a $200-billion industry in this country so they can afford to pay their workers enough to have a decent life and feed their kids,” said a McDonald’s employee on the Fox affiliate in Detroit, delivering the canned line heard in city after city.

You can imagine the video: hard-working single moms just trying to make a living vs. the faceless corporate fat-cat. The stunts are certain to continue throughout this year, so franchise operators should prepare.

A front for unions?

The protests are not the grassroots rising of the masses they appear to be, according to Mike Paranzino, communications director of a restaurant industry-backed group called ROC Exposed, which formed in December 2012.

The group’s mission is to prove their claim, that the Restaurant Opportunities Centers behind the strikes are really a wedge to help organized labor at last unionize restaurants, Paranzino says. Franchised restaurants make a great target for an obvious reason: They have hundreds of stores all over the nation, rather than the stand-alone restaurants where ROC has staged protests for at least a decade.

Beginning in New York, and now with 10 full-blown chapters in places like Philadelphia, Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles, the ROC plays hard. Paranzino cited “the nasty, aggressive protests at non-union restaurants” that won’t meet their demands.“They’ll bang pots and pans. They’ll bring in an inflatable cockroach,” he says. “They basically bring restaurants to their knees with these types of protests that threaten to close their businesses.”

With the rise of minimum-wage strikes this past year, the ROC is thinking bigger, in Paranzino’s view acting like a union, but able to avoid National Labor Relations Board regulation of unions because they instead are called “worker centers.”

“I think that’s worthy of congressional hearings. We have 70 years of labor law that has developed to make it fair for workers and for employers, and now you have this new creation that’s exploding, that allows them to skirt many of these things,” he says.

ROC Exposed plays plenty hard itself, sending a letter last summer to the IRS commissioner, asking for an investigation of ROC, which purports to be a charity yet he says lobbies at the federal, state and local level. “It caught our attention that here the IRS had been targeting certain groups, right of center groups, and here’s a union front group skating by without scrutiny. We thought it warranted attention by the IRS and we’ll see where that leads.”

And for all his complaints that ROC hides its business, ROC Exposed hides as well, including the identity of its donors and the amount of money raised. “We haven’t disclosed any of those numbers. We will file at the appropriate time,” Paranzino says, then offers rationalization when challenged. “We’d be crazy, given ROC’s record of attacking in such aggressive ways, it would be insane to mention donors or go beyond what’s required.”

Sara Jayaraman, ROC New York’s co-director, didn’t return calls seeking comment. ROC started for noble reasons, working to help displaced restaurant workers at Windows on the World after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.

On its website, the organization says: “We are over 5,500 New York City restaurant workers uniting to fight injustice in the restaurant industry. If you are a past, present or aspiring restaurant worker interested in building worker power to improve wages and working conditions in the restaurant industry, join us.”

What to do

As the ROC vs. ROC Exposed wage war, the tactics are landing at the franchisee’s door. Ken Greene operates 33 Bruegger’s bagels stores under the company name Hot LLC in Syracuse, Albany and Rochester, New York, and he’s the brand’s largest franchisee. His stores have not been targeted, and his approach is to stay out of the fights and get ahead of the trend.

For one example, he says, a proposition in New York will raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour and the next year to $10. “So we made a decision that we’ll hire people at $9 an hour, before it goes into effect,” Greene says, not because “we feel we have to, but we would rather deal with things proactively than reactively.”

For another, the new healthcare reform law will require workers to purchase health insurance when in the past they didn’t have to. But he doesn’t argue the pros or cons. “We don’t take sides. Our job is to eliminate things that create conflict with our guests,” he says.

“We deliver great bagels with happy people. I don’t want to say that we’re above the fray, but we don’t get ourselves involved in debates. It’s not what we do for a living.”

Patrice Rice, who specializes in restaurant manager recruitment through her Patrice & Associates franchise, says her most forward-thinking clients are fast-tracking their management training programs.

“They are having an effect,” she says about the minimum-wage protests, the most recent of which were staged December 5. “It’s a big concern of the chains, and unfortunately the people that are going to have the negative pushback are the exact same people who want the increase in pay.

“The thing about the restaurant industry is, it’s truly one of the few industries where you can have a career and work your way up starting with a GED,” she says, referring to the test that substitutes for a high-school diploma. “An assistant manager at Taco Bell makes $35,000 a year. A general manager of Cracker Barrel makes $100,000 a year,” she says.

“Many chains I work with have an accelerated management training program,” she says, and in the past they let workers come to them. Now the smartest franchisors are going to the employees. “They are sitting down with the hourly workers and saying, what are your goals?”

She says the protests are part of the times. “Used to be, people were glad to have a job, and now you’ve got a big shift. It’s a very different change in the way people are thinking,” she says.

“There’s a whole sense of entitlement in everything these days. You’re entitled to healthcare, just because you breathe. You’re entitled to make more money. You’re entitled, you’re entitled, you’re entitled.”

No talking

Although such sentiments are likely shared by many in the business, Jamie Izaks, president of All Points Public Relations in Chicago, would advise operators to keep any such thoughts to themselves. If a protest is coming to your store, he says, gather your team together and communicate how much they mean to you, and empathize with their concerns over wages.

“The best way to show respect is to let it happen,” he says about a protest, “and that shows empathy. Look, it’s hard for everyone right now” in this economy. “Understand these are people who need income to live and we’re all in it together.”

Alan Greenfield, a franchise attorney with Greenberg Traurig in Chicago, adds an important legal warning about economic strikes, as minimum-wage protests are known. “It’s still a protected concerted activity, so the employer cannot fire these employees who are striking,” for example. Franchisors should learn the rules and educate their franchisees. “You can create larger issues by breaking these laws,” he says.

Izaks closes with his biggest piece of advice, which might run counter to a store owner’s instincts. Do not grab a microphone and address the protesters, because there’s no way to control how that will sound when it zings across social media.

Quite likely you’ll become the next Marie Antoinette, perceived to be suggesting your minions eat cake if they don’t have bread. “The last thing you want to do is step outside and take the podium,” Izaks says.

Beth Ewen is managing editor of Franchise Times, and writes the Continental Franchise Review column in every issue. Send interesting legal and public affairs cases to bewen@franchisetimes.com


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