Kamala Harris Slams McDonald's for Not Committing to Higher Pay

(Bloomberg) -- Senator Kamala Harris, a California Democrat seeking the presidential nomination, criticized an iconic American company as she sought to build her appeal with union workers at a candidate forum in Las Vegas sponsored by organized labor.

“You can’t go around talking about the Golden Arches, as a symbol of the best of America, when you are not conducting yourself in the best way in terms of supporting the working people of America,” Harris told an audience of several hundred workers.

Saturday’s gathering, organized by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Center for American Progress Action Fund, is being held just off the city’s fabled Strip. It represents the most extensive single test yet of the Democratic field on issues key to labor.

The comments about McDonald’s Corp. from Harris came after an audience member asked her what she would do to get the company to sit down with workers to create union jobs.

McDonald’s has been the top target of SEIU’s “Fight For $15” campaign, which demands union organizing rights as well as higher pay for workers in industries like fast food. SEIU has helped secure $15 wage laws in a number of cities and states, while seeking -- so far without success -- to also secure an agreement with the largest fast food companies that would facilitate some form of union representation for workers at their chains.

McDonald’s didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry Saturday. Earlier this year, the company announced it would no longer take parts in efforts to lobby against laws raising minimum wages across the board.

Harris, in answering a question about California’s new standard making it harder to treat so-called gig workers as contractors rather than employees, said that workers deserve the “right to negotiate,” and that ride-share drivers, for example, should “not have to be in a working situation where it’s about desperation.”

She declined to directly answer whether she would support limitations on corporate stock buy backs, something some on the left have called for.

The fragmented Democratic presidential contest gives labor unions an opening to reassert their waning political influence as candidates claw for every advantage to break out of the pack.

Organized labor has the potential to be especially powerful in Nevada, which has the highest rate of union membership of any of the four early primary and caucus states that will start to winnow the Democratic field in February.

Kamala Harris Slams McDonald's for Not Committing to Higher Pay

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s entry into the campaign this week brought to 20 the number of candidates seeking the right to challenge President Donald Trump in the general election. The sprawling field offers unions a chance to try to play kingmaker with endorsements and gain favor for their issues in a contest where the first rounds of voting could be decided by the slimmest of margins.

“The clout of organized labor is going to be stronger than it has been in the recent past,” former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told reporters on a conference call ahead of the gathering.

Labor Forum

Others scheduled to attend Saturday’s day-long event include senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, as well as former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and former Obama administration cabinet officer Julian Castro of Texas.

Biden, who has strong ties to some unions and is well liked by many labor leaders, won’t attend. He highlighted his longstanding ties to organized labor during his campaign rollout, and will appear Monday at a blue-collar themed event in Pittsburgh.

Trump’s 2016 victory was spurred in part by his ability to win more voters belonging to union households in key states than has been typical for a Republican in recent presidential elections. Union organizers want to try to diminish his populist appeal and bolster working-class turnout.

Waiting

The extent of any enhanced influence for organized labor depends in part on whether unions -- often with unique issues and relationships with the candidates -- are able to coalesce around one or just a few candidates. Early indications suggest that won’t happen any time soon.

Burned by a 2016 primary experience in which some members complained that their leadership was too quick to back Hillary Clinton, the eventual nominee, over Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, major unions have signaled they plan to move more slowly this time. Clinton won the SEIU’s endorsement in November 2015, despite not having committed to support a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage.

In Nevada’s 2016 Democratic caucuses, more than a quarter of participants were from union households, entrance polls showed. The state is third on the nomination calendar, following contests in the less racially and ethnically diverse states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Biggest Union

Nevada’s largest union is the Culinary Workers Union, a powerful organization representing about 60,000 hospitality workers. With a membership that’s heavily Latino and female, it will be the most-sought endorsement in the state.

The group is an affiliate of the international union Unite Here, which gave then-Senator Barack Obama a key endorsement in 2008 over Clinton in the lead-up to the state’s caucus. Clinton won more caucus votes but Obama narrowly claimed more delegates. In 2016, the union stayed neutral as Clinton narrowly won Nevada’s caucuses following a late Sanders surge.

The SEIU says candidates seeking its endorsement must meet a set of “minimum criteria” that was recently established by the union’s executive board. That includes support for a $15 minimum wage, immigrant rights, affordable health care and long term care, and “bold action” on climate change.

The criteria also include commitments to use executive and regulatory power to make union organizing easier, tie government spending to the rights of workers on government contracts, and confront “structural racism.” To earn support, contenders must also explain how they will win the primary and general election, and participate in events with workers.

Rewriting Rules

“The specific thing that we’re interested in hearing from them about is how are they are going to rewrite the rules to allow working people to join together and bargain with corporations on the scale that we need in order to create family-sustaining jobs in the part of the work force that is laboring in poverty jobs,” said Mary Kay Henry, SEIU’s international president.

The SEIU wants the presidential candidates to talk about national versions of some of the policies it has been pushing in more progressive parts of the country, Henry said. Those include restricting companies from firing workers without cause, tying government subsidies to worker treatment, requiring non-union companies to let workers make automatic payroll deductions to fund advocacy groups and establishing boards where labor, management, and government representatives can bargain over standards for an entire industry.

Along with winning back some union workers who voted for Trump, Henry said organized labor needs to be “as concerned, if not more concerned, about how to expand the electorate and excite infrequent voters -- particularly voters of color -- to show up and vote.”

Many of the 2020 candidates have pushed legislation that appeals to unions. Sanders introduced a bill in January to establish a $15 minimum wage within five years that is co-sponsored by all five senators now competing against him.

Warren and Harris, as well as senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, have also co-sponsored a sweeping bill Sanders introduced last year called the Workplace Democracy Act that would make it easier for employees to force companies to recognize unions.

The Democratic contenders have also been proclaiming their support for various labor struggles across the country, elevating them on social media or showing up in person.

Sanders, who has a long history of supporting local union campaigns, recently has brought up workers and union officials to speak at rallies, sent his email list a solicitation to donate to the Los Angeles teachers’ strike fund, and made history by agreeing to voluntarily recognize and negotiate with a union of his own campaign staff. (Castro has pledged to do the same if his staff decides to unionize.)

The political power of organized labor has declined as membership has fallen and online fundraising and organizing have provided more ways for candidates to draw and mobilize supporters.

Trump has made efforts to cultivate relationships with some union leaders, especially those with more conservative memberships. After his inauguration, he met with officials of building-trades unions, and afterward they praised his promised infrastructure proposals. On Labor Day last year, responding to criticism of his trade strategy from AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, Trump said Trumka’s television appearance made it “easy to see why unions are doing so poorly.”

Nationwide, 10.5 percent of wage and salary workers belonged to unions in 2018, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. In 1983, the first year for which comparable data is available, the rate was 20.1 percent.

The trend has also been reflected at polling places. In 2016, 18 percent of voters said they belonged to a union household, down from 21 percent in 2008, exit polls show. Among union member households in 2016, 51 percent voted for Clinton.

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