Cierra Brown works at a McDonald’s in Durham, North Carolina. She earns little more than minimum wage, and even with a second job at a local hospital she can’t afford health insurance and pays for her diabetes medication out of pocket. She is frequently asked to stay late and close the store, hours after the bus stops running. If she complains, she knows she could lose her job — and nothing would change anyway.
She’s far from alone. More than 40% of US workers make less than $15 an hour. Amid this national crisis for the working class, support for unions has risen to its highest level in 50 years. But our current labor laws make the protections of a union virtually impossible to obtain for Cierra and tens of millions of other workers like her.
If you’re a lawmaker who wants to dramatically improve the lives of US workers, fixing those broken laws should be at the top of your to-do list. The solutions are well known and already used in democracies around the world — including virtually everywhere in Europe. And they would work here too, not just for fast-food workers like Cierra but for the Uber drivers, warehouse staffers, home care workers, and on-demand delivery drivers who are being employed in ever-greater numbers in today’s economy.
The core problem facing these workers is that our current labor laws only require organizing and bargaining to be done at the individual worksite. In order for Cierra to win a union contract, for example, a majority of the workers at her McDonald’s outlet would need to vote to unionize. But there’s so much turnover, it’s hard to know who works at the restaurant. Meanwhile, their boss has made clear he’s against a union, and they know from other workers’ experience that if they file for a union election, they’ll likely face illegal threats and maybe even firings. Even worse, McDonald’s corporate would not be required to join the bargaining, nor would workers at other McDonald’s locations be allowed to join.