September 5, 2014 at 1:00 am

THE MINIMUM WAGE DEBATE

At fast food protests, look for the union label

Unions are behind the wave of fast food strikes that hid Detroit again this week, Saltsman writes. (David Coates / The Detroit News)

On Thursday, a series of fast food “strikes” returned to America’s major cities — including Detroit. They’re organized, as always, by labor unions facing a historic decline in membership and desperate for new dues-paying members.

But the real story isn’t the protest — it’s the millions of dollars that have been paid to BerlinRosen, a New York-based public relations firm, to stage-manage the entire affair.

These “strikes” have always been heavy on paid union staffers and light on actual employees, which isn’t surprising: Polling commissioned from ORC International a few years back found that just 13 percent of non-union households were interested in joining one. New data from Gallup shows that public approval of labor unions remains near an all-time low, which suggests the ORC results haven’t changed much.

It’s BerlinRosen’s job to make the handful of disaffected employees identified by the union appear to be a nationwide fast food movement. Each successive protest typically includes a new gimmick — expanding the protests overseas, for instance, or the promise of civil disobedience — in an attempt to provide a new story for reporters to cover.

The Associated Press described the playbook: TV crews in large urban areas are alerted of a specific time and location for a rally. A labor-organized crowd packs the restaurant at the appointed time. The crowd then breaks up or moves on to another restaurant after 30 minutes or so. (In smaller markets, where the potential for press attention is diminished, there’s been little “strike” action.)

Without sympathetic press attention, the protests would barely register — a lesson BerlinRosen learned the hard way in March. In a poorly-managed attempt to tamp down on criticism, organizers kept a lid on the spring protests until the last minute. Organizers for the Service Employees International Union turned out as always, but the press greeted it with a shrug.

It was a teachable moment for both BerlinRosen and for outside observers inclined to view these protests as anything more than a highly coordinated push by labor unions to organize fast food restaurants.

BerlinRosen has also applied its “grassroots” touch for other union clients, including protests of retail giant Wal-Mart. The firm has been paid handsomely for its efforts: Data from the U.S. Department of Labor indicate that BerlinRosen received an astonishing $8.2 million from labor unions in just the last two years.

Of course, faking a grassroots movement occasionally yields embarrassing moments. Last year, the Washington Examiner reported that numerous spokespeople at the fast food protests — across different times and places — all relied on the same anecdote about not being able afford shoes for themselves or their children. One columnist who tried to reach a fast food protester was directed to a PR agent — a vice president at BerlinRosen. And in the ill-fated protests in March of this year, one labor organizer tweeted a photo of fast food “workers” who were carrying purple and yellow SEIU signs.

With millions of dollars and big labor’s future at stake, it’s a certainty that the fast food “movement” will continue apace with BerlinRosen at the helm. Still, the press and the public should treat these “strikes” as what they really are: stage-managed media events.

Michael Saltsman is the research director at the Employment Policies Institute, which receives support from restaurants, foundations and individuals.