If you want higher wages with that, you're doing it wrong. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg
If you want higher wages with that, you're doing it wrong. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

The Service Employees International Union is stepping up its attempts to unionize fast-food franchises with a day of demonstrations and “civil disobedience” planned for Thursday. Last year’s walkout resulted in a lot of nonsense being talked about minimum wages, but very little other real impact that I’m able to see. The SEIU apparently hopes that by bringing in civil disobedience -- and some home health-care workers who would also like to make $15 an hour -- they’ll be able to raise the stakes and make a real dent in a difficult problem: trying to mass-organize a highly fragmented, extremely competitive industry.

I would like to believe in the possible success of this effort. But I find it hard to suspend my disbelief. The classic union successes were in mass industries that enjoyed large economies of scale and few ready substitutes for their products. That meant a union only had to organize a handful of firms with workers concentrated in a few large plants. Once they had unionized those plants, it was easy to extract wage and benefit gains for the workers, because when economies of scale are high, so is worker productivity. The average auto worker generates hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of output; the average fast food worker, much less. That matters a lot. It means you can deliver higher wages to the worker even while taking quite a bit off the top for union dues (at least, as long as you keep out lower-cost imports).

And if your wage gains force the company to raise the cost of the cars a little bit, so what? It’s not like your customers are going to drive a tricycle to work. Fast food is inherently protected from foreign competition, but it has a lot of close substitutes; you can pack a sandwich or pop a Lean Cuisine in the microwave. In the case of retail, you can order your clothes over the Internet, from a giant warehouse where workers spend their time plucking merchandise off the shelves instead of tidying the dressing rooms or patiently saying that of course that sweater doesn’t make you look fat.

So fast food is, on the one hand, expensive to organize; on the other hand, the amount of value each worker creates is not high enough to deliver 1) fatter paychecks to 2) the same number of workers and 3) hefty union dues to cover the high cost of organizing these outlets.

I certainly don’t blame the SEIU for trying. An institution is like any other organism: It wants to survive and reproduce. As traditionally unionized industries have shrunk and fragmented, they have to go where the jobs are. And a lot of jobs are being created in traditionally low-wage, low-skill work such as retail and fast food.

But so far, traditional organizing seems to be mostly a dud in these industries; campaigns against McDonald's Corp., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and similar firms have generated publicity for the unions behind them, but not much in the way of new union membership. How does civil disobedience change the equation?

The point of civil disobedience is to break an unjust law, forcing the authorities to reveal an injustice to the world by punishing you severely for something that ought to be perfectly legal, such as making salt or taking any darn seat you want on an empty bus. But McDonald's is not the law in this country, and if the protesters are arrested, it is apt to be for something that is illegal for good reason, such as blocking traffic on a public thoroughfare. Which is not going to make the union’s cause more popular, though it might make it more visible.

Soaring comparisons to the civil-rights movement sound great in a news release, but how many Americans (who eat at McDonald's) actually see a clear link between, on the one hand, being denied the right to vote or attend school or eat at a lunch counter with whites ... and, on the other hand, making less than $15 an hour? You can try to link them by making a complicated argument about social capital and privilege and structural inequality. You can also try to link them by standing on your head and reciting "Horatius at the Bridge." Neither is likely to have much impact on Joe Q. Public, who likes his arguments clear and succinct, and his Quarter Pounder with a large shake and a side of hot, crispy fries.

If unions want to turn fast-food operations into “good union jobs,” there may be a way through the government: getting the National Labor Relations Board to help them unionize McDonald's rather than picking away at its franchisees, or pushing governments at various levels to pass a much higher minimum wage. I’m skeptical of either plan, for reasons I have outlined before. But they seem much more likely to work than another high-publicity, low-participation walkout.

To contact the author of this article: Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net.