The Fast Food Workers Committee (FFWC) is a labor union organized by and almost entirely funded by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) as part of the Fight for $15 minimum wage and union organizing campaign. The Workers Committee is closely tied to the SEIU’s network of worker centers, which are other tax-exempt groups that the Workers Committee contracts with for organizing-related services.
The key leaders of the Committee are labor union and community organizing activists principally associated with other groups. The first Workers Committee president, Kendall Fells, was an employee of the SEIU until late 2017, while vice president Jonathan Westin is the executive director of New York Communities for Change (NYCC), a worker center that receives over $1 million annually from the Workers Committee.
While the Committee is legally organized as a labor union, it reported no members to the Department of Labor in its 2016 annual report. The Workers Committee was reportedly preparing to vote to formally affiliate with SEIU, its principal funder. Field-level organizers of the campaign have speculated that SEIU hid its association during the initial protests in which it participated, so as to make the SEIU-orchestrated protests appear to have arisen spontaneously from the grassroots.
Media reports have questioned whether most demonstrators associated with the Workers Committee protests are actually restaurant employees, or are instead public relations professionals or other professional campaigners.
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has been attempting to unionize employees in the fast food industry since at least 2009. The SEIU sought to use the expected Employee Free Choice Act (better known as the card-check bill) to organize chain restaurant workers first in Los Angeles and an unspecified East Coast city, with a six-month organizing goal of 15,000 new union members.
This initial attempt was halted by the failure of the card-check bill to pass the U.S. Senate, despite backing from President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats who were then in control of the Senate. Sent back to the drawing board, the SEIU decided to launch a corporate attack campaign against the fast food industry (specifically, McDonald’s), combined with a campaign to have the federal minimum wage more than doubled. Dubbed Fast Food Forward and Fight for 15, these worker center efforts formed a multimillion-dollar SEIU campaign to unionize fast food workers. Starting in 2012, the groups—backed heavily by SEIU and worker centers funded by the SEIU—began a campaign of demonstrations for a $15/hour national minimum wage and unionization of fast food workers.
After business and center-right groups began arguing that the way the SEIU was using worker centers might violate federal laws governing protests aimed at achieving unionization, the SEIU registered several “worker organizing committees” based in Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, North Carolina, California’s East Bay region, and Los Angeles as labor unions. The largest committee is the Fast Food Workers Committee, headquartered in Brooklyn.
The Workers Committee is closely tied to New York Communities for Change (NYCC), a Brooklyn worker center. The two organizations shared office space at least through 2015, and NYCC’s executive director, Jonathan Westin, is an officer of the Workers Committee. The Committee pays NYCC considerable sums for organizing and agitation services: In 2015, the union paid the organizing group $1,536,687, according to FFWC’s Department of Labor filings.
In addition to leading demonstrations for unionization and raising the minimum wage, the Workers Committee is the labor organization of record in a series of National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) cases filed against McDonald’s restaurants. Labor movement activists have expressed a desire for the Board to declare the company a “joint employer” with its franchisees; that is, they want the NLRB to hold the national McDonald’s corporation jointly liable for the labor practices of the hundreds of mostly small businesses that actually run each franchised restaurant. This change in legal treatment would make restaurants easier to unionize.
Ties to SEIU
Whether or not the Workers Committee is formally an affiliate of SEIU—reports in 2016 indicated a vote to affiliate would be held—the Committee is deeply intertwined with the politically prominent union. Most notably, the Workers Committee is almost entirely funded by the SEIU national headquarters. In 2015, the Committee received 99.994% of its revenue—nearly $5 million—from the international union.
SEIU provides other assistance and connections to the Workers Committee. FFWC’s first president, Kendall Fells, was an employee of the national SEIU from 2006 until he resigned amid abuse allegations in 2017. Prior to a transfer to headquarters, Fells worked for the New York City local of SEIU-organized healthcare workers, SEIU 1199.
SEIU also makes substantial expenditures toward other groups involved in the Fight for 15 that benefit the Workers Committee, including controversial public relations firm BerlinRosen. In total, estimates for SEIU spending on the campaign exceeded $50 million as of the end of 2014.
Reports throughout the campaign indicate SEIU orchestration of the Workers Committee and of the activities of its predecessor, Fast Food Forward. In These Times, a union movement newspaper, reported dissent among ground-level workers on the campaign, who bristled at the degree of control from SEIU headquarters and BerlinRosen. Early reports on the campaign indicated minimal representation of workers among the leadership. The Associated Press reported that a Workers Committee demonstration in New York was poorly attended: “It wasn’t clear how many participants were fast-food workers, rather than campaign organizers, supporters or members of the public relations firm that has been coordinating media efforts.”
Kendall Fells was the president of the Fast Food Workers Committee. He had worked for SEIU and its local unions since at least 2005, according to unions’ Department of Labor reports. While the Workers Committee does not report paying Fells, the SEIU reported paying him $116,425 in salary plus $33,789 in expenses—for a total of $150,214—in 2015. Fells resigned from the SEIU in 2017 amid allegations of abusive behavior by leadership of the “Fight for $15.”
Kevin Doyle is the secretary of FFWC and also a former SEIU officer. Doyle served as executive vice president of New York City’s janitorial service union SEIU 32BJ until 2012, and then as special assistant to the 32BJ president in 2013. He was paid over $200,000 per year in 2012 by 32BJ.