Labor strategists say the fast food campaign has long-term potential for unions. If unions can't organize through traditional methods, they see the smaller mobilizations through worker centers as a way to show low-wage workers how coordinated action can win some concessions from employers. That might make workers in the rapidly growing fast food industry more sympathetic to the idea of joining a union later on.
"The fast food and Wal-Mart strikes are exciting examples of workers reinventing the strike, going on offense and challenging inequality," said Stephen Lerner, a labor and community organizer and architect of the Justice for Janitors campaign in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
But the tactic has raised the concern of business groups, which say these organizations are merely "union fronts" designed to operate outside labor laws so they don't have to follow restrictions on secondary picketing, boycotts or file reports with the Labor Department. House Republicans wrote a letter to the Labor Department last week asking officials whether the groups need to abide by labor laws.
"An advantage of these groups is they allow unions to gain entry into a block of workers without them realizing this is just a front for a traditional union," said Glenn Spencer, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Workforce Freedom Initiative.
The number of worker centers has grown from five in the 1990s to more than 200 today, including the Restaurant Opportunity Center, National Day Laborers Organizing Network and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. The AFL-CIO and member unions are trying to leverage alliances with those groups, as well as progressive groups that have similar goals. At the AFL-CIO's upcoming convention in Los Angeles next month, the federation is expected to announce stronger partnerships with the NAACP, Hispanic advocacy groups and the Sierra Club.