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Lessons from Fast Food Strikes

In April 2015, tens of thousands of workers, in well over 200 U.S. cities and in 40 nations, rallied for higher wages and benefits.  This growing movement is getting attention and having an impact, providing lessons for communicators.

The most effective communicators on this issue are Making it About All of Us.

By default, we all normally think of jobs as personal.  Pay, benefits and working conditions are matters for the employer and employee to settle. It can seem like “none of our business” – certainly not something outsiders have responsibility to resolve.

But to make it easier to build broad support for job quality policies, it is essential for communicators to turn the conversation into one that’s about all of us, one where we all have a stake, and a reason to take a stand – not just the workers in particular jobs or industries.

The most effective communicators on fast food strikes (which has now grown to include a range of workers in low wage jobs), whether they are experts, policymakers, advocates, or strikers themselves, connect the issue to “all of us” in four ways:

Connect personal wages to collective benefits: Topos research found that people want to support higher wages and benefits, but worry it will hurt businesses and the economy. Shining a light on how the economy really works avoids that obstacle and helps people see shared stakes:

For our communities and economy to thrive, jobs need to pay at least enough to let people spend on the basics. Economy-busting jobs pay so little that people can’t afford food, or to go the doctor, or to make basic repairs, which hurts all of us, as the economy slows down. Economy-boosting jobs that raise the wage and benefits floor create stronger communities and a better economy for all of us.

When strikers ask for higher wages or better benefits, they are directly living out the “boost or bust” story: They are pushing for compensation that will not only provide their own households with greater financial security, but will benefit their communities, as more people are able to engage in the buying-and-selling that keep local economies going.

“Now, it’s not just about fast food workers,” said Kendall Fells, organizing director for Fast Food Forward, in an interview with MSNBC. “Just about every low-wage service sector industry is getting involved, which is pretty much the heart of the American economy.

“Fast food workers’ strike fueled by other low-wage employees, Eric Garner,” by Emma Margolin, MCNBC, December 4, 2014

“People thought we were crazy to call for $15 an hour, but all across the country, cities, states and employers are raising wages significantly because of the stand we are taking,” Alvin Major, a KFC worker, said in the statement. “And so many different workers are joining our fight that we will win better pay so our families can succeed and our communities can prosper.

“Push for a $15 minimum wage goes to college,” By Aimee Picchi, CBS MONEYWATCH, March 31, 2015

Connect personal wages to collective costs: In their default ways of looking at things, it is relatively easy for people to justify the existence of bad jobs – from the idea of “starting at the bottom” to the idea that employees “knew what they were getting into” to the idea that if people want a better job, they can and should make that happen on their own by getting more schooling, taking more initiative, and so forth. Even workers in low wage jobs often share and voice some of these assumptions.

An important challenge for communicators who sympathize with strikers is to convey that certain jobs simply offer too little compensation, in a way that doesn’t sound like complaining or misplaced sympathy.

One approach communicators are using successfully is to point out that many full-time employees are paid so little they can and do receive publicly funded assistance like food stamps and health insurance. In our testing, this point puts audiences on the side of the employees, and is a concrete and compelling illustration of how some jobs are unacceptably “bad.” And when they learn this is a deliberate business strategy on the part of profitable companies that are basically asking taxpayers to subsidize their work force, people become enraged.

The low-wage business model practiced by many of the largest and most profitable employers in the country not only leaves many working families unable to afford the basics, but also imposes significant costs on the public as a whole,” Sarah Leberstein, a senior staff lawyer with the National Employment Law Project, testified recently before Connecticut lawmakers.

“Working, but Needing Public Assistance Anyway,” by Patricia Cohen, NY Times, April 12, 2015.

Importantly, our testing shows that this idea does NOT increase stigmas about public assistance, and if anything makes people more sympathetic to those who rely on it – and 3 angrier at companies that abuse the system. Furthermore, this point is one of the most effective ways of establishing a line in the sand, meaning that certain compensation arrangements are simply unacceptable.

Position the strikers as “workers who are sticking together”: Our research on unions finds there is a long way to go to repair Americans’ relationship with the labor movement. The idea of a “strike” is often met with disapproval by those who are uncomfortable with confrontation, or who believe people “should be thankful to have any job in this economy.”

This article won’t go into detail about our research regarding unions, but the bottom line for communicators is that the most effective approach is usually to focus on workers’ right to stick together in order to speak with a more powerful voice. The emotional power of the food strike news coverage is often this simple image at the heart of the story.

In Chicago, [Nancy] Salgado says the management has not only refrained from retaliating against strikers, but has actually started treating staff with more respect. Yet the real reward she says she’s gained from the movement is a fresh sense of solidarity with other mothers like her. “We bond together,” she says, “because we come united. … One of the strongest things I’ve learned in this organization is that being united as a family gives you a lot of strength to move forward.

“Fed Up: Women Fast-Food Workers Fight Back,” by Michelle Chen, Msmagazine.com, March 28, 2015

Reinforce the idea of a social movement: The sheer breadth and scale of events, thousands of workers in well over 200 U.S. cities and in 40 nations, allows each of us to picture our communities and ourselves as part of the story – the strikes are happening across America, as opposed to more locally or narrowly. Just as importantly, a more widespread strike is more likely to trigger our sense that maybe what’s happening is good and right – people are persuaded by what others are thinking and doing. (For one relevant social science study, see Robert Cialdini, 2001, Harnessing the science of persuasion, Harvard Business Review.)

Terrence Wise, a Burger King worker from Kansas City, Missouri, and a national leader for the Fight for $15 push, said more than 2,000 groups including Jobs With Justice and the Center for Popular Democracy will show their support as well. “This will be the biggest mobilization America has seen in decades,” Wise said at the rally as pedestrians walked past on the busy street.

“Fast-Food Labor Organizers Plan Actions for April 15,” by Candice Choi, AP Food Industry Writer

“When we started it was very hard to get people to sign up — they were scared, ‘I might lose my job,’” said Ms. Brooks, who became a fast-food worker after funding for her job as a youth counselor was eliminated. “But this movement is really growing. People who didn’t know who we were, they now know who we are.”

“Movement to Increase McDonald’s Minimum Wage Broadens Its Tactics,” by Steven Greenhouse, NY Times, March, 30, 2015

In Detroit, the Rev. Charles Williams II, president of National Action Network, thanked protesters for their support and encouraged fast-food customers to aid the effort. “We need them to sacrifice with us,” he said. “We are sacrificing our time, the workers are sacrificing their wages. We need people who eat fast food to sacrifice their coffee, to sacrifice their McMuffin.”

“Fast-food workers strike, protest for higher pay,” by John Bacon, USA Today, December 5, 2013

Stories framed in these ways have the potential to turn the strikes from “spectator” events for most Americans, into ones where we see that we all have a stake.

Conclusion

Americans don’t automatically side with strikers, but if handled well, strike stories can be compelling openings for conversations about the kind of economy and the kind of nation we want. Communicators who are prepared with compelling messages about how better jobs are better for all of us, about how profitable and powerful employers could afford to do better, about how these employers may be “gaming the system,” and about Americans’ right to band together to agree on what they want – have a good chance of gaining new allies in the fight for better job quality and more broadly shared prosperity.

The Tipping Point on Minimum Wage

With Walmart’s recent announcement lifting employees’ base pay to at least $10 per hour, similar news from other employers, and the successful sweep of minimum wage and paid sick leave campaigns all across the nation in 2014, are we seeing a tipping point in how people view measures to increase job compensation? Will “What’s good for workers is good for America” become established as the new cultural common sense?

The move by Walmart and other employers, and the wins at the ballot box, didn’t happen by accident. Workers and organized labor have been fighting for job improvements for years, as have smart advocates at the local, state and national levels. All that hard work and strategy is paying off, not just in short-term wins, but also, we believe, in a new cultural common sense about how the economy really works and should work.

Since we started working on strategic framing for job quality issues four years ago, we have noticed a groundswell of effective framing by advocates. An approach that we call the “economy-boosting/economy-busting jobs” frame, that is gaining more currency among advocates, links the fate of low-wage workers to the fate of all Americans. The opposite of “trickle down,” this frame makes the common sense point that we all depend on money flowing from workers – their ability to spend on at least the basics – keeps communities and our economy going. Our research finds that most Americans want to support requirements to raise the wage and benefits floor, but they worry about hurting business, killing jobs, and ultimately hurting workers. By emphasizing that better compensation for workers boosts the economy, we allow people to set aside those worries.

For our communities and economy to thrive, jobs need to pay at least enough to spend on the basics. Economy-busting jobs pay so little that people can’t afford food, or to go the doctor, or to make basic repairs, which hurts all of us, as the economy slows down. Economy-boosting jobs that raise the wage and benefits floor create stronger communities and a better economy for all of us.

This common sense idea is quickly becoming a default frame for talking about job quality issues. We see it in media commentary, and hear it coming from advocates, business owners, and elected leaders, including leaders in the White House. Note the following response to Walmart’s announcement by Holly Sklar, who is consistently compelling in framing this issue:

“Walmart’s low wages have been a drag on the U.S. economy, with many of its employees relying on public assistance just to get by. We need to restore the eroded purchasing power of the federal minimum wage so that paying wages that workers can live on is not optional. That will boost business and strengthen our economy.”

Holly Sklar, CEO, Business for a Fair Minimum Wage

Topos research indicates that when this framing is used to make the case for one policy, such as minimum wage increases, advocates are paving the way for future successes on other related policies. By explaining the causes and solutions in a way that offers a new picture of how a good economy works, this approach ends up lifting multiple progressive issues, in a way that has potential to last.

Here are just a few examples of effective communications from a range of 2014 campaigns that we believe can begin to establish a new cultural common sense on the economy:

“Yes, it would mean businesses – like the Frontiersman – would spend more on labor. But at the same time, it also means our minimum wage employees would have more cash in their pockets to feed their families, pay rent and to spend on ‘luxury items,’ such as an occasional meal out, or a trip to the movies. All that means more money turning over in the Mat-Su Valley. That’s why we support the initiative on the Nov. 4 ballot that would raise Alaska’s minimum wage to $8.75 per hour on Jan. 1, 2015, to $9.75 on Jan. 1, 2016, and thereafter adjust it for inflation.”

Frontiersman News, Editorial

 

“By giving a raise to the nearly 170,000 Arkansans who make minimum wage, our economy will get a much needed shot in the arm. I hear from Arkansas business owners all the time, and one of their main concerns these days is demand for their products. Better wages for workers means increased sales for small business owners as families have a little more each month to plug back into the economy.”

Senator Mark Pryor

 

“If Proposition J in San Francisco and Measure FF in Oakland both pass, it will give a raise to 190,000 low-wage workers in the Bay Area, according to economists from UC-Berkeley. Their take-home pay will jump by $523 million a year, most of which they will spend in small businesses and local mom-and-pop shops.”

Guest Column published in the San Francisco Examiner, Alysabeth Alexander Vice-President of Politics for SEIU Local 1021.

 

“Jobs must pay enough for workers to meet their basic needs — like paying for a doctor visit or putting gas in the car. At the current minimum wage, a full-time salary is about $15,000 per year, far below what workers need to support themselves and their families in any community in Nebraska…Boosting workers’ wages would increase consumer spending; this would be good news for Nebraska businesses because it would in turn increase demand for their goods and services.”

State Senator Jeremy Nordquist

 

“It’s common knowledge that people with more money in their pockets will spend that at businesses across South Dakota. That’s money that will ripple through our economy and create opportunities for all people.”

Zach Crago, Executive Director, South Dakota Democratic Party

 

“We know that thousands of Wisconsin workers cannot make it on $7.25. We also know that when workers can’t afford the basics, the whole economy slows down and everyone loses. It’s just economic common-sense: Putting more money into the hands of working people ensures they have more to spend on goods and services, increasing demand in our economy and spurring job growth.”

Citizen Action of Wisconsin

 

By advancing the Boost or Bust Jobs Frame, advocates are starting to establish a new cultural common sense, and broadening the consensus for these issues beyond those who are active in social movements, which in turn creates a more conducive environment for social movement success.

Talking About Income Inequality

There’s a lot of public dialogue about income inequality these days.

In a new memo, Topos principals consider the best approach to building public understanding on addressing this economic issue in light of their recently released research on building support for job quality policies like paid time off and higher minimum wages.

A dramatic rise in references to income inequality  – among leaders, journalists and advocates, and disseminated in all media – suggests that influential individuals feel the climate has changed in ways that make an inequality discussion more palatable than it has been in the past.

Since 2008, the economy has changed and the Occupy movement made headlines, so can we assume that earlier cautions no longer apply?

We should be very careful about assuming that is true – partly because the challenges discussed in the 2008 paper mostly arise from fundamental cultural perspectives and cognitive tendencies, that don’t change quickly, if ever.

The Pew Center conducts a regular survey of American values and in a recent report, the Center’s founding director Andrew Kohut and his co-author conclude that there’s been no real shift in public opinion about economic inequality despite the fact that there’s been more media attention to the issue since the Occupy movement and the 2012 election.

Overall, our goal is to help see people see the bigger picture – of what is happening, how it is happening, who is affected, etc. With this in mind, we may be better off not using the word inequality as a leading idea, and using other words for now.

Labor Day Boost

Happy Labor Day! Celebrate economy-boosting jobs with our new video.

This “Simply-Put” video provides a brief illustration of how to make the core points emerging from newly released Topos research on communicating job quality, including minimum wage and paid sick days. We expect this video will be a great tool for sharing the research findings with colleagues, field staff, supporters, and others. It’s a terrific way to start a conversation – or to wrap up a presentation about building support for job quality initiatives. Check it out! And then read more about our findings.

 

New Job Quality Research Findings Build on Recent Success

Advocates and strategists around the country have achieved some recent successes on a range of job quality policies – especially higher minimum wages and guaranteed paid sick days. From one perspective, these successes indicate the potential to “turn the corner” on job quality debates, and achieve long-term improvements.

On the other hand, people involved in these struggles tell us that the battles are often fought “uphill” against stubborn resistance of various kinds – not just from self-interested industry opponents, but also from decision-makers and the public.

In a multi-phase research effort over the past year, the Topos Partnership has explored Americans’ thinking about these aspects of job quality, and ways of creating more support for policies that would improve our labor market.

In the course of this research we identified a set of persistent, broadly shared ideas in public discourse that can derail conversation about job quality policies, and have developed a practical communications framework that helps people think more constructively about the relationship between jobs, people, corporate actions and the economy.

Our intention was to help communicators in a number of ways:

  • Persuade some who are currently not on our side
  • Increase the confidence of people who are on our side
  • Offer decision-makers models of how to talk persuasively
  • Tie a number of issues together
  • Create a new common sense.

The Problem

Research with a diverse group of hundreds of Americans established that a handful of strong, default perspectives – that collectively feel like “the common sense” on the issue – often undermine support for job quality policies, even among progressive audiences. Importantly, each of these perspectives is based on (partial) truth, and is therefore reinforced by experience and can seem undeniable.

Two of the strongest default perspectives related to job quality focus, respectively, on what businesses need, and what individuals need. Opponents of the job quality agenda typically emphasize the former, while supporters often emphasize the latter.

The Topos research found that to succeed at important framing goals – including broadening the base of support and offering sympathetic audiences more compelling ways of thinking and talking about the topic – it is helpful to focus on a different set of needs: namely what we (collectively), our economy and our communities need. Essentially, to counter the argument that economic success depends on giving business what it wants, we need to reframe the idea of how the economy works. Rather than focus on either individuals or business, this focus ties the two together in a helpful way.

The following core story effectively reframes job quality topics in a way that shifts thinking and engages new support.

If jobs don’t pay enough for workers to afford the basics, the economy slows down. Profitable companies could compensate better but choose not to.

The essential contrast boils down to a choice between “economy-boosting” and “economy-busting” jobs. Some advocates have used versions of this organizing idea for a while now. Our research confirms the effectiveness of the frame for building broad support and new understanding among the public, and provides essential new points like the value of explaining that jobs need to provide enough for “the basics” — food, repairs, clothing, and more.

Conclusion – a “Big Idea”

Importantly, we set out to identify framing that can help not just with one or two specific policies, but promotes new attitudes toward the broader idea of improving jobs for all workers in our economy.

The recommendation is effective at this level, but goes even further. In the end, it offers an alternative common sense about how our economy works, what kind of economy we want and need, and how to achieve it.

If communicators succeed in conveying this vision – of a society that thrives when everyone has the means and the security to maintain spending on the basics – a lot of our policy debates will be less difficult in the future.

Behind the Kitchen Door

Congratulations to Saru Jayaraman for a successful launch of her new book, Behind the Kitchen Door.  We’re proud to stand with Saru in bringing public attention to the shameful $2.13 tipped minimum wage that undercuts workers, communities and the economy.

Team Topos Tweets the #Debates

Our real time reactions to the candidates’ framing and communicating of the issues. Read from the bottom to the top. Tweet your reactions to us @TeamTopos!