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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.


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.

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.

Responding to the “Job Killer” Allegation

Everyone knows the simple rule about repetition being key to changing public understanding. Here’s a new finding about the framing of government policy that researchers and advocates need to consider: The  number of news stories using the phrase  “job killer” about a policy idea increased significantly between 1984 and 2011.

A new study, “Job Killers” in the News: Allegations without Verification, by Professors Peter Dreier of Occidental College and Christopher R. Martin of the University of Northern Iowa, revealed that  “job killer” allegations were targeted at policies to safeguard consumers, protect the environment, raise wages, expand health insurance coverage, increase taxes on the wealthy, and make workplaces safer.

Most troubling is the study’s finding that in 92% of the stories alleging that a government policy was a “job killer,” the news media failed to cite any evidence for this claim.

“It would be fair to say this tax increase on job creators [proposed by the Obama Administration in order to pay for the Jobs Bill] is the kind of proposal both parties have opposed in the past,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner. …

The oil and gas industry, housing industry, and charitable services sector are among those lining up to argue that these tax increases will endanger hundreds of thousands of jobs. They would result in the slashing of 200,000 jobs in the oil and gas industry said John Felmy, chief economist at the American Petroleum Institute. “It will be a terrible hit to an industry this country needs dearly to drive up revenue, jobs and energy security.”

Republicans Warn Obama Tax Hikes Will Kill Jobs” By Michelle Hirsch, The Fiscal Times, September 13, 2011

Communicators who support any proposals to increase public revenue, by whatever means, are likely to come up against the opposition argument that the measures in question will “kill jobs.”

But while this argument is applied to virtually any tax proposal, it may be advanced most vigorously when it comes to taxes on businesses, or even a reduction in subsidies to businesses, which are bemoaned as job-killing “tax increases.” (E.g. see oil industry responses like the one cited above.)

In the face of this argument, how can communicators successfully promote increased business taxes as a reasonable and important component of our nation’s revenue strategy? Topos’ recent memo on the “Tax Shift” frame (“How the ‘Tax Shift’ Idea Can Promote Greater Revenue and More Progressive Taxation,” by the Topos Partnership for the Ford Foundation, October 2011) explains that a wide range of Americans can be engaged by a narrative that clarifies how corporations and the wealthy have successfully evaded tax-paying responsibilities over the past several decades, shifting tax responsibility to the rest of us. This strategy is broadly effective for promoting a return to a more reasonable distribution of the load we must collectively carry, for our own wellbeing. But what are communicators’ best responses to the direct and seemingly sensible argument that when companies pay more in taxes, they are able to employ fewer people?

This short memo begins with a review of some of the key “common sense” perceptions communicators are up against followed by recommended, tested responses to both defend against the Job Killer attack and promote a new perspective that inoculates against its effectiveness.

(The research effort took place in April through June of 2011 and included a set of in-depth, one-on-one telephone interviews (“cognitive elicitations”); focus groups in Richmond, VA and Minneapolis, MN; and “talkback” testing in which individuals hear a single brief message and are then asked a series of questions assessing their ability to remember, explain and reason in terms of a key idea, as well as its effects on their thinking about the topic.)

Up Against Current “Common Sense”

The good news about the “job killer” argument is that people are unlikely to bring up this point on their own, when presented with the general idea of tax increases, for instance. Even though industry spokespeople and their government allies make this point often and forcefully, it is not a top of mind point for average Americans. They are much more sensitive to the effects of taxes on individual and family budgets.

On the other hand, communicators trying to promote increased (direct or indirect) taxes on businesses are up against a set of related perceptions that feel like “common sense,” including the following:

Taking tax money out of private hands slows spending and therefore the economy

This idea was repeated often in all phases of the research. Taxes result in less money to spend. In particular, individuals spend less on things like restaurants, clothes, travel, etc. In short, taxes are an expense, not a source of benefits.

Okay, you’ve taxed and built a road and a school, but now this guy that makes 50 a year doesn’t have it to buy a newer car . . . There’s only so much money being made, so every dollar is taken out of somebody’s pocket is not being spent somewhere else.

52-year old moderate man, Alabama

A minority of research participants also noted that businesses that are taxed more heavily may spend less on hiring and purchasing.

We can put more money in our pockets and spend it how we want, and start the economy again by allowing businesses to hire more because they have more.

27-year old conservative Republican, Illinois

Businesses create jobs, with little or no involvement of government.

A widespread default view of the economy holds that healthy businesses produce jobs. Government spending, on the other hand, results in government jobs (especially bureaucrats and politicians) as well as handouts for the poor and unemployed. Leaving as much money as possible in the hands of businesses therefore makes sense as a way of promoting job growth.

If you want a business to hire some folks, don’t cause their bottom line to go up because if it goes up, they are going to be cutting costs as opposed to adding more employees.

Richmond Man

The wealthy create jobs because they use their money to invest in businesses.

While people may dismiss the phrase “trickle down economy” as a flawed philosophy, their thinking continues to be shaped by the idea that wealthy people create jobs by investing in business. “Job Creators” is another way of reinforcing a trickle-down approach.

The top wage earners and top people in the country that are making the most money will spend more money in the economy. I believe they will reinvest, that they will buy and invest in companies that will employ people and that will build our tax base and therefore that will provide more federal and state income tax. They do give back to the economy.

Minneapolis Man

Taxing businesses higher motivates them to leave (the state, the country).

For many people, this is a familiar and convincing downside to taxes. Because people think about taxes as an expense rather than a source of benefits, it makes perfect sense that businesses will try to reduce their costs by keeping taxes to a minimum, even relocating their operations.

Importantly, this is a concern for people whether they are receptive or hostile toward taxes in general.

We need to keep corporations here for jobs that we really need but we do not want to raise their taxes too high that they will prefer to go to another country.

40-year old liberal woman, Massachusetts

The bottom line is that while Americans tend not to think spontaneously about the “job killing” effects of business taxes, or taxes in general, the idea is a good enough fit with the rest of their “common sense” perspectives that it risks becoming a default perspective.

Defense: Defeating the “Job Killer” argument

Fortunately, the research shows that it is possible to defeat the “job killer” idea with different explanations that fit just as well with common sense.

More specifically, people respond very well to explanations that point out why taxes don’t in fact have much to do with companies’ hiring decisions. The research identified three different points that are effective.

Hiring is driven by consumer demand.

Companies hire when demand dictates that they need to produce more products or provide more service. People are quite willing to disconnect taxes from hiring decisions once they see things from the company’s point of view in this way.

Sample language:

Businesses hire employees for only one reason – because there is consumer demand for their goods and services. They hire when they think an extra employee can help them make more money. According to many business owners, the percentage of taxes paid is an insignificant factor, so the idea that taxes lead to fewer jobs just isn’t true.

Cutting their taxes doesn’t save them any more money to create more jobs . . . [As] business owners said about job creation: it all boils down to increased demand for their products.

48-year old moderate woman, North Carolina


Tax hikes don’t affect our unemployment rate . . . Taxes don’t affect how a business does. Demand for the product and willingness of consumers to shop does.

27-year old moderate woman, Kentucky


Taxes and employment costs are costs of doing business. Despite what the taxes on business may be, so long as there is a demand for a product, then business will go and provide that product. It’s a false argument to claim that to increase taxes would be bad to business.

45-year old conservative man, New York

Hiring practices are driven by the search for profits

People are very willing to accept the common-sense idea that companies hire when hiring will help them increase overall profit and “grow the pie.”

Sample language:

Talk to actual businesspeople and you’ll find that tax rates don’t go into their hiring decisions. Why? Because businesses hire workers to grow the “profit pie.” The fact that they have to give away a slice of the profit pie (as taxes) doesn’t change that logic. Businesses still want to grow overall profits – and will hire workers if they need to.

Higher taxes on companies don’t mean fewer jobs. Businesses hire in order to make more money.

72-year old moderate woman, California


Businesses who want to expand will do so regardless of higher taxes. Expanding their “pie” will mean paying more in taxes, but most likely not a higher percentage.

21-year old conservative woman, Wisconsin


Companies still want to make money and will still hire people to make that money regardless of the taxes.

41-year old moderate woman, Wisconsin

Historically, high taxes haven’t killed jobs.

Not only are people willing to accept this point, but they often go further and add that, conversely, low taxes have historically failed to create jobs. (“Been there, done that.”)

Sample language

Companies are crying wolf when they complain that higher taxes will cost jobs. The fact is that corporate taxes, as a percentage of the economy, are only about a quarter of what they were in prosperous times a generation or two ago. In the fifties and sixties, companies didn’t have so many ways of avoiding taxes, and they were still able to employ enough people to keep a booming economy going.

Raising taxes is not always a bad thing. In the 60s this was not a problem and businesses were still booming. This tax money would be used to do important things.

36-year old conservative man, New Jersey


They say that jobs will decrease but it’s not true. They would still flourish as they did years ago, before tax cuts became so abused.

40-year old conservative woman, Texas


Massive tax savings accrued by businesses has not generated job growth.

31-year old independent woman, Illinois


Offense: Pivoting to the Tax Shift frame

Rebutting the “job killer” argument is an important part of making the case for higher corporate taxes, but communicators also need to change the terms of the debate by helping people understand that tax responsibilities have shifted in the wrong direction.

Our research confirms that the following is an effective “organizing idea” for creating more constructive conversations about collecting revenue:

The Tax Shift From Corporations and the Wealthy to the Rest of Us

In recent decades, corporations and the wealthy have paid a smaller and smaller proportion for the things we need, and taxes have shifted to average Americans and small businesses.

This is an idea that is currently missing in public discourse, that sticks with people, that they find compelling, that helps people reason about other points, and that inclines people, including many conservatives, to believe that we actually need to get more revenue. The following brief text illustrates one way to express the point in a coherent and compelling narrative:

One of the most dramatic changes in the US economy in the last 40 years has been what’s called the Great Tax Shift. For instance, thanks to decades of lobbying for cuts and loopholes, large corporations today pay half of what they used to in taxes. Since we still need to pay for the things that our prosperity rests on, like education, infrastructure, etc., the Tax Shift really means that more taxes have been shifted onto regular people or small businesses, or else we have created deficits. Shifting Taxes back to where they were before, when profitable corporations and the super rich paid their share, would mean we can start paying for our needs again, rather than borrowing to pay for them. 

(For more on the Tax Shift frame see “How the ‘Tax Shift’ Idea Can Promote Greater Revenue and More Progressive Taxation,” by the Topos Partnership for the Ford Foundation, October 2011.)

Depending on the audience and the speaker, advocates can connect the Job Killer frame to the Tax Shift frame in one of several ways, along a continuum of rhetorical aggressiveness. At the “soft” end, communicators can treat the Shift point as simply more solid and factual than the Job Killer “theory” – e.g.:

The theory that taxes kill jobs is pretty debatable. Here are X reasons why most economists don’t buy it… While we might not agree about how valid that theory is, what we can agree on is the fact that there’s been a huge shift in who pays our taxes, from big corporations to ordinary people. Let me give you some numbers: …

Somewhat more aggressively, communicators might suggest that the “job killer” argument is a deliberate ploy to help accomplish the tax shift away from corporations – e.g.:

The idea that taxes kill jobs is just propaganda that no serious economist or even corporate CEO believes. The agenda behind the mantra is to keep shifting responsibility for actually paying taxes from Big Corporations onto regular people.

Big corporations need roads, electricity, an educated workforce, healthcare, government-funded science research, and a strong military as much as anyone. They just want you to pay for it.


Advocates regularly cite the “job killer” frame as an obstacle to progress on revenue and other policies. They are rightfully concerned that the threat of eliminating jobs, once uttered, can derail constructive conversation with the public or even with leaders, who are particularly concerned about appearing not to prioritize employment and economic prosperity in these tough economic times.

The research conducted for this project demonstrates that average Americans are receptive to common sense arguments about why policies, including taxes on businesses, are not in fact job killers. If advocates approach their work with the understanding that they must fight common sense with better common sense, they can make a confident case in favor of new tax and other policies that are critically needed.