RICHMOND, Va. — A major effort to rally fast food workers for a $15 an hour minimum wage and union rights in Richmond got off to an awkward start Friday when the kick-off event was protested by some of the movement's own organizers.
The protesters claimed they were being denied union rights by the Service Employees International Union, the primary funder and organizer of the Fight for $15, the leading activist group in the minimum wage hike movement.
SEIU President Mary Kay Henry had just begun a speech at an event in the Greater Richmond Convention Center to kick off the weekend rally when maybe two dozen people rushed the stage carrying signs that said: "$15 minimum wage and union rights for all means FF organizers too." Henry was forced to stop her speech.
"The organizers would like to have their own rights recognized. We aren't being given ours," Jody Lynn Fennell, one of the protesters, told the Washington Examiner afterwards. She and other protesters said there were 65 organizers seeking to unionize. Their intention Friday was to present Henry with a letter outlining their grievances.
The incident provoked a brief moment of pandemonium in the hall. Many other activists reacted angrily, seeing them as hurting the movement. "You are going to do this to us now?" shouted one activist on the stage with Henry to the protesters.
Others attempted to drown the protesters out with chants. A few grabbed the protesters' signs and ripped them apart.
SEIU's Henry didn't address their claim directly but once she regained control in the hall reiterated that the union was fighting for everyone's rights. The incident lasted about 20 minutes.
Fennell said she and others were ground level organizers for SEIU and Fight for $15 who sought to form a union but were being blocked. She claimed that SEIU told them they were, in effect, temps and therefore not eligible to unionize. "SEIU says that we do not work for them. They say we work for a shell corporation," Fennell said.
She also said that they were paid a salary which would amount to $15 an hour or better if they worked a standard 40-hour week, but they are often required to work 60-hour weeks or more without overtime.
Others at the event disputed the protesters claims. Some SEIU people claimed they weren't even certain the protesters really were organizers. Others said that they were but claimed that they were paid well above $15 an hour.
The protesters' signs included the initials UUR, a reference to Union of Union Representatives. Other liberal publications have noted the intra-union conflict.
A SEIU spokeswoman told the Washington Examiner, "SEIU strongly supports the Fight for $15 and a union which was started thanks to the fearlessness and courage of workers living on poverty wages who spoke up, joined together and demanded something better. SEIU supports the ability of all workers across our economy to join together in unions and have a voice at work to improve their lives and the lives of their families and communities, including organizers in the Fight for $15. Many Fight for $15 organizers are already unionized and have executed collective bargaining agreements. Some of the regional fast food unions whose staff are not yet organized have reached out to interested unions to offer a fast and fair process to determine whether organizers wish to be represented by a union. SEIU fully supports that approach."
Friday's protest was not unprecedented in the labor movement. Unions have sometimes found themselves in the awkward position of resisting efforts by their own staff to unionize, and facing charges of hypocrisy for it.
Asked whether she was worried that she had upset others in the movement with the protest, Fennell shrugged and said, "I am passionate about rights." She added that she and other protesters would participate in a march to the Richmond capitol building Fight for $15 is planning for Saturday.
"Of course. I believe very strongly in a $15 minimum wage," she said.