- - Tuesday, October 15, 2013

In an ironic twist, labor activists pushing for a drastic minimum-wage increase last week in Chicago tried to shout down a former minimum-wage worker who had risen to become president of one of the world’s largest companies. McDonald's USA President Jeff Stratton had just began his lunchtime speech when a handful of protesters from “Fight for 15,” the union-backed worker center interrupted him.

The protesters shouted that they couldn’t support their families currently and wanted a $15 minimum wage, nearly double the current Illinois minimum. Ignoring the fact that the minimum wage is a starting wage, typically used for first-time employees or unskilled workers beginning on the ground floor of a company, the Fight for 15 protesters kept voicing their message points before being removed from the luncheon.

What union front groups fail to recognize, or choose not to acknowledge, are the opportunities that continue to exist in restaurants, retail stores and other service industries. They also ignore the low-margin business model that these job creators operate under, and that a doubling of labor costs would ultimately reduce hours and kill jobs.

In reality, the fight to dramatically increase the minimum wage has more to do with labor unions’ desperate attempt to penetrate the service industries than it does improving long-range opportunities for hourly workers. Fight for 15 and similar groups blindly attack employers based on their publicity value and size rather that track records. McDonald's and numerous other restaurant and service businesses across the U.S. provide the first and often only opportunities for people lacking formal education or skills training to join the workforce. Beyond creating tens of thousands of new jobs each year, they provide the training and skills needed for American workers willing to work hard, learn and advance to the middle class.

Mr. Stratton is one of these success stories, having started out in high school working for $1.60 an hour behind the counter of a McDonald's in Detroit. Mr. Stratton is not the exception in his industry; he’s the rule. Many restaurant chain CEOs and presidents began as hourly employees before climbing up the ladder of success.

While the stories of successful franchise owners and CEOs that began as hourly employees are many, the larger story can be found in the ranks of the countless assistant managers, managers, regional directors and other members of middle management that came from disadvantaged beginnings before working their way to the middle class by seizing these opportunities.

All of this seems to be lost on the worker center activists being led and funded by seasoned union organizers. These young advocates, often privileged themselves, don’t understand that the employers they attack offer one of the few paths left to achieve the American dream. Or that the very people they’re trying to help will ultimately be the ones that suffer once skyrocketing labor costs force employers to cut hours, jobs or growth plans.

There’s no doubt that there must continue to be tough rules governing workplace relations, to ensure a balance that protects the rights of both employees and employers. These rules have been well established by more than a century of labor law and enforcement.

Unfortunately, Big Labor has seized on the worker center movement as the perfect way to circumvent those rules by using largely nonprofit worker centers to carry its stick. It’s the last great hope for unions to reverse decades of declining enrollment and generate new member dues, which means we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg in this effort.

For worker center members pushing the union agenda by focusing on protests, street theater and other publicity stunts, perhaps they should take a few minutes to walk in the shoes of those they purport to represent by actually working in a store or restaurant. What they’d find out is that not that long ago the managers and owners they demonize started out in hourly-wage positions themselves.

Ryan Williams is an adviser to Worker Center Watch, an organization dedicated to exposing corruption. He formerly served as a spokesman for Govs. Mitt Romney and John Sununu.