NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- As the Great Depression began to lift in the late 1930s, unions in heavy industry changed the face of the country. The turning point came in 1935 with the passage of the Wagner Act in Washington.
The act legalized workers' right to unionize, bargain collectively and strike, and created the National Labor Relations Board to stop companies from interfering with union organizing. Workers' pay went up and workplace conditions improved. But some business historians say the high wages and good working conditions won in those days later caused manufacturing to leave the U.S. for Asia.
In the wake of the Great Recession, the history of American unionization may be rewritten. Unions are targeting fast food and retail industries that may find it harder to move than auto plants did, but which may also prove impossible to organize. Plus, retail costs might rise substantially if companies need to pay higher wages.
How much of an impact will unions make in 2014 and beyond? That's what some of the country's biggest employers, from Wal-Mart (WMT) and Target (TGT) to McDonald's (MCD - Get Report) and Yum! Brands' (YUM - Get Report) Kentucky Fried Chicken are wondering this holiday season.
Investors should be asking that question as well.
The Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, has been a primary mover in the new round of labor agitation. This week, the SEIU is backing actions by fast food workers in 100 cities aimed at raising the minimum wage. Their goal is a wage of $15 an hour.
Unions called their events "flash strikes" in that they're not permanent walk-outs, and union funds can make up the lost wages.