In November 2012 several hundred New York City fast-food workers walked off their jobs in a symbolic one-day strike. Some were making the federal minimum wage of $7.25. Many others were getting paid just above it and had to work multiple jobs to get by. The strike received ample press coverage and was heralded by its organizers—a motley crew of low-wage workers, union organizers, and community activists—as a success.
Four months later another round of one-day strikes was organized in New York, followed by strikes in Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, and Milwaukee. The number of workers was in the thousands, and a demand began to circulate. It was simple, concrete, and policy-specific. Considering it was double the federal standard, it was also ambitious: raise the minimum wage to $15.
Over the next two years, low-wage one-day strikes spread throughout the country. In April of last year, more than 60,000 workers in 200 American cities staged a nationwide strike in what some have called the largest worker action in American history.
Many politicians were slow to respond. Several prominent liberal economists insisted $15 was too much and would curtail employment in low-wage sectors. But the one-day strikers persisted, joining up with other protest movements—like Black Lives Matter—that were also beginning to gain momentum in many American cities last year.
The strikers began to make substantive gains. Seattle raised the citywide minimum wage to $15 in 2014. San Francisco followed suit in 2015. Washington, D.C. activists got their city council to agree to a citywide referendum for next year. Our country’s two most populous states—California and New York—passed legislation that will raise California’s statewide minimum to $15 by 2022 and New York City’s by 2019.
Last fall Hillary Clinton called for a $12 dollar minimum, insisting an increase to $15 an hour would be too dramatic. This spring, she stood next to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo as he announced his plan to raise the minimum in New York City to $15.
Many have observed that the strategy of organizing around a specific policy offers a model for future labor struggles, especially in low-wage and contingent labor sectors. It also might pave the way to a new form of worker organization. “We bargain in the way we know how,” SEIU president Mary Kay Henry told Bloomberg’s Josh Eidelson this spring. “We’re also taking risks in building a movement that’s going to birth the next form of worker power.”
But the success of the Fight for $15 also provides the democratic left with a more general theory of social change, a political strategy that can be applied to a whole host of campaigns for social, economic, and racial justice. It can, as Sanders’s campaign has shown, even be effective in the context of electoral politics. Use ambitious, policy-specific claims—tuition-free college, paid leave, immigration reform, single-payer healthcare—to organize particular communities around their everyday grievances. Publicize these demands through mass mobilizations and then apply pressure to politicians who insist these policies are impossible. This policy-specific approach to political organization may not effect change overnight. But the boldness of such demands can help reorient the substance of politics away from the limits of our legislative system and back toward the particular needs of the public.
A politics of ambition—a Big Ask politics—can also offer a nice reminder of the critical role an engaged public can play in enacting this kind of change. From the abolitionists to the suffragists, and from civil rights to the Fight for $15, transformative moments occur when social movements insist on policies that are just beyond the realm of the possible.
Lincoln had initially contemplated sending freed slaves to African and South American colonies but eventually came to recognize the abolitionists’ demand for birthright citizenship. Roosevelt needed the labor actions and popular protests of the 1930s to marshal support for the New Deal. And Lyndon Johnson could only get Congress to pass the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts after the mass civil rights mobilizations of the early 1960s. In a moment of Congressional gridlock, the large-scale social organizing of a Big Ask campaign helps put politics back into the hands of the public. Rather than rely on the fiat of executive and judicial action—as we recently have—liberals and the left can turn to a politics of protest and public contestation in order to create a more democratic path to social change.
Sanders’s campaign was not the first to invoke a politics of the Big Ask; neither was the Fight for $15 the first successful movement to make substantive gains by harnessing its power. But they are both recent reminders of the practical gains that can result from purportedly impractical demands. Politics cannot just be about consensus. It must also be about conflict. More important, it must always be about asking for more.
David Marcus is co-editor of Dissent.
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