What’s the difference between a labor movement and a mass movement? If you go back about eighty years, there was none. During the Depression era, unions organized sit-down strikes and sparked street riots; they were the vehicle for popular resistance. More recent mass movements like Occupy Wall Street, however, often seem detached from the conventional bureaucratic trappings of today’s labor movement. Enter the Fight for $15, which has for over three years now defied expectations by transforming a magnetic labor rallying cry into a popular grassroots movement, making the once unimaginable the new normal.
The dual demand for $15 an hour (more than double the national minimum) plus the right to unionize for some of the least organized workers in the United States began in New York City. In late 2012 a small group of fast-food workers undertook the campaign’s first strike, backed by SEIU and community organizers. Since then their demands gathered unexpected momentum, engaging home healthcare workers, adjunct professors, and other sectors along the way. They inspired parallel campaigns in Europe, Latin America, and Asia—a breadth that echoes the call for the eight-hour work day a century ago.
“People said they were crazy,” said Kendall Fells, a St. Louis-based organizer with the Fight for $15, recalling the dismissive public response to the first rag-tag protests in New York. “There was no way they would get $15, there was no way they would get a union, because workers were already being fired for eating a chicken nugget. . . . How do you strike these workers and then bring them back into work without them getting fired, when they get fired for anything?”
The fast-food workers delivered, though. The Fight for $15 is now shaping public discourse on economic justice in state and presidential politics, although its broader effects on the labor movement remain to be seen.
The campaign does have plenty of support: strong financial backing and publicity from SEIU; industry research by progressive think tanks like National Employment Law Project (NELP), which lays out the deep hardships these workers endure (including not just deep poverty but also erratic schedules, hunger, and unsafe working conditions); and lawyers ready to defend them from retaliation by bosses. But all this doesn’t mean that workers are mere figureheads, as the right often argues. The successes of Fight for $15 speak to the power of workers not only to galvanize a broad base of popular support for their cause, but also to build coalitions with movements ranging from Black Lives Matter to campus student-labor campaigns.
The movement has shaped the presidential campaign trail as well. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have debated not over whether to adopt the $15 minimum wage, but rather, over how it should be done. Sanders has consistently advocated for $15 an hour, and over the past several months, Clinton gradually shifted her stance from originally supporting $12 an hour to lately signaling sympathy for a $15-an-hour wage proposal—albeit primarily on a local, not national, level. (That didn’t stop the main union supporter of Fight for $15, SEIU, from throwing its endorsement behind Clinton, and so far it’s managed to finesse the $3 discrepancy as a mere tactical distinction.) Sanders, on the other hand, has given full-throated support to Fight for $15’s street rallies—which strategically followed the candidates on the primary trail—and amplified their Occupy-inflected protest message in his stump speeches. America’s low-wage workers have arrived politically. They first challenged a notoriously oppressive industry, and have now formed an actual voting bloc. (According to a NELP survey of sub-$15-an-hour workers last fall, about two-thirds of respondents who were registered to vote said they would be more motivated to turn out if a candidate’s campaign platform were actively pushing a $15 wage floor and union rights; nearly half of those non-registered would “definitely” or “probably” register. Overall, three-quarters said they supported the campaign’s demands.)
Even with different degrees of support for the $15 demand, both Sanders and Clinton were riding the zeitgeist. Voters had moved ahead of the candidates, quite literally, by voting in the minimum wages they preferred. According to NELP, as of April 2016, fifty-one cities, counties, and states saw minimum wage increases since 2012, with over a dozen of those jurisdictions approving $15 wage measures, including the first statewide $15 minimum wage laws in New York and California. (Though expensive cities like New York arguably require well over $20 for a living hourly wage.)
Altogether, some 17 million workers nationwide have either seen raises or are phasing them in—about 10 million are on track to reach $15, with about a dozen sister campaigns underway in other states and cities. In addition, nearly 90,000 workers have reached $15 an hour through employers’ initiatives or collective-bargaining agreements, from Columbia University to Facebook. (Even McDonald’s announced nominal wage increases for about 10 percent of workers at some company-operated restaurants last year.)
America’s postwar obsession with neoliberal growth and individualistic pursuit of prosperity shoved class onto the political margins for decades. Massive employers like McDonald’s brought the assembly-line framework to the food business, mechanizing the ultimate factory system for restaurant work that reduced workers to disposable, interchangeable cogs. And today, the demand for a living wage and a union has become a political idiom that responds directly to the poverty-wage economic structure that fast food embodies. The idea of a living wage resonates even with those who aren’t supposed to conceive of themselves as working class, like formerly middle-class households crushed under debt or freelance contract workers lacking a stable income.
At the same time, in 2016, post-Occupy and post-Recession, low-wage workers still lack accessible political structures for challenging corporate power. The question before the movement now is how to translate its muscular insurgent message on the streets into a longer-term labor mobilization. The fact that the movement basically encompasses all low-wage workers ensures that it’s reach won’t be limited, while the elegance of its concrete twin demands can help keep campaigners focused.
Then again, a higher wage is a more feasible demand than changing the entire structure of the low-wage economy, which is the ideological terrain toward which the “fight” will eventually lead. A more radical political stance could meet with resistance from centrist politicians. And SEIU, which has historically tacked toward establishment Democrats and veered away from radical left politics, may either grow apart from the movement’s politics or perhaps reduce its support.
So can Fight for $15 organizers like Fells, who have fused union operations with the thankless grunt work of community organizing, develop an autonomous social movement?
David Rolf, the SEIU leader who helped spearhead the Fight for $15, sees the campaign as a horizontal movement that could help popularize parallel campaigns for paid sick days, for example, or more sector-specific wage and hour protections for freelance and retail workers. Yet Rolf is also breaking with movement orthodoxy by seeking partnerships with “gig economy” employers.
But as the labor movement struggles to remain relevant, will adapting to a neoliberal economy go too far, shifting from strategic “flexibility” to dubious compromising with big business?
Speaking at a Fight for $15 rally last year, Hector Figueroa, head of SEIU’s powerful 32BJ local, noted that some union members might bristle at fighting for a $15 minimum wage when their union jobs don’t even pay that much. “It is our job to engage with all other workers,” Figueroa countered, “share the story of this victory for fast-food workers and forge alliances so that everyone is demanding their fair share.” The hope is that a higher minimum wage leads to across-the-board wage increases, and beyond simply pay hikes, toward a more realistic sense of what it means to earn a living wage today.
Attorney Paul Sonn observes another ripple effect of pushing $15 an hour as a political program: establishing a baseline for economic “fairness.” The Fight for $15’s success “resulted from a combination of a new grassroots worker movement together with organized labor deciding to fight to raise pay for the whole lower end of the workforce,” he told me via email. “I think labor’s hope with this movement is that it will both begin reversing decades of widening inequality—and illustrate to middle-class voters the power of working families organizing together for a fair economy.”
Yet $15 and a union alone wouldn’t instantly revive the labor movement or even guarantee a sustainable livelihood. And the concept of unionization for many workers remains symbolic.
Litigation is currently underway to establish unionization rights specifically for McDonald’s franchise workers by overturning a precedent on joint employment at the National Labor Relations Board. Still, even with the legal power to unionize, achieving a collective bargaining contract for an estimated 750,000 workers across more than 14,000 outlets nationwide is a massive leap—though no longer unimaginable given what these workers have already achieved.
Even without an NLRB victory, Fells predicts worker organizing will only grow stronger. “Low-wage workers from various industries are all part of one movement, and it will be hard to put them all in an official union at one time,” he said. From an organizing standpoint, “unofficially, these workers already feel like they’re a part of a union . . . the labor movement is beginning to look different with all of these industries of workers coming together to create broader change.” And in May, Fight for $15 leaders announced—unsurprisingly—that the workers with the campaign were preparing to vote to formally affiliate with SEIU, though the measure would stop short of full, official unionization.
At a recent Fight for $15 rally in midtown Manhattan, McDonald’s worker Jamal Tabar said that even though the state had just enacted a $15 phased-in hourly base wage, he still turned out for the rally, as he’s done since 2012.
“$15 is . . . an accomplishment,” he said. “But without a union I don’t think it’s gonna stand strong. We don’t have a real backbone, because with these corporations and these companies—they can basically delegate how they’re gonna give you hours and cut your hours. . . . With a union, that helps.”
Asked if he felt like he was already part of a union, he replied, “Somewhat, but it’s not official. . . . I feel that we have the momentum.”
Going through the motions of a union can only take a campaign so far, however. One reason low-wage workers have it so rough in the first place is the erosion of union membership over the past few decades of deindustrialization and globalization. Beyond simply raising the minimum wage by decree, reestablishing a baseline of job security and living-wage work requires grassroots empowerment of the most precarious sectors. A movement toward a fairer labor structure requires enforceable collective bargaining leverage, including, of course, the right to strike.
Meanwhile, as minimum wages rise across the country, business associations are quietly lobbying to slow or limit the scope of these increases, or, in several states, to pass “preemption” bills, which essentially bar cities and towns from enacting local wage hikes or other pro-worker laws.
For now, one-day work stoppages offer an aspirational token of what’s possible, but the spectacle can’t substitute for an enduring rank-and-file operation that can rise up to disrupt the industry when necessary.
Nonetheless, the Fight for $15 has made resonant demands for real economic security for a chronically precarious workforce. But beyond the wage floor, what the “unorganized” workers have achieved among themselves might be more pivotal: no longer just taking orders, they’re starting to set their own standards, and, as they agitate in the statehouse and in the streets, to build their own momentum.
Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at Dissent and co-host of its Belabored podcast.
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