Is the Fight for 15 making unions cool again?

September 17, 2013

Bob Simpson reports on the goals and plans of low-wage workers participating in the Fight for 15 struggle, in an article written for Daily Kos.

"I think what's very amazing about this campaign and what a lot of people have not really talked about is that it is making the union movement cool again."
-- Lorraine Chavez of Fight for 15

IT WAS a warm late August afternoon when I got to Federal Plaza in Chicago for the most recent Fight for 15 strike rally. Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech alternated with urban dance mixes booming from the speakers as the DJ made last-minute technical adjustments. The stage was set with a colorful banner across the back as organizers handed out red balloons to anyone who wanted one...or even two or three.

Members of Action Now and other community allies were waiting for the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC) strikers to arrive. WOCC is the Chicago group coordinating the Fight for 15 campaign in the Windy City. Fight for 15 is seeking a $15 an hour wage for fast food and retail workers.

Soon, a bus pulled up with one group of strikers. Two more groups soon came on foot to cheers as the crowd grew to about 250 to 300. Billed as more of a celebration than a rally, there were short speeches (translated from Spanish and English) mixed with throbbing music, indigenous drumming, storytelling through dance, and explosive spoken-word poetry.

Fight for 15 strikers rally in Chicago
Fight for 15 strikers rally in Chicago (Bob Simpson | SW)

What? No dull speeches from high-ranking union officials in expensive suits?

Instead, WOCC members eloquently communicated how they need $15 an hour to support families as well as individuals. They were countering a myth spread by some in the business media that low-wage jobs are "teenage" jobs, and thus unworthy of family-supporting paychecks.

Tell that to WOCC members like this immigrant from Belize:

I'm fighting for $15 because I have a family to support...$15 will mean that I can take care of my kids and my family who comes from Belize and take care of my family that [still] lives in Belize.

As Whole Foods worker Matt Camp pointed out in a recent interview, only a small percentage of fast-food and retail workers are teens working summer jobs:

Most of us are in our late 20s and early 30s. Many of us support families or are paying off massive college debts. Some of us have worked in this industry for decades and still make less than $10 an hour. It is time that we renovate the image of low-wage workers, and indeed the image of American workers generally, to the rest of the country.

Besides, there are teens working in fast food and retail who live in impoverished families where their income puts food on the table for their siblings and the adult(s) in the home. There are also teens who have children themselves. Not every working teen is saving up for the latest electronic gimcrack.

WOCC members are very aware that if they win, it could improve their communities dramatically. Charles Brown of Action Now put it this way:

In 2012, Chicago had 506 homicides and what I discovered is that of cities in America, Chicago has also has the third-largest poverty rate in America. We know that poverty creates the conditions for violence and crime. Raising wages in Chicago for low-wage workers which can create good-paying jobs is the most effective way to save lives and build stronger families and neighborhoods.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky took it a step further, saying that $15 an hour would enable workers to buy things and create millions of new jobs. "So when you win this fight for $15 an hour and a union," Schakowsky said, "America wins, too."

Fight for 15 could reduce violent crime, improve family life and be a job creator for millions? That sure looks good to me.

Although Fight for 15 organizers had originally planned for strike actions in 35 cities, the number grew to at least 58 on the August 29 strike date. In an interview held a few days after the August 29 strike, WOCC organizer Lorraine Chavez attributed this growth to the lingering effects of the 2008 financial crash and the subsequent Great Recession. According to Chavez, since many workers lost their middle-level jobs and were thrust into the low-wage sector, Americans are waking up to the possibility that this could be their future too. This creates more support for efforts like Fight for 15.

Chavez is optimistic about Fight for 15 for another reason: "I think what's very amazing about this campaign and what a lot of people have not really talked about is that it is making the union movement cool again."

The U.S. Labor Movement and a Rebirth of Cool

The popular use of the term "cool" came out of the world of jazz in the 1940s. Jazz has its roots in the African American struggle and has long been associated with rebellion. Jazz involves improvisation, experimentation, opening up to myriad influences, taking chances and breaking rules.

In that sense, Fight for 15 is very cool, with its bold campaigns of minority strikes, noisy public demonstrations and civil disobedience; its willingness to throw out the old union rulebook and experiment. It is simultaneously pushing for a rise in the federal minimum wage while also fighting for a living wage on the state and local levels. It is also directly confronting mega-corporations like McDonald's, Burger King, Darden, Macy's, Target, Sears, Subway, Victoria's Secret, Forever 21, Walgreens, etc.

As one UFCW official explained to me, no one really knows how to organize low-wage workers under the present economic conditions. So the union movement needs to try different strategies and tactics. He marveled at the idea that Fight for 15 doesn't organize a union first and then strike, Fight for 15 strikes to organize a union. He wants to start a Fight for 15 in his own geographical area and mobilize direct action by the growing number of low-wage workers.

Fight for 15 draws public attention to the dangerous income inequality in this country, building on the shift in public conversation that resulted from Occupy Wall Street. Veterans of the Occupy movement still lament the fact that it left no national organization behind it.

Perhaps Fight for 15 and the other union efforts of low-wage workers are that organization being born. When I was in the Occupy movement, I heard some activists write off the labor movement as useless or even worse.

It's true union membership has shrunk to a small minority of the American workforce. It's true that the leadership of the AFL-CIO has failed to meet the challenge of 21st century capitalism. Many workers either know nothing about unions or have absorbed considerable anti-union propaganda.

Lorraine Chavez explains how Fight for 15 is beginning to change that sad reality:

[Here is] a generation of folks in their 20s and 30s who never grew up with a union, have never had union jobs and maybe their parents had union jobs, but lost them. They are looking at the union movement, not as something that's stodgy, old and past its prime, but as something that's exciting and new and the way forward for hope in our lives.

Fight for 15 is making the union movement cool in other ways besides experimenting with bold strategies and tactics. In a segregated city like Chicago, with its often insular neighborhood culture, Fight for 15 is multi-racial, multi-generational, multi-gender and includes both documented and undocumented immigrants. There are workers who speak only English, workers who speak only their native language, and workers who are multi-lingual. Fight for 15 has members with very little formal education and members who have or are working on college degrees.

Fight for 15 is a microcosm of American diversity, especially when compared with the CEO's and top management of the companies it is fighting. Its vision of broad solidarity among diverse peoples rejects the traditional American racial and gender caste system. It is in direct confrontation with the dog-eat-dog-cat-eat-mouse neo-liberal individualism, which currently drives U.S. capitalism.

It is social justice unionism at work.

Fight for 15 has begun to generate a fierce sense of pride among its members. Disparaged as mere burger flippers and cash register ringers, they are now part of a working class liberation movement that is global in scope. A McDonald's worker here can compare their situation with McDonald's workers around the world. Cashiers and stock clerks at posh clothing chains can make connections with their counterparts who manufacture those clothes in Bangladesh or Honduras.

How Might $15 an Hour Affect the American Economy?

Winning $15 an hour for the fast-food and retail sector would push wages up for other workers and could result in a major restructuring of the American economy and society.

This has happened before in U.S. history when unions became cool. In the 1930s, a rebellion of mass picketing and sit-down strikes began in the giant manufacturing plants of the time. It pushed the government into passing sweeping New Deal social legislation and resulted in the founding of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which set out to organize the unorganized. The rebellion involved years of often bloody confrontations with Corporate America.

CIO organizers were told that low-wage industrial workers were not suited for union membership because they were "unskilled," "uneducated" or "just dumb foreigners." Fast-food and retail organizers hear similar things today.

But the CIO had a broad vision of social justice unionism for the low-wage workers of the Great Depression. Millions eventually joined the CIO. Like the Fight for 15 movement today, many CIO members were immigrants or the children of immigrants. The CIO's success in auto and steel inspired workers in other sectors of the economy, including restaurant and retail workers, to stage their own mass pickets and sit-downs. The CIO working class victories contributed to the great economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s.

The union movement becomes cool when victories seem possible. That is the challenge set before Fight for 15 and the low-wage workers movement of today.

To Remain Cool, the Union Movement Must Organize

Jazz is cool, but jazz is also hard work. It is more than just experimentation and improvisation. It's also long hours of practice and improving one's musical skills. It requires cooperation among the musicians. It's about give and take and musicians being able to inspire one another. In short, it takes organization.

The union movement, with its vision of worker solidarity, is not all that much different. It takes bold creative action, cooperation and organization. The question of how Fight for 15 organizes has become the subject of debate among labor activists and their allies.

The tactic of minority strikes when not all workers walk off the job is one of the weapons in the Fight for 15 arsenal. These strikes are considered to be "protected concerted activity" under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), passed in 1935 as part of the New Deal.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is clear about its role in enforcing this right:

The law we enforce gives employees the right to act together to try to improve their pay and working conditions or fix job-related problems, even if they aren't in a union. If employees are fired, suspended, or otherwise penalized for taking part in protected group activity, the National Labor Relations Board will fight to restore what was unlawfully taken away.

Today's fast food and retail workers are using labor rights won by low-wage workers during the 1930s working class rebellion. However, enforcing U.S. labor law is an issue as the NLRB is inadequately funded and its legal cases sometimes take years to resolve. So far, there has been relatively little open retaliation in the Fight for 15 campaign. However, Walmart has fired 60 low wage workers who participated in minority strikes during the OUR Walmart campaign.

The Fight for 15 minority strike tactic has come under criticism for being primarily a public relations tactic and for exposing workers to company retaliation despite whatever the NLRB says. One of these critics is Jarrod Shanahan:

The problem is, a successful union drive comes from the workers themselves. And there is a gigantic difference between a union drive and a public relations campaign, which is what FFF is corralling these brave workers into. In a union drive, the bosses shouldn't find out that it's going on, or who is organizing it, until everyone in the shop has their back. That way if there is a move to fire them, everyone strikes.

Shanahan and other critics also point to the Service Employee International Union (SEIU) as a problem. SEIU has been a major financial backer of Fight for 15 and has provided a small army of paid organizers to help direct the campaign. SEIU has a poor record of union democracy and has been involved in bitter jurisdictional fights with other unions. SEIU has also cut sweetheart deals with mega-corporations behind the backs of its own members.

In an interview conducted by e-mail, Chicago Whole Foods worker and WOCC activist Matt Camp addresses some of these criticisms:

It's true that SEIU has earned its reputation as top-down and bureaucratic, but in this case, they are taking workers out to strike. And I don't think that this can be emphasized enough. Lately, organized labor has been bending over backward to avoid a strike, and here we have one of the strongest unions in the country telling workers, "Go out and strike, it's your right--make your workplace better," and not only that but providing us with PR and legal support. The effect has been nothing short of phenomenal.

Trish Kahle, another Chicago Whole Foods worker, points out that that SEIU is not the only organization involved, citing the efforts of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the United Electrical Workers (UE), the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and various community organizations, as well as workers who take up the campaign independent of any organization. Workers centers around the country have also played a role.

The result has been a movement that varies widely around the U.S.

According to Matt Camp, Chicago is probably the city most focused on building a strong union structure. WOCC organizers do tabling outside of targeted workplaces, talk to people on breaks or after work and pass out flyers for events. They make use of social media like Facebook and Twitter. They organize movie screenings.

At WOCC meetings workers discuss their individual struggles in front of a sympathetic audience, rejecting the idea that their plight is their fault. There is a Woman's Caucus, "where issues specifically related to women in the workplace are hashed out."

Camp also doesn't disparage the media PR campaign, saying that it's an important part of their organizing:

Our media focus plays a huge role in this in terms of getting the word out and putting the bosses on notice. Since we practice minority strikes, we can't really hurt sales, production, etc. But publicly criticizing our employers for their abuses is a powerful weapon in our hands, and the more media we have, the more public scrutiny our employers come under, and the more likely they are to not retaliate and also to make concessions. Also, we have to inspire other workers in other workplaces to take action.

Developing worker leadership is another important part of WOCC's strategy. Lorraine Chavez calls it the "most rewarding parts of this campaign." Initially, the "natural leaders" came forth, the ones willing to talk to other workers and bring them into the struggle. Then another group of leaders emerged from the workers who were recruited by the initial "natural leaders." WOCC has done education on unfair labor practices and brought in guest speakers on the history of the labor movement (especially the Chicago story).

According to Chavez, WOCC used the August 29 strike to deepen leadership training:

Workers from across the city got together and met each other for leadership training on how to be a spokesperson, on how to effectively organize other workers, and many of the worker leaders were leading those very workshops. It is an extremely moving and inspiring process.

WOCC's initial focus was on the downtown Loop and trendy Magnificent Mile, with its many expensive retail outlets. This was later expanded to neighborhoods like Logan Square, Albany Park and Brighton Park as more workers became involved and community organizations came out in support.

WOCC members can point to small successes because of the strikes. Workers at some companies have received promotions. There have been small--and sometimes more substantial--wage increases. Some companies have improved breakrooms and provided lockers for workers. At Whole Foods, management backed off from a hated points system for absences and was forced by the NLRB to post an official notice informing Whole Foods workers of their rights. WOCC members report getting more respect from managers.

And workers at a Dunkin Donuts won an especially cool concession from management. Air conditioning.

Looking Toward the Future

Fight for 15 is part of a growing and diverse low-wage workers movement that also includes car wash workers, farm workers, home health care workers, adjunct college teachers, Walmart workers, warehouse workers, factory workers, port truck drivers and more. Many of these are workers of color, and many are women as one would expect given the U.S. racial and gender caste system.

No one can predict if this growing movement can gain the organizational strength to confront some of the wealthiest corporations on this planet--and win big.

But one thing is certain--the most exploited and oppressed workers have played a crucial role in this country's development. The abolition of slavery totally transformed this nation, slaves being the no-wage workers of their day. The abolition of child labor and the first workplace health and safety laws came out of the struggles of low-wage workers. The struggles of low-wage workers helped pave the way for Social Security, unemployment compensation and workers compensation. Low-wage workers were important participants in the civil rights movement, which made racial and gender discrimination illegal and helped lead to such social reforms as food stamps, Medicaid and Medicare.

Low-wage workers have been involved in some of the most important socio-economic transformations in this nation's history. They have often been in the forefront of the union movement. Now, low-wage workers are challenging a 21st century economy gone mad with corporate greed and excess. They are on the front lines of a class war.

It would be really cool if the rest of us joined with them.

First published at Daily Kos.

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