The fight for 15 and beyond

March 4, 2014

Trish Kahle, a Fight for 15 activist in Chicago, explains that the grassroots campaign to mobilize low-wage workers is about winning a living wage--and a whole lot more.

WHEN LOW-wage workers across the country began walking off the job last year, we rallied around the slogan "Fifteen and a Union." Since then, our struggle has shifted the national debate about the minimum wage and helped to shatter myths about who does low-wage work.

As we prepared to strike for the first time in Chicago last April, even sympathetic journalists, like labor reporter Micah Uetricht, stated that "Strikers' principal demand--$15 per hour, nearly double the minimum wage rate--is likely unwinnable."

But after workers in seven cities participated in one-day strikes and protests over the next two weeks, the tide began to slowly shift. By May, had posted an op-ed piece headlined "The Capitalist's Case for a $15 Minimum Wage."

From an original two cities--New York and Chicago--to seven cities in April, the campaign went national by August, as workers unified their efforts with a call for a national strike on August 29. Originally planned for 35 cities, there were walkouts in 62 cities, many of them in the South. Organizers told us that by the beginning of September, more than 50 percent of U.S. adults knew about the Fight for 15.

Fast food workers in St. Louis wage the Fight for 15
Fast food workers in St. Louis wage the Fight for 15 (Cathy Sherwin)

We began our fall organizing drive with exuberance, and the campaign continued to gain momentum, leading to a second nationwide strike on December 5, which involved thousands of workers in more than 130 cities.

Fast-food and retail workers, so long thought to be unorganizable, were flocking to workers' organizing committees, eager to fight. The courage of the 400 or so workers who first walked off the job in New York and Chicago proved to be contagious.

Some workers who walked off on August 29 and December 5 had never been to an organizing meeting. When they saw coverage of the strikes on television, and then saw the calls for walk-offs on social media, they saw not just the opportunity to stand up for their rights on the job, but a chance to be part of a growing movement demanding higher wages and unionization.

Beyond the in-store organizing and strikes, the movement received electoral boosts in the Seattle area. The election of socialist Kshama Sawant--who was involved in Fight for 15 and ran with a $15-an-hour minimum wage as a central part of her platform--to the Seattle City Council was greeted with enthusiasm across the country.

Sawant's election, along with the narrow passage of a ballot initiative in nearby Sea-Tac, home to Seattle's international airport, to raise for a $15 an hour minimum wage, were seen not only as a victories in and of themselves, but as validation of public sentiment for raising the minimum wage nationwide.

In the media, however, the Fight for 15 has largely been reduced to the question of wages--so it makes sense that they've shifted their attention to the debate in Congress about whether a $10.10 an hour minimum wage is feasible. (Hint: It is. So is a $15 minimum wage.)

But for us, the Fight for 15 is about more than the minimum wage.

We know that a $15 minimum wage is meaningless without fair and respectful scheduling practices that would allow low-wage workers to work one job instead of two, three or four. We know that without a union, it won't take long for employers to roll back wage gains--and in the interim, they'll continue to subject us to racism, sexism and anti-immigrant discrimination on the job. We know that unless we fight them, homophobic and transphobic hiring practices will continue.

In order to lead the meaningful lives we're entitled to, we need paid sick days, vacation days and fair attendance policies. And finally, we know that this fight is so much bigger than $15 an hour. This is a fight over power in our workplaces, in our cities and around the world.

This is part of the fight for workers to have a meaningful say over our government's priorities--for example, more funding for food stamps, and higher taxes on the corporations we work for to make sure our public schools are fully funded.

It's not just an economic question of whether corporations like McDonald's and Whole Foods can afford to pay more--we know they can. For the workers participating in Fight for 15, the movement takes that as the starting point--and then looks further at how power in the workplace is skewed, and that results in skewed priorities at all levels of government.

We make the links between low wages and violence in our neighborhoods, between bad scheduling and unstable child care situations. When we point out racial disparities in who works low-wage jobs, we're calling into question a system that maintains the second-class status of workers of color.

In order to build unions that can face those kinds of problems, we need to rebuild a workers' movement based on solidarity--around the old slogan that an injury to one is an injury to all.

What Are We Fighting For?

In the past year, we've begun to address the questions outlined above--and doing so points toward the kind of social movement unionism that we need to take on the ruling class attacks that confront us not just in the workplace, but everywhere in society. In that sense, our fight isn't just a fight for fast-food and retail workers, but for workers everywhere.

As left journalist Thom Hartmann wrote, the attack on workers:

isn't only happening in Walmart stores and fast-food chains, it's happening in manufacturing and service industries that used to provide middle-class wages and pensions. Large employers are using the threats of bankruptcy or layoffs to keep workers quiet about low-pay, nonexistent benefits and other abuses--regardless of whether they're Walmart or Boeing. And these corporate giants are being subsidized by our tax dollars as they abuse workers.

This fight isn't only about providing minimum-wage employees enough pay to survive on, it's about putting workers' rights ahead of corporate greed. High-paid CEOs and bankster investors are cashing in on higher-than-ever profits, while calling workers greedy for wanting fair pay and a little respect in the workplace. Right now, this fight may be most visible in the retail and fast-food industry, but it's been underway in almost every workplace in America for the last 30 years.

For Job Security

The Fight for 15 has helped to shatter the stereotypes many people held about low-wage workers: that people working for the minimum wage are high schoolers, or, even more insultingly, just need some pocket money. As they meet more and more workers who have worked in the industry for not just one or two years, but their whole lives--11 years, 21 years, 27 years and more--it has become clear that in no way can fast food and retail jobs be construed as entry-level.

Since the beginning of the recession, turnover rates in the restaurant industry have declined significantly.

Then, of course, there's the reality that the vast majority of jobs created since the recession are low-wage jobs. As Jillian Berman reported at Huffington Post, telling low-wage workers to get a better job is "nonsense" in an economy where 39.5 percent of jobs now pay less than $15 an hour.

Introducing the statistics on the rise of low-wage work, Berman wrote: "Critics tell fast-food workers to stop complaining about their extremely low pay because that's just the reality of an entry-level job. Get a better job, the critics say, and you'll make more. The trouble is, there aren't any better jobs available."

And the work we do is important--making sure people are fed, stores are stocked and clean. People who tell us to get "real jobs" don't seem to realize that grocery stocker and kitchen crew are real jobs. In fact, we do a lot more to help run society than the bankers who crashed our economy.

We're fighting to make these jobs stable, long-term jobs that pay livable wages and provide benefits. We're fighting for paid sick days, paid personal time and stable schedules that allow us to arrange childcare.

Whole Foods workers in Chicago made job security a central demand in four 2013 strikes, demanding (and winning) a Thanksgiving holiday and rallying around a single mother who was fired after staying home with her special needs son while school was closed. The overarching issue is an ongoing fight around an unfair attendance policy that treats workers as disposable.

Against Racism and Sexism

Low-wage workers are overwhelmingly women and people of color, and fighting racism and sexism on the job has been a central part of our fight.

At Jason's Deli in Chicago, when Shakita Moore was fired after standing up to a manager who sexually harassed her and then subjected her to racist abuse, workers sprang to her defense. We demanded not only the firing of her manager and Shakita's reinstatement, but implementation of policies that would protect all workers from such harassment and discrimination.

Similarly, we have stood up to defend co-workers subjected to anti-immigrant discrimination--such as one Chicago union member, whose manager spewed anti-immigrant slurs after she had to call off work sick.

And, of course, it's no accident that it was Rhiannon Broschat-Salguero who was fired from Whole Foods when she couldn't find child care. Child care access isn't just an issue of pay or scheduling. Because women are disproportionately burdened with finding child care, demanding child care access is also part of fighting sexism on the job.

Fighting racism and sexism is important not just because women and people of color form the core of the low-wage workforce, or because it is the morally right thing to do, although both of those points are true. It is also necessary to building the interracial, inter-gender solidarity we need throughout society, because we know that racism and sexism in the workplace is mirrored by racism and sexism in every aspect of our lives.

The lessons workers learn from fighting racist harassment on the job or discriminatory hiring can be applied to a host of other situations: the struggle to defend public education, against gentrification that pushes low-wage workers out of the neighborhoods we work in, and against attacks on voting rights that overwhelmingly target Black voters.

For Unions: Our Best Protection

Critically, the slogan of Fight for 15 is "Fifteen and a union." The "union" part isn't a tack-on, but a central part of how we aim to build our power in the workplace.

Eventually, we would like to have a formal union contract, but Fight for 15 has also taught us something else--that unions aren't just about a contract, they're about joining together with your co-workers, exerting your collective power against your boss, fighting together to make our jobs "good" jobs.

For the women who overwhelmingly make up the low-wage workforce, having a union is our best bet for higher wages and health care benefits. According to economist John Schmitt, "All else equal, joining a union raises a woman's wage as much as a full year of college, and a union raises the chances that a woman has health insurance by more than earning a four-year college degree." For Black workers, the declining unionization rate has exacerbated the racial wage gap.

When Whole Foods tried to fire one of my co-worker over a trumped-up charge, it wasn't a law guaranteeing her right to organize that protected her job and won her full back pay. It was us marching up to management and threatening a strike if they went through with firing her. We're fighting for a union because we know that it's our best protection on the job.

Strikes and Solidarity: Our Strongest Weapons

Nothing can top the strike in terms of showing workers' power.

Fight for 15 has taught a new group of workers not only how effective striking can be in addressing workplace grievances, but also in going on the offensive for our demands. That's a lesson that will be critical as we work to rebuild a fighting labor movement in the U.S. Fight for 15 workers want to be at the center of that project alongside other already-unionized workers who have begun to stand up to years of attacks and concessions.

But part of what has made the Fight for 15 such a powerful force is that we're not just striking one workplace at a time. Rather than being confined to one shop, one bargaining unit or one city, except in a few instances over very specific grievances, we have struck together to demonstrate that the power we have in our own store is augmented by working together to strike together.

Workers have begun to build a union not only rooted in the workers at their worksite--whether that's McDonald's, Whole Foods, Nike or Subway--but one that can link workers from all of these workplaces together and fight for the rights and interests of workers industry-wide.

This kind of organizing has taught us important lessons about the power of solidarity. It would have been easy to isolate us if it had just been one McDonald's or one Whole Foods where workers banded together.

In a nationwide climate that is hostile to organized labor and in a battle with companies that can hire squads of union-busting lawyers and violate labor law with near impunity, this fight would be much more difficult if waged separately. But by building solidarity among ourselves, and then reaching out to other unions and the community, we have built a force the companies can't ignore.

Our strikes have been organized on the basis of this community-wide solidarity. Come down to a Fight for 15 picket line, and you'll see low-wage workers, in ever-increasing numbers, standing alongside teachers fighting layoffs; nurses from public hospitals; unionized day care workers organizing for a contract battle; community groups opposing gentrification; coalitions for the rights of the homeless; students walking out against standardized tests; low-wage workers from other industries; organizers against neighborhood violence; and much more.

At a strike for the right to a Thanksgiving holiday, you'll see people opposing the racist legacy of the U.S. genocide against the Native people, and an Indigenous rights activist explaining why she stands with workers.

Building on this kind of solidarity--building unions and social movements together--only intensifies the power of the strike--of workers withdrawing our labor, especially in an economy with high unemployment.

Not only can workers call a strike when their air conditioning goes out in the middle of a dangerous heat wave, padlocking the door and forcing the company into action, they also know that in an hour or so, hundreds of people will be on the picket line to support them--because we know that an injury to one is an injury to all.

Further Reading

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