They can afford $15

April 6, 2015

Elizabeth Schulte reports on the latest developments in the struggle for a $15 an hour minimum wage, as an April 15 national day of action approaches.

ON APRIL 15, low-wage workers in cities across the country are taking part in a day of action--the latest demonstrations in several years of organizing to demand $15 an hour and a union.

The ongoing campaign led by groups like Fight for 15 and Fast Food Forward has not only exposed the terrible working conditions at some of America's most profitable companies, but it has thrust a $15 minimum wage and the right to form a union--demands that would have been considered a pipe dream just a few years ago--into the national discussion.

"We know that $15 an hour and a union is realistic," Terrance Wise, who has worked in fast-food for almost two decades, told KSHB News in Kansas City. "We know that these companies can pay."

Wise's mother worked in fast food, and when the wages weren't enough to keep the family going, he took a job, too. Eventually, he had to quit school to take on more hours. Now, Wise says, he'll be joining fellow workers to demand $15 on April 15. "The only time things change is when people organize and come together, and that's what we're doing," said Wise, a member of Stand Up KC. "I know that worked in the past, and it's going to work now."

Protesters march for $15 an hour and a union in Chicago
Protesters march for $15 an hour and a union in Chicago (Bob Simpson | SW)

Wise is right: These companies can pay. They can pay a lot.

A recent comparison of Wall Street bonuses and the wages of workers making the federal minimum wage says it all. According to a report by Sarah Anderson for the Institute for Policy Studies, Wall Street banks awarded their employees with $28.5 billion in bonuses last year, up 3 percent over 2013. That's bonuses, mind you, on top of their six-figure salaries.

If you pooled the annual wages of all the more than 1 million people who work full-time for the federal minimum wage, that would amount to about $14 billion--about half of what Wall Street's parasites made in bonuses.

So despite the fact the Great Recession has been declared over--and most companies are back to making profits--most workers are still being forced to live like there isn't enough to go around.

This is true from Wall Street to Hamburger University, where McDonald's new CEO was promised a base salary of over $1 million last year and the outgoing CEO got a farewell consulting fee of $3 million.

It's no coincidence that many of the new jobs added to the U.S. economy after the "recovery" are low wage. According to a 2014 report from the National Employment Law Project, lower-wage industries accounted for 22 percent of job losses during the recession, but 44 percent of employment growth between 2010 and 2014. Many of jobs in the in middle- and higher-pay range--2 million of them--were lost and never recovered.

THE DEMAND for living wages--starting at $15 an hour, but by no means ending there--offers an alternative to settling for the scraps from Corporate America's table and begins to change the conversation about what workers and their organizations should demand.

Low-wage workers' campaigns are forcing some low-wage retail employers to start reconsidering what they pay their workers. In February, Walmart announced that it would increase starting pay for new hires to $9 an hour, as of this April, and in February 2016, the company would raise current workers' wages to $10. In the weeks that followed, retailers Target and TJ Maxx also announced that they would increase hourly wages.

It remains to be seen whether these companies will make good on these promises. And while these are steps forward, there are many more steps to go. For example, Walmart, which had become notorious for scheduling workers for so few hours that they qualify for Medicaid and food stamps, has said nothing about providing workers with full-time hours. Likewise, the increase to $10 an hour is contingent on employees completing six months of "skills-based" training.

These employers are likely hoping that the promise of a small wage increase will be much less costly than taking the risk that workers will win a union. Otherwise, Walmart wouldn't spend millions every year fighting to keep the union out.

What these recent victories, however modest, show workers is that organizing gets results--and more organizing gets more results. The struggle for $15 an hour for low-wage workers and the years of organizing at Walmart--including Black Friday strikes and store occupations--have made all the difference.

Over the last year, the Fight for 15, backed by the Service Employees International Union, has largely focused on McDonald's--and it is talking not only about wages, but working conditions.

In March, McDonald's workers in 18 cities filed safety complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, after several injured workers reported that supervisors told them to put mustard or mayonnaise on their burns, rather than getting proper medical treatment. In a video produced by the campaign, a third of fast-food workers who were burned on the job said they were told the same thing by their supervisor.

While fast-food isn't often considered a dangerous industry, it can be. According to a survey of fast-food workers by Hart Research Associates, 87 percent of workers had an on-the-job injury last year, and 78 percent said they had more than one.

Burns and falls are common because employees are working with hot grills, deep fryers and hot liquids. But an even bigger problem is management's insistence on understaffing their stores and refusing to meet safety standards and determinations. Almost half of fast-food workers who were burned attributed the injury to their manager telling them to speed up, or having too few workers to handle the workload.

SOLIDARITY HAS been key to the $15 struggle. And that solidarity is contagious.

Community groups; other workers, in unions and not; and activists in the Black Lives Matter movement have all lent their solidarity to the low-wage worker fight--and that solidarity has been reciprocated.

In Chicago in March, Fight for 15 workers traveled to nearby Whiting, Indiana, to support striking oil workers at a BP refinery , who were part of a national walkout for safe working conditions in the industry. On several college campuses across the country, students and workers are also coming together to demand $15 on April 15.

Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) members joined a rally in March to support $15 an hour, with union representatives saying their contract proposal to the Board of Education this spring will include a demand that all Chicago Public Schools employees, including subcontracted workers, receive a $15 an hour minimum wage.

"You can't expect schools to solve all of the problems of the country," said CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey. "One of the solutions is to pay parents and contract workers a living wage. It's very important to locate demand for better education within the demands for a society that treats working-class people better. Chicago Public Schools should lead by example."

It would be a big step if more unions took up the demand for $15. For example, imagine the impact if the Teamsters union stood up for $15 an hour. The Teamsters represent workers at UPS, where many begin at $10 an hour, and it can take years before they get full-time hours.

A campaign like that would have reverberations, not only among the tens of thousands of workers who rely on a UPS paycheck to feed their families, but those far beyond Big Brown. And it would certainly provide another argument about why we need to organize strong unions.

With union members and their right to collectively bargain under attack from companies and political leaders alike--Wisconsin this year became the latest state to adopt anti-union "right to work" legislation--the demand for $15 and a union has the potential to help reinvigorate the union movement, and start holding companies and politicians accountable for making sure workers are paid a decent wage.

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