Author: Stephanie Luce

Stephanie Luce, Professor of Labor Studies at the Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education at SPS, received her B.A. at the University of California, Davis and both her Ph.D. in sociology and her M.A. in industrial relations from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Best known for her research on living wage campaigns and movements, she is the author of Fighting for a Living Wage, and co-author of The Living Wage: Building a Fair Economy, and The Measure of Fairness. Her current research focuses on globalization and labor standards, labor-community coalitions, and regional labor markets. Her most recent book, Labor Movements: Global Perspectives, was published in 2014 by Polity Press.

$15 per Hour or Bust: An Appraisal of the Higher Wages Movement

In the past two years, cities and states have been establishing and raising minimum wages to wage levels much higher than found in the prior few decades. Minimum wages are on the agenda in many parts of the world, in rich countries and poor. 1

Countries that have minimum wage legislation use a wide variety of methodologies. Australia has a Fair Work Commission that reviews the cost of living and sets an hourly minimum wage by industry every year. In Mexico, a tripartite body of government, employer and union representatives set a daily minimum wage.

In the U.S., the federal minimum wage is now $7.25 an hour, but states are allowed to set their own wage. Currently, 29 states have minimums above the federal, and 15 states have provisions that increase each year based on inflation. Since 2014, more than 20 states have increased their statewide rate and more will have this issue on the ballot next year.

States are also allowed to increase or improve coverage. For example, while domestic workers are not covered under federal wage laws, they are under Hawaii law.

The Fair Labor Standards Act also sets an hourly wage for tipped workers¬, currently at $2.13 an hour. Employers are required to make up the difference if the minimum wage plus tips does not equal the federal minimum wage. In 7 states, tipped workers are entitled to the same minimum wage as other workers, with no tip credit (so tipped workers make more than other minimum wage workers, since they get the full minimum wage plus tips). An additional 26 states set hourly rates for tipped workers higher than the federal level but still lower than the state minimum for other workers. 2

Increasingly, cities are establishing their own citywide minimum wage. However, not all municipalities can do this. Some states are known as “home rule” states, where the State Constitution grants cities and counties the right to govern themselves. But the laws vary and are evolving. In the early 2000s, as the national living wage movement took off, voters in a few cities passed citywide minimum wage laws. These were overturned at the state level in Wisconsin and Louisiana, but the ones in San Francisco and Santa Fe remained. Action at the city level stagnated for about a decade and then re-emerged in the past two years. Since 2012, 37 cities and counties have passed or raised their citywide minimum wages – the majority of these are indexed to go up with the cost of living.

Minimum Wages = Living Wages?

U.S. minimum wage rates are not based on a formula that relates to need, but over the past two decades activists have engaged in modern “living wage campaigns” that raise the minimum wage in order to make it more likely that it could cover basic expenses.

There is no perfect answer to what constitutes a living wage, but at least three methodologies calculate the wages needed for different family sizes and types, varying by region. These three—by the Economic Policy Institute, the Wider Opportunities for Women, and Amy Glasmeier from MIT—all use government data to estimate the cost of a basic budget, without luxuries such as eating out or savings for college. In most estimates, the hourly wage needed for a worker with children is far above the minimum wage. In the 1990s and 2000s, activists pushed to set living wage rates that would at least meet the federal poverty line for a worker with a family of four. Most experts agree that the federal poverty measure is outdated and too low. Still, that rate was far above the minimum wage. Table 1 provides an example of the wages for select cities. 3

Table 1: Comparison of Wage Rates for Selected Cities

Boston, MA New York, NY San Francisco, CA SeaTac, WA
Minimum wage1 $9.00 (up to $11 on 1/1/2017) $8.75 (up to $9.00 by 12/31/2015). $10.74 (up to $15 by 2018) $15.00
Poverty Threshold, family of four2 $11.36 $11.36 $11.36 $11.36
Living Wage, family of four3 $22.40 $22.32 $25.44 $19.63

1 Minimum wages for Boston and New York City are set by state laws. Minimum wages in San Francisco and SeaTac are set by the city.

2 The U.S. Census Bureau sets annual poverty thresholds; dividing by 2080 gives an hourly wage. These rates are for 2013, family of four with two children.

3 The rates are for a family of two adults and two children. Source: MIT Living Wage calculator,

Up through 2012, most city and state minimum wages were still far below the poverty level rate. But now rates are going up quickly.  Suddenly, the terms “minimum wage” and “living wage” are starting to converge, blurring the lines between minimum and living wage campaigns.

Occupy Wall Street and the Wage Surge

After the 2008 economic crisis, it appeared the living and minimum wage struggle had reached its end. But then in 2011, Occupy Wall Street emerged and provided a catalyst to renew the movement. Occupy was not built from thin air. Instead, it rested on the momentum of other protests and campaigns that had attempted to raise the issue of economic inequality and political democracy around the country, and around the world.4 That fall, the New York City Council scheduled the elusive hearing on the Fair Wages Act, and then passed a bill in early 2012.

In November 2012, workers from fast food restaurants walked off the job in a one-day strike in New York City, demanding a $15 an hour wage and a union. This wage would be a dramatic increase, more than doubling the current $7.25 minimum for New York. Suddenly, $15 was the wage on the table.  Fast food worker strikes spread to other cities around the country, spurring the growth of “Fight for 15” campaigns.

In the small city of SeaTac, Washington, a coalition of unions had been working in the airport to raise wages for their members and non-members. They launched a ballot referendum to set a citywide living wage of $15. They chose $15 due to the fast food workers’ demands, but also because most airport workers on the West Coast were already earning $15 or close to it, via living wage ordinances.5 The SeaTac ordinance passed by a narrow margin in November 2013.The next year, the Seattle City Council passed a $15 an hour bill (phasing the wage in over several years).  San Francisco voters approved $15 an hour (phased in), and Richmond, California and Chicago both passed $13 an hour.

Occupy and Fight for $15

While Occupy was a mobilizing event, the current moment of wage increases can be attributed to several other factors. First, unions have increasingly turned to the legislative arena to win gains they have not been able to win by striking or workplace organizing. In this sense, the strategy to focus on wage legislation is in many ways a reflection of the declining power of unions—both their failure to organize new groups of low-wage workers, such as in retail and fast food, as well as their increasing difficulties winning substantial wage increases even for the workers they represent.

Related to that point, labor unions and labor councils have increasingly worked to build coalitions and campaigns at the local and sometimes state level to improve conditions for low-wage workers. These campaigns focused on municipal living wage ordinances, university living wage policies, paid sick days, community benefits agreements, procurement ordinances, and more. The coalitions have been building basic movement infrastructure and networks, learning lessons about legal boundaries and local organizing.

Third, the upsurge in wage campaigns has re-emerged in the midst of fast food and Walmart worker strikes. Occupy is relevant here as well, as it emerged in the same time period that the SEIU’s Fight for a Fair Economy (FFE) campaign was underway. FFE was a national effort to build local coalitions and community-wide campaigns to raise wages and improve working conditions, as well as influence elections. In New York, the FFE group was called United NY, and they worked with the non-profit Make the Road to knock on thousands of doors to talk to people about the economy. It was clear from these conversations that many low-income people worked in fast food, and that conditions in that occupation were particularly bad—low wages, little or no benefits—and often dangerous.  United NY, Make the Road, and allies in the SEIU and New York Communities for Change (NYCC) brought together fast food workers to talk about striking. Some of their veteran organizers had advised Occupy activists, and they were, in turn, inspired by Occupy. Jane McAlevey writes that United NY was able to “transcend bureaucratic constraints and embrace OWS’s risk-taking and militancy.”7

According to Kendall Fells of Fast Food Forward, a group of fast food workers met to decide their demands. They felt the city’s $10 per hour “living wage” rate was too low to cover basic costs, but didn’t think they could win $20 an hour. They settled on $15, with no formula behind it. At the time, the wage seemed unrealistic to many observers, as it was such a large jump from prior minimum and living wage demands.8

The first strike, on November 29, 2012, involved hundreds of workers at fast food locations around New York City. Labor and community allies, including Occupy activists, rallied in support. Jonathan Westin from NYCC reported that the goal was to change industry standards more than improve wages at one franchise store at a time.9 They imagined the strikes could either result in joint agreements with employers, and/or legislative campaigns at the state or local level to raise wages. But the intermediate steps were not necessarily clear. Instead, they were inspired to help launch protests and see what might unfold.10

A second, larger strike took place on April 4, 2013. Organizers then helped spread the fast food effort to Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Seattle over the following months, followed by several days of nationwide strikes in 2013 and 2014. By late 2014, strikes had taken place in over 190 U.S. cities, and actions to show solidarity for fast food workers took place in 93 cities in 36 countries.11

Other groups of workers were striking as well. Even before the initial fast food worker strike in 2012, Walmart warehouse workers and retail workers began conducting their own job actions. OUR Walmart began to coalesce around a demand for a $25,000 annual salary, in order to address not only low wages but a low number of working hours. And by December 2014, airport workers, retail workers, and caregivers were also participating in the short strikes calling for $15 an hour and a union.

The strikes have not yet had much of a direct impact, although a few employers have announced some improvements. For example, Walmart agreed to improve its scheduling system. The GAP set its own minimum wage at $9 per hour, in 2014, going to $10 by 2015, impacting 65,000 workers in their stores.12 IKEA announced it would set its minimum at rates set by the MIT living wage calculator, with an average minimum of $10.76 for a single person, affecting about 60,000 workers.13 In January 2015, the multinational retailer Zara announced that it would raise its minimum wage to $12 per hour in the U.S., and offer more full-time positions, after a lengthy campaign by the New York City-based Retail Action Project.

While the strikes have not yet resulted in unions or wage increases at fast food employers, they have had an impact on the resurgence of minimum and living wage activity.  Millions of workers have and will benefit.

Furthermore, Nicole Vallestero Keenan from Puget Sound Sage states that the SeaTac and Seattle campaigns already have had positive impacts in addition to raising wages. First, the campaigns were successful in raising awareness around low-wage worker issues. Second, the campaigns helped unions and community organizations connect with their members who felt excited about the campaigns. Many unions have members who already earn above $15 but who felt politically committed to the efforts. Third, the city of Seattle now has an Office of Labor Standards, which will educate workers and businesses about laws, and help enforce minimum wage, paid sick days, and other labor and employment laws.14

And while the wage campaigns reflect labor’s weakness in some ways, it would be a mistake to assume that unions are no longer relevant, or that unions have abandoned traditional organizing and bargaining. In a number of cases, the campaigns are used specifically to initiate or encourage new organizing or strengthen internal organizing.

Workers of the World

Minimum and living wage campaigns are growing in many parts of the world as the low-wage, precarious labor market spreads. For example, Germany adopted its first minimum wage in 2014. For decades, strong unions set wage floors through collective bargaining and co-determination but as unions weaken and that system erodes, low-wage work has expanded. After some debate, the German Parliament set a minimum wage of 8.50 euros per hour.15

In China, 16 provincial and municipal governments increased their minimum wage by mid-2014, by an average of 14.2 percent.16  A massive strike-wave has affected many parts of the country for the last several years, leading legislators to raise wages to address the instability and growing inequality. The highest wage is now the city wage in Shanghai and the government there says it plans to raise minimum wages by 40 percent over the next two years to tackle inequality. The hourly rate in Shanghai is now 17 yuan an hour, or about $2.75 – higher than the U.S. federal rate for tipped workers!

There have been active efforts to raise minimum wages and/or pass living wage policies in a wide range of countries, including include Bangladesh, Cambodia, Canada, Great Britain, India, Ireland, Israel, New Zealand, Nigeria, and South Africa. These are difficult to generalize, as they are occurring in the global north and south, in wealthy countries and poor, with weak unions and relatively strong ones. The approaches and methodologies vary greatly by country. However, the underlying issues are similar. In each case, there is pressure on governments to keep wages low, or eliminate wage standards altogether, in order to create a positive “business climate” and attract and retain investors. The notion of “flexibility” is a main plank of neoliberal reform, and few governments have been able to escape these pressures. In each case, opponents claim that setting or raising minimum wages will lead to unemployment as employers will be forced to cut jobs. But research increasingly confirms it is possible to raise minimum wages without an adverse impact on employment or prices. The ILO has been increasingly focused on minimum wages as well, investing resources into studies on best methodologies for establishing a minimum wage, and noting that the minimum wage has become “a crucial battlefield for labor in the current period,” and that “the battle for a living wage is a global one.”17

There have been a few efforts to link wage struggles across regions and borders. The Asia Floor Wage campaign attempts to unite garment worker unions and labor NGOs in Asian countries to coordinate their wage campaigns so employers cannot easily pit workers of one country against another. 18 The governments of India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines have been working to establish a common minimum wage for guestworkers who work in the Gulf countries. And in the US, two counties in Maryland and Washington DC worked together to create a regional minimum wage in 2014.19

An Uncertain Road Ahead

The upsurge in activity around wages is promising for workers and worker organization but there is a long way to go. First, the wages won are not necessarily going to lift workers out of poverty. As Table 1 shows, the living wage needed for a worker with a family is usually higher than even the bold $15 per hour figure. Some might suggest that a second wage earner in a household could solve that problem, but in fact, the wages of a second wage earner are often entirely wiped out by childcare costs.

Second, there are still those without any employment. And many low-wage workers struggle to find full-time hours. With underemployment at record levels, the hourly wage needed to make a living income must be even higher.

Third, wage campaigns can have the side effect of dividing low-income people into the “deserving poor” and the “non-deserving poor.” Some of the campaign rhetoric focuses on “hardworking” people, which could suggest that those without jobs are not entitled to better conditions. While voters and politicians passed living wage ordnances and minimum wage increases, they have also approved measures to further criminalize poverty, such as anti-panhandling ordinances.

Finally, it is worth noting that while workers have had some success getting wage increases through strikes and organizing, it has been much more difficult to win unions. As Harold Meyerson wrote in a recent op-ed, it is easier to win a wage increase for 100,000 workers than a union for 4,000.20 Employers and politicians likely realize the costs of raising wages at the bottom is relatively minor, and in fact, can have positive outcomes including reduced turnover, higher productivity, and increased aggregate demand. Ceding power to workers is another matter, and one that will not be won easily. For this reason, living wage activists must keep wage campaigns in perspective. They are not a solution to poverty, and not even necessarily a solution to growing precariousness in labor markets. Instead, they should be understood as a tool for improving conditions in the short-term, but more importantly, as a way to bring workers and their allies together in broader struggles for power.




1 For more background on minimum wages globally, see International Labour Office, “Minimum Wage Systems,” International Labour Conference, 103rd Session, 2014.

2 The laws are complicated and the rates can vary within a state, for example, different rates for large and small employers, or different rates by industry.

3 National Employment Law Project.

4 Ruth Milkman, Stephanie Luce, and Penny Lewis, Changing the Subject: A Bottom-up Account of Occupy Wall Street in New York City (New York: Murphy Institute, CUNY, 2013).

5 Interview with Nicole Vallestero Keenan, January 23, 2015. Keenan says the third criteria for choosing $15 at SeaTac was related to what the minimum wage would be had it kept pace with worker productivity over the past few decades.

6 Opponents challenged the law and the courts ruled that the city law could not apply to the airport, but the rest of the bill stands.

7 Jane McAlevey, “The High-Touch Model: Make the Road New York’s Participatory Approach to Immigrant Organizing,” in New Labor in New York: Precarious Workers and the Future of the Labor Movement, edited by Ruth Milkman and Ed Ott (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014).

8 Claire Zillman, “Fast Food Workers $15 Demand: How Aiming High Launched a Social Movement,” Fortune, December 4, 2014.

9 Alice Hines, “Fast Food Strikes in NYC Hit Wendy’s, Burger King, McDonald’s As Workers Demand Better Pay,” Huffington Post, November 29, 2012.

10 Micah Uetricht, “Fast Food Strikes Hit a Record 58 Cities, As Campaign’s Tactics Are Debated,” In These Times, August 30, 2013.

11 The official Bureau of Labor Statistics data on work stoppages actually show a downturn in strike activity over 2013 and 2014, but that only tracks stoppages of 1,000 or more workers. Fast food and retail strikes do not appear on this list, and therefore we have no official statistics. Laura Shin, “Fight for a $15 Minimum Wage Spreads to New Industries, 190 Cities,” Forbes, December 4, 2014.

12 Bryan Cronan, “IKEA, Gap, and eight more companies that pay higher than minimum wage,” The Christian Science Monitor, June 26, 2014.

13 Dave Jamieson, “Ikea to Raise Minimum Wage for U.S. Workers with Tie to Living Wage Calculator,” Huffington Post, June 26, 2014.

14 Interview with Nicole Vallestero Keenan, January 23, 2015.

15 This was around the same time the European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund were calling on countries to reduce their minimum wages by up to 25 percent in order to receive aid packages and deal with the European debt crisis. BBC News Business,“Germany Approves First-ever National Minimum Wage,” July 3, 2014; Pierre Laliberté, editor, “Social Justice and Growth: The Role of the Minimum Wage,” International Journal of Labour Research 4, no 1 (2012).

16 Laura He, “China’s Minimum Wage Rising as Rich-Poor Gap Widens,” Marketwatch, July 28, 2014.

17 Dan Cunniah, in “Social Justice and Growth,” 5-6.

18 In particular, this approach was to agree on a shared methodology for setting a floor wage. This allows countries to fight for different wage amounts, but the formula (based on local cost of living) is shared. See Anannya Bhattacharjee, Sarita Gupta, and Stephanie Luce, “Raising the Floor: The Movement for a Living Wage in Asia,” New Labor Forum 18, no. 3 (2009): 71.

19 See Stephanie Luce, Labor Movements: Global Perspectives (Polity Press, 2014).

20 Harold Meyerson, “Labor’s New Reality—It’s Easier to Raise Wages for 100,000 than to Unionize 4,000,” Los Angeles Times, December 7, 2014.





The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: A Labor Day Assessment of the Past Year

On Labor Day 2011, things looked bleak for the U.S. labor movement. More than forty-five thousand Verizon workers had gone on strike and returned to work without a contract. Public sector workers were under serious attack. Republican governors—Scott Walker in Wisconsin and John Kasich in Ohio— had declared all-out war on unions, but even Democratic governors had a go: Deval Patrick in Massachusetts removed the right of public sector unions to bargain over health care, and Andrew Cuomo in New York ran on a platform of going after unions.

Has the terrain shifted in the past year? Not very much. But there were hopeful signs as well, suggesting that labor might be finding new allies and at least starting a serious fightback.

What was good, bad, and ugly this past year?

Public Sector

The attacks on the public sector unions had already been underway for years in states such as Indiana, where the governor eliminated collective bargaining rights for state workers in 2005, long before the economic crisis. And workers in some states, many in the South, never won their right to organize or bargain in the first place. But the Wisconsin case was news- worthy because of the boldness of Walker’s attack, and the degree of protest with which it was met. The level of oppositional organizing has been impressive. The initial protests were historic and, in two election cycles, Democrats recalled two senators and took back control of the Senate. Activists collected an unprecedented number of signatures (more than one million in two months) to recall Walker.

Yet failing to recall Walker was a major defeat. Despite some polls suggesting a close race, Walker won by almost seven percentage points, and the race was called less than an hour after the polls had closed. Even more discouraging, according to exit polls by Hart Research, 15 percent of public sector union members and 31 percent of private sector union members voted for Walker. Almost 40 percent of those in union households did the same. While money played a big part in the election (some estimates show that Walker outspent his Democratic opponent Tom Barrett by more than seven to one), this provides an insufficient explanation for the level of support Walker received from union members: about 8 percent of his votes.

Even if Wisconsinites had succeeded in recalling Walker, Tom Barrett is not known as a friend to labor, given his relations with unions in Milwaukee. The recall strategy shows the limitations of electoralism, especially when labor does not have candidates of its own to run. Electing a Democrat is no guarantee, as we saw with Mayor Chuck Reed who helped pass public sector pension restructuring in San Jose, California, and the host of Democratic governors who have been laying off state work- ers. It is not enough to simply defeat anti-union candidates when labor does not have the capac- ity to put pro-union candidates into office.

The story in Ohio is similarly complicated. Governor Kasich launched an equally aggressive campaign against public sector unions there, and won an initial battle with the passage of Senate Bill 5 which restricted collective bargaining rights. But unions mobilized a referendum campaign and successfully overturned the bill in a decisive vote. This was a victory for the labor movement overall, but whether it results in a stronger labor movement in the state is too early to tell.

Meanwhile, public sector unions in other states are losing members. The Indiana story is instructive in this regard: after the loss of collective bargaining rights in 2005 union density among state workers fell steadily, going from 66 percent in 2005 to under 7 percent today.3 According to initial reports, public sector unions have struggled to re-sign the majority of their members to the union after Walker’s Act 10 was enacted. For example, one report shows that from March 2011 to February 2012, AFSCME membership in the state dropped from 63,577 to 34,942.

Nationally, almost half of public sector employees work in education, where the attacks are not just against teachers’ unions but against public teachers and public schools. Stand for Children—funded by the Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation, and other wealthy donors—has launched a host of state campaigns to undermine the rights of teachers, and expand charter schools and online education programs in the name of school reform. For example, it is attempting to pass a ballot initiative in Massachusetts this fall that would weaken teacher seniority protections, targeting the largest union in a “blue” and relatively highly unionized state. In some states teachers’ unions have attempted to work with Democratic Party legislators and accept “compromise legislation” to avoid a larger fight, but these compromises have had drastic results. In Illinois, the reforms restricted teachers’ collective bargaining rights and raised the bar for strikes. Despite this, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is in a pitched battle with Mayor Rahm Emmanuel over his attempts to bring in merit pay and lengthen the school day. The union is preparing for a possible strike this fall if their contract negotiations break down. The new rules require 75 percent of members to approve a strike. This June, the CTU surmounted that barrier when almost 90 percent of members voted to authorize their leadership to call a strike.

Occupy Wall Street

If the Chicago teachers do strike, they will likely be joined a nascent social movement that has breathed some life into labor circles this year: Occupy Wall Street, or “Occupy,” which came onto the scene in a dramatic way in September 2011. A handful of New York unions were quick to support the initial encampment there, and many national unions followed suit, which seemed to return us to the hopeful days of Seattle 1999 when we saw “Teamsters and Turtles” uniting.

Many observers credit the Occupy move- ment with helping to resolve a longstanding dispute between the ILWU and Longview, Washington’s Export Grain Terminal (EGT)— one of the nation’s largest grain terminal facilities—over the right to unload grain at the docks. Striking Local 21 members engaged in their own direct action, including blocking trains, and Occupy activists on the West Coast engaged in a number of actions to shut down ports in solidarity with the union. EGT and the ILWU reached an agreement on a new contract in February 2012. Occupy also participated in regular protests at the Sotheby’s auction house, where Teamsters were locked out in August. The partnership between the Teamsters and Occupy remained even after Occupy was evicted from Zuccotti Park, and Sotheby’s finally settled the dispute in May.

There are a number of examples of union leaders publicly supporting Occupy, as well as rank-and-file union members participating in Occupy activities. But aside from a few successes, the relationship between labor and Occupy seems less than what it could have been. This is, in part, because even when union leaders wanted to support Occupy, many have lost their capacity to mobilize their members in a major way. Unions don’t have a strong culture of organizing or militancy, or even much of a stewards system in place, which makes it hard for union leaders to turn out members. Therefore, while there continues to be some relationship between Occupy and labor unions  in some cities, this has not blossomed as much as it might have.

Still, the relationship between many unions and Occupy has been a bright spot for labor. The speed with which unions endorsed Occupy and came out to defend occupied parks seems impossible to imagine happening only a few years ago.

Stepping The Streets

It wasn’t just Occupy in the streets this past year. Work stoppages were the highest they have been in since the economic crash, in terms of days out and the number of workers involved. In addition to the ILWU and Verizon strikes, we saw strikes among teachers in Tacoma, Washington; nurses in California; Caterpillar workers in Illinois; and more. Other large unions— including grocery workers in Southern California and SEIU 32BJ building service workers in New York—did not end up strik- ing but voted in favor of it when bargaining was not going well. The outcomes of these actual and threatened strikes vary. Many observers believe that 32BJ won a better contract than they might have partly as a result of Occupy Wall Street. The Tacoma teachers’ strike fended off proposed pay cuts, but the teachers did not win their demand for smaller class sizes. While four unions have joined together to strike at the American Red Cross (beginning this past March), forty-six other bargaining units continue to do their work, essentially crossing the picket lines to break the strike.

But strike activity is still far below historic levels, and even below that of the 1990’s. Meanwhile, employers have gone on the offensive in the workplace, and via business associations and the statehouses. While employers have been on the offensive against workers and unions for decades, they appear to be stepping up their fight due to new confidence in a slack labor market. Now they are using the lockout as a tool to bust unions or exact major concessions. According to New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse, there were seventeen lockouts in 2011, ranging from the American Crystal Sugar beet processing workers in the Midwest to the high-profile NFL and NBA cases. Data shows that lockouts are at a record number and account for the largest share of work stop- pages, surpassing strikes. Employers are also increasing their surveillance of employees, along with stepped-up discipline, discharges, and harassment.

Electoral Politics

n addition to business groups, which are expected to spend record levels of money on the November 2012 elections, unions are also on track to spend record amounts as well—some estimate more than $400 million.6 But some union leaders and union members have grown tired of this approach. The Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA) in Madison, Wisconsin—a small but outspoken union—notably started off the protests against Scott Walker at the state Capitol, which turned into a statehouse occupation. This past spring, they took a bold stance and announced that they would not endorse any candidate in the recall races that did not support unions and the right to collective bargaining. The TAA declined to endorse Tom Barrett in the recall, despite being one of the unions heavily impacted by Walker’s reforms.

Aside from endorsements, some unions are redirecting how they spend their money. According to Peter Francia, business groups outspent labor by fifteen to one just within the Democratic Party, even before the Citizens United decision allowed limitless amounts of money to be donated to election campaigns. This leads some union members to conclude that they simply can’t win the money race. In April 2011, the International Association of Fire Fighters announced that it would no longer give money to federal candidates, and instead focus on state legislative fights and ballot measures—but then, in December 2011, it reversed its decision. Other unions—such as the North Shore Labor Council in Lynn, Massachusetts and California’s Richmond Progressive Alliance, which includes SEIU and AFSCME locals, that (together) have been fighting Chevron and electing pro-labor candidates at the city level—are focusing more on local electoral work. Notably, despite early endorsements of Obama, major unions like the AFT and SEIU promise to devote much of their internal work to their “community partnerships” and other grassroots alliances this election season. The AFL-CIO will still endorse and work for Democrats but its new Super PAC, Workers’ Voices, plans to spend money primarily on ground operations—knocking on doors and talking to union voters and, for the first time, non-union voters—and less on television commercials. Workers’ Voices also promises to focus more on voter registration and creating a network of activists to continue organizing after Election Day.

Excluded Workers

In an effort to unite disparate groups of non-union workers organizing for labor and employment rights across the country, activists from nine sectors launched the Excluded Workers Congress (EWC) in 2010. The past year produced mixed results for excluded and marginalized workers as well. On the one hand, conditions for low-wage and contingent workers continue to be bleak, with high unemployment and underemployment, widespread reports of wage theft, and difficult conditions for immigrant workers who face the constant threat of deportation. Yet a few organizations saw some success.

In August 2011, students working on J-1 guestworker visas at the Hershey factory in Pennsylvania launched a one-day strike to protest their use as replacement workers, pack- ing chocolate in unsafe conditions. The students worked with the National Guestworkers Alliance to demand improvements to the J-1 visa program and a return of living wage jobs to local residents. Another member of the EWC, the Taxi Workers Alliance Organizing Committee, was chartered as a member of the AFL-CIO in August 2011. The Committee was given jurisdiction to organize taxi workers around the country. It was the first union of independent contractors ever chartered to the AFL-CIO.

Home care workers also got a boost in the past year when, following a campaign by the National Domestic Workers Alliance and EWC allies, the Department of Labor proposed new rules that will extend the provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act to these workers who had formerly been excluded. If enacted, the rules would provide certain home care workers with minimum wage and overtime protections.

A few of the EWC member organizations are participating in new industry or sectoral alliances, such as the Food Chain Workers Alliance, the Warehouse Workers, and the Caring Across Generations campaign. These projects bring worker centers and non-profits together with trade unions.

These developments suggest the labor movement is opening up to creative organizing and innovative strategies. While the traditional union movement has been slow to adapt to a changing workforce, their partners in the worker center and nonprofit world show more flexibility and willingness to experiment. At the same time, these organizations are mostly small and have yet to impact workers on the scale of even the smaller trade unions. Hopefully the alliances will continue to grow, pushing unions to be creative and pushing worker organizations to grow in scale and leverage.

Going On The Offense

Despite the challenges of the past few years, some in the labor move- ment have made an effort to go on the offense, taking lessons from more militant labor struggles of the past as well as social movements. The SEIU-led Fight for a Fair Economy (FFE) coalition has had mixed results but, in some places, has made a serious effort to build labor-community alliances and create a larger working-class movement. Perhaps the best example of this was in Minneapolis, where SEIU Local 26 and local community groups worked together on a range of issues, such as fighting foreclosures against union members. When Occupy emerged, the FFE alliance was ready to step into the opening and join a larger fight against the 1 percent.

This more assertive spirit can be seen elsewhere. A large coalition of unions, worker centers, and community organizations aligned to launch the 99% Spring program, which trained one hundred thousand people in non- violent direct action in April 2012. Although there were some shortcomings in the execution and debates about its intent, the 99% Spring initiative highlights the remarkable shift in thinking by some of the country’s largest unions that have shied away from confrontational language or action in recent years.

Signs of life in the labor movement can also be seen in the wave of reform leaders running for, and winning, union officer positions across the country. Building off major wins in the past few years, reform leaders came into office within the Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 1101 in New York, AFSCME Local 3299 at the University of California, and the New York State Nurses Association. Of course, these victories might themselves be signs of labor’s overall weakness—old leaders may have given up a serious fight to run what they see as a sinking ship. Nevertheless, new leaders—who are taking a more militant approach—are emerging.

The Year Ahead

While the freefall in union density has slowed down in the U.S., only 17  percent of households now have a union member. Gallup polls show union approval rates are near a historic low, at around 52 percent, which suggests that the national (and bold) anti-union campaign waged by employer organizations over the past few years has been effective.8 And in cases like Wisconsin, we see the evidence of a deeply divided electorate, with passionate feelings for and against unions. Polls show that the gap in union approval is growing rapidly between voters who identify as Democrat and Republican, with only 26 percent of registered Republicans voicing support for unions.

Union membership data from Indiana and Wisconsin shows that things can change quickly: while private sector unions usually battle one employer at a time, public sector labor rights often hang on a legislative vote. This suggests that while private sector density has dropped steadily over several decades, public sector density could plummet much more rapidly.

Unions continue to organize new members and had a few key victories this past year, including a multiracial coalition of Cablevision workers in New York City who organized with CWA, inspired by Occupy; IKEA warehouse workers in Maryland (IAM); waste service workers in North Carolina (Teamsters); and a notable victory for forty thousand Transportation Security Administration workers who voted to have the American Federation of Government Employees represent them. But we also saw defeats, such as at a Target store on Long Island and with the graduate students at the University of Minnesota. Those sectors that still have large numbers of unionized workers—including public school teachers and postal workers—are under serious attack.

The labor movement is confronting a pivotal moment, both at home and abroad. Labor will continue to face uphill battles to stabilize and increase its power, as well as to build stronger alliances to create a working-class movement that is in the best interests of all workers, union or not. It’s encouraging that many in labor see these connections between the fight for labor and the fight for a broader working class, and that this year’s new social movements—from Occupy in the U.S. to the student strike in Montreal and austerity fight- back in Greece—have usually connected those same dots. Hopefully, in thirty years we will look back and see this as the time of labor’s rebirth—or at least the moment when labor began to fight more effectively.

Labor and Occupy Wall Street: An Appraisal of the First Six Months

The Occupy movement is a labor movement, in the broadest sense. Inequality and the relationship of wealth to power are among its key concerns.The direct actions and democratic practices of Occupy Wall Street (OWS), and the hundreds of Occupations that have grown in its wake, confront the prerogatives of those who amass wealth, land, and influence. At the heart of the occupations and general assemblies lie questions of democracy and power—concerns that have been central to workers’ struggles for generations.

But in 2012, few would claim that the labor movement is an Occupy movement. Labor’s radical traditions have receded, if not disappeared. On rare occasions we see the boldness, direct action, and vision reminiscent of nineteenth and early-twentieth century workers’ struggles—the occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago, the takeover of the Wisconsin State Capitol building in Madison—but such moments are notable as exceptions. Today’s labor movement, by and large, is bureaucratic, risk-averse, and far from militant. Diminished numbers and power have engendered diminished aims that are captured in “safe” messaging, such as “we are only asking for the right to bargain” or “we are just trying to save the middle class.”

Yet while unions have taken a beating, with almost fifteen million members they remain the largest organizations of the working class. Unions have been fighting the 1 percent for more than 150 years and have learned much along the way.

Our purpose here is to lay out the overlapping spheres of these movements, tracing their common concerns, and to make conjectures—wish lists—about how they might most fruitfully work together. Occupy and labor have much to learn from each other’s pasts and present.

Labor and Occupy Wall Street: The First Few Months

While there was no formal union involvement in the planning of the initial Wall Street occupation that started on September 17, 2011, labor and OWS were connected from the beginning. In the spring of 2011, labor and community activists in New York pulled off a vibrant and visible week of protest against Wall Street. This group—the May 12th Coalition—conducted training sessions on civil disobedience and disruptive activity, as well as teach-ins on the contributions made by banks and Wall Street to our current economic woes. Organizers specifically made space for newer and younger activists to assume leadership roles in the “stick and move” protests that took place around the city that week. In June, a number of those activists then launched Bloombergville, an encampment in New York’s City Hall Park, which was in some ways a direct precursor to OWS.

When OWS was launched, many of these activists were involved from the start or came around quickly. In its first days, members of the City University of New York’s Professional Staff Congress (American Federation of Teachers, Local 2234) went to Zuccotti Park in support of OWS and, shortly thereafter, the Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 Executive Board announced its formal support as well.

Within weeks, a number of New York City unions endorsed OWS and gave material support, donating money, food, staff, time, and meeting space. In addition to official endorsements, support came from union rank-and-filers, who joined the protests on their own time, as well as from union staffers. TWU Local 100 filed for an injunction to prevent the city’s use of TWU bus drivers to transport arrested protesters to jail, and SEIU 1199 offered the occupiers food and medical training. Nationally, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions all spoke out in favor of the movement. When it first looked like Mayor Bloomberg would evict the OWS protesters from Zuccotti Park, labor made a widespread call for its members to come to the park at 6 a.m. to defend them. The two biggest OWS-related protests in New York during the fall of 2011—the one on November 17th turned out more than thirty-five thousand people in Manhattan’s Foley Square—came with labor’s support. One of the first working groups to form at OWS was the Labor Outreach Working Group, which mobilized protesters to support local labor campaigns, including those on behalf of locked-out Teamsters, Verizon workers, postal workers, and building service workers. Labor working groups also formed in other cities. The D.C. Labor Council and the Maryland State AFL-CIO voted to treat Occupy camps like a picket line, pledging to support any worker that refused to break up the camps. National Nurses United members  were arrested in Chicago in defiance of a police order to evacuate their camp. On the West Coast, Occupy and labor activists shut down several vital ports. But these events also gave rise to tensions and challenges that these two movements face as they try to work together.

When clashes have occurred, Occupy activists have typically found labor’s positions or actions too conservative or demobilizing, while labor has questioned Occupy’s tactics, decision-making, and adventurism. For example, Oakland (California) Occupiers voted overwhelmingly to call for a general strike on November 2, 2011. Skeptics felt there wasn’t enough time to organize it. They argued that although that general assembly vote was large—about fifteen hundred people—it was small relative to the city’s workforce numbers. But a few unions, including the Oakland Education Association and Carpenters Local 713, endorsed the strike, even encouraging their members to take personal leave for the day. Others, such as SEIU 1021, said that while they did not endorse the strike, members were encouraged to use “legitimate leave” to participate in a “peaceful day of action.” The Oakland Central Labor Council planned a large mobilization at 5 p.m. and encouraged union members to participate in other events during the day, including a protest against Wells Fargo. Ultimately, it was not a “general strike” in classic terms, but it was successful as a very large protest.

Since then, there has been more activity and increased tension between Occupy and the ILWU on the West Coast. Occupy called for a West Coast port shutdown in December 2011, initially in support of independent contractor truck drivers organizing in Los Angeles. But the call was opposed by the union’s leadership, who felt that it was not up to outsiders to make a decision affecting the ILWU. Still, the shutdown was relatively successful in Oakland and Portland, though less so at other ports. Many credit Occupy with helping the ILWU eventually win its contract battle with EGT in Longview, Washington.

As of this writing, it is clear that labor and Occupy are essential allies, but their institutional forms, constraints, tactical styles, and substantive demands can (at times) lead to fractious relations. Our following suggestions are aimed at grasping what we see as the strength of each group, and areas in which each movement—in learning from the other—can not only get stronger but closer to the other.

What Can Labor Learn from Occupy?

“We are the 99%!” is powerful, uniting, and bold—and it points to central limitations of the extant organized labor movement, including how labor frames its struggles and which struggles it chooses to engage in. With a shrinking membership base and less leverage, unions have adopted a “siege” mentality. They too frequently fight to defend “their own” in narrow terms and in narrow ways. The Occupy movement can teach more unions to articulate their vision and goals so they reach beyond members’ concerns and embrace problems facing workers more generally. Labor should consistently work more equally with community partners, invest its resources in organizing both the unorganized and the unemployed, and more thoroughly engage student and community issues as labor’s own. This is already happening in some places, with campaigns for living wages, coalitions of workers and riders for better transportation, and parent-teacher-student alliances. But unions frequently place coalition goals behind their more narrow, contract-defined objectives, and have a reputation for “selling out” alliances (including among each other) when their own demands are met. Especially in this time of movement growth, unions should hold out for broader demands. This means bracing themselves for more uncertainty—and even possible setbacks—but building deeper relationships with broader working-class communities.

Occupy’s success at getting the attention of politicians highlights the broader tension between direct action and electoral work. This year, unions will dedicate much of their staff and resources to the 2012 elections. But labor has won little in the electoral arena. And while it could be argued that worse defeats have been staved off, allocating such extraordinary resources toward elections has come at the cost of not directly engaging union members in social change campaigns. The direct action of Occupy—through the encampments but also through targeted protests against banks, at foreclosed homes, and on picket lines—provides a model that reminds labor of its more militant past and the power of such action in the present.

Unions face a host of constraints inhibiting direct action, from lawsuits to the possibility of arrests for public sector workers who strike. Union leaders want to protect their institutions and treasuries, and they feel they must preserve the relationships they spent years building with employers and politicians. These are real concerns. But unions have smart organizers and strategists who know that there are ways to work within and around legal obstacles. There will be risks but we believe there is no choice. Labor cannot win without an outside strategy. If we don’t take risks now, when will we?

In both the public and private sectors, we think unions should put at least half of the money and staff time spent on elections into supporting Occupy groups or Occupy-related activities (such as organizing for progressive taxes and student-debt relief, against foreclosures, and on behalf of innovative contract fight tactics such as uniting health care workers and patients to fight hospital closures) among their own members. In fact, unions would likely have more success electing Democrats with this strategy, while doing much more to build a long-term movement. Before Occupy this might not have seemed possible, but post-Occupy we can imagine unions organizing internally on a mass scale, building the kind of member -to- member mobilization networks created by the Teamsters to launch the nationwide 1997 UPS strike. With such networks in place, it is possible to imagine going further, with unions coordinating work actions, strikes, and contract campaigns to coincide with Occupy and other allies’ protests against corporations, banks, and the politicians who support them.

Occupy-style tools are also an end in themselves: the decision-making processes teach us skills of democratic self-governance; running Occupy camps helps us experiment with new ways to structure our daily lives collectively. So many of those who visited an Occupy camp or attended a general assembly meeting or ate an Occupy-provided meal were moved by the democratic nature of the Occupy movement. Of course, not everyone agrees that Occupy is as democratic as it appears, as the consensus process allows small numbers of people to block the wishes of the majority, and the lack of formal leaders can allow an informal leadership to develop with more, rather than less, power. Still, the public meetings and open process let some people feel like they got to be heard for the first time in their lives. Many who marched in the streets without a permit or police barricades felt transformed. Drawing  lessons from the horizontalism of occupations, unions should work to break down aspects of their vertical structures that alienate the rank and file. How are meetings conducted? Are websites and other media used for discussion and debate? And what kinds of social ties are our unions working to foster? Occupy camps created communities that provided food, child care, comfort, sanitation, and culture. Some unions once created similar spaces—summer camps, cooperative housing, schools, social halls, educational programs—but, for the most part, such cultural communities have been lost. Occupy makes it possible to imagine their rebirth

What Can Occupy Learn from Labor?

Occupy did in a few weeks what many in the labor movement have spent years (and tens of millions of dollars) trying to do—it created a message that captured the imagination and spread quickly. Occupy was unusual in that it quickly appealed to many people, but that only went so far. The numbers of people participating in Occupy activities are still relatively small and relatively homogenous. The Occupy core—overwhelmingly white, heavily represented by middle-class students and college graduates—itself does not reflect the diversity of the labor movement. The Occupy movement can’t sit back and wait for people to show up—it can learn from labor how to organize more broadly amongst the working class. Union organizers do house calls, going door to door to talk to people about their work or key issues. Union researchers study industries, looking for points of leverage, and map out workplaces, reaching out to potential members one by one, ideally developing leaders. Occupy organizers and working groups can learn a lot from their union counterparts and adopt similar strategies to expand their movement, reaching out to a much greater share of the 99 percent. This has already begun to some degree in New York where some activists are working to build neighborhood assemblies in the outer boroughs.

Unions can also help sharpen Occupy’s strategy by raising the questions of power and targets. Currently, there is ambiguity within the Occupy movement about its goals, as it has attracted people from across a broad political spectrum. Some focus on building camps to prefigure alternative societies; others prioritize getting money out of politics and building a more responsive government. But we believe that in order for Occupy to grow more powerful and relevant, and lead to fundamental change, it must expand the fight for democracy to the place where many people spend the majority
of their time and where wealth is produced—at work. If we are serious about attacking the inequality of wealth, and the power that comes with it, we need to address what goes on in the workplace. The historic challenge of the moment is for the freedom and democracy of the camps to penetrate the more formidable domain of the workplace. We must organize where we have the power to affect the 1 percent, which is inside the corporations and institutions where we spend most of our time, providing  them with much of their riches and leverage. Ideally, we should struggle for democratic
control over how our work is done, and what it is done for.

Cooperatives have been one form seized on by contemporary activists to confront private property and the usual rights it entails. But strong unions offer another path leading directly to the heart of the matter. The Occupy movement looks more like the labor movement of one hundred years ago, when many activists were building unions as stepping stones to a new and better society. Unionists argued then that they should organize in the workplace, not just to get a better wage but to fundamentally reorganize the capitalist economy. This, the call for economic democracy, is a bold demand—one that people have given their lives fighting for. It can sound idealistic or simplistic to suggest we return to these historic goals that have proved so illusive for so many. Yet Occupy has dreamt big from the start.

Moving Forward

Actions that are, as we write, being planned for May Day 2012 may serve as an opportunity to work through tensions and negotiate common ground. A few Occupy groups put out an early call for a general strike, leaving others to figure out a way to balance a desire for greater activity on the part of many activists, and a note of caution from a labor movement that realizes the serious limitations on unionized workers’ right to strike. In New York City, both sides have compromised to find a way to be inclusive, allowing for a diverse and creative approach to this upcoming May Day. It may be that, in the modern era, we need to change the way we think about “general strikes” that allow for actions inside and outside of the workplace, in schools and in communities. We end by considering the reach of both the Occupy and labor movements. May Day is the world’s Labor Day. Occupy is a global movement. The fight for real political and economic democracy can only be waged as an international fight. Labor and Occupy can (together) learn about workplace occupation from workers in Argentina; or how to sustain protest through an electoral cycle from the indignados of Spain. They can learn persistence from the Egyptians who continue their fight. These struggles around the world share some common themes: challenging the neoliberal policies of global institutions and national governments; attempting to expand democracy; fighting the 1 percent that indirectly influences domestic policies through political influence and threats of capital flight. But we must go beyond learning from others’ examples, and continue to build real links between our struggles and against common targets. Only through global solidarity is another world possible.

New Labor Forum 21(2): 43-49, Spring 2012
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/12 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.212.0000007