Only three years after its launch by SEIU, the Fight for $15 exploded in 2015. By August there were protests by fast-food workers in over 270 cities across the country. In the process the Fight for $15 forever changed the discourse about low-wage work and workers in the U. S. in the same way that Occupy Wall Street’s calling out of the one percent changed the discourse about inequality. The Fight for $15 entered the public policy debate as mayors, legislators, and governors adopted this new framing. It was clear that Fight for $15 had gone viral when it was even discussed at the first Republican debate.
But the Fight for $15 did much more than just shine a light on low-wage work: arguably, it led to wage increases at Walmart, McDonald’s, Target,. and T.J. Maxx. While these increases were modest and in many cases were provided to only select workers, they were the first substantial increases by the major low-wage employers in a very long time. The Fight for $15 was also responsible for wage increases in a growing number of cities and states. “Fourteen cities, counties, and states approved a $15 minimum wage through local laws, executive orders, and other means in 2015,”[i] reported the National Employment Law Project (NELP). And NELP estimates than more than a dozen current efforts at wage increases will spill over into 2016.
A number of referenda and executive orders also moved beyond increasing wages. In Massachusetts over one million workers received sick leave from a state referendum. President Obama came to Boston on Labor Day to announce a new executive order that would require federal contractors to provide up to seven days of sick leave. What is important here is the power to build on this activism to extend to areas beyond just wages.
Sustaining the Fight
While celebrating the impact of the Fight for $15, a number of discussions began in 2015 about sustaining and growing these efforts and more broadly about building a workers’ rights movement. Despite all the successes, wage increases in 2015 covered only a small percentage of workers nationwide, primarily in progressive cities and blue states and most of these increases are being phased in over a number of years. Is the path forward the hope that efforts to raise wages will continue to catch on like wildfire across the country? FormerNew York Times labor reporter Steve Greenhouse wrote in the Atlantic “The Service Employees International Union has had unexpected success raising the minimum wage in cities across the country. But how far can they take that success without adding new union members?”[ii]
One of the issues this raises is how long will union members and their leaders continue to support these expenditures if they do not yield new union members? It is been estimated that SEIU has spent close to $30 million on the Fight for $15 campaign. Riding the wave of their recent success this support will likely continue. This could change as it did to the United Food and Commerical Workers Union (UFCW) in 2015.
OUR Walmart was founded by then UFCW president Joe Hanson to begin organizing at the big-box giant. The short term goal of OUR Walmart was never to start store by store union elections, but to build the same kind of momentum as the Fight for $15. The campaign had modest successes including a growing number of blackFriday protests. With Hanson’s retirement and the election of Marc Perrone, the union has cut as much as $7 to $8 million a year from their contribution to OUR Walmart.[iii] In a recent piece in In These Times veteran organizer Peter Olney suggested that one of the weaknesses of OUR Walmart was that it never focused enough attention on bringing strategic leverage against the firm.[iv] Yet it was not this critique that led to the UFCW pulling the plug, but rather a return to more locally-based organizing that the union believes will more quickly yield dues paying members.
In 2015 discussions continued about the relationship of these efforts to grow more traditional unionization. In his article “The Fight for $15 is Raising Wages. Now It’s Time for Step 2: Unions.” David Moberg writes that “From the beginning , the Fight for $15 has included a demand for the right to form a union without intimidation, but the demand for $15 an hour stole the limelight.”[v] But what is the relationship between the traditional union organizing and alt-labor and efforts at raising minimum wages?
To begin, it is important to reject the simplistic notion that the Fight for $15 or other alt-labor organizations are only warm-ups for unionization. It is equally important not to valorize one approach over the other as too often happens in this time of crisis as the labor movement looks for a silver bullet. For in the final analysis we need to recognize that workers centers, the Fight for $15, and formal union organizing all operate in distinct and different arenas of power and constitute challenges to different power brokers. At the end of the day it is important to recognize that a social movement for workers’ rights needs activity in all of these arenas of power, including the kinds of power in the workplace that unions can bring.
[i] National Employment Law Project (NELP), “14 Cities & Sate Approved $15 Minimum Wage is 2015, December 2015 http://www.nelp.org/news-releases/14-cities-states-approved-15-minimum-wage-in-2015/
[ii] Steven Greenhouse, “How to Get Low-Wage Workers Into the Middle Class,” Atlantic, August 19, 2016.
[iii] David Moberg, “The Union Behind the Biggest Campaign Against Walmart in History May be Throwing in the Towel, In These Times, August 11, 2015.
[iv] Peter Olney, “Where Did the OUR Walmart Campaign Go Wrong,” In These Times, December 14, 2015.
[v] David Moberg, “The Fight for $15 is Raising Wages, Now It’s Time for Step2: Unions, In These Times, October 8, 2015.