We’ve Been Fighting for $15 For 7 Years. Today I’m Celebrating a Historic Victory.

Jeff Schuhrke February 19, 2019

Illinois' passage of a statewide $15 minimum wage was 7 years in the making. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

On Tues­day, Illi­nois became the first state in the Mid­west to enact leg­is­la­tion phas­ing in a $15-per-hour min­i­mum wage, giv­ing 1.4 mil­lion work­ers a raise every year between 2020 and 2025.

Upon hear­ing the news last week that both hous­es of the Illi­nois Gen­er­al Assem­bly had passed the $15 min­i­mum wage bill and would be send­ing it to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk, I imme­di­ate­ly thought back to just over sev­en years ago, when I was present at the cre­ation of the Fight for $15 campaign.

It was late 2011. Cen­trist Democ­rats in Wash­ing­ton — more wor­ried about clos­ing the nation­al deficit than address­ing ris­ing pover­ty — searched for a so-called grand bar­gain” to slash the social safe­ty net in exchange for rais­ing tax­es. But start­ing that Sep­tem­ber, a mul­ti­tude of fed-up activists unit­ed under the ban­ner of Occu­py Wall Street to call out extreme eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty through direct action.

After spend­ing sev­er­al weeks camped out in New York’s Zuc­cot­ti Park as a par­tic­i­pant in Occu­py Wall Street, I returned home to Chica­go and fol­lowed Newt Gingrich’s sage advice to take a bath and get a job,” get­ting hired in Decem­ber as an orga­niz­er with the com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tion Action Now. A hand­ful of oth­er new­ly hired orga­niz­ers and I were assigned to a cam­paign with the seem­ing­ly ambi­tious goal of rais­ing Illi­nois’ min­i­mum wage from $8.25 to $10 an hour.

From the start, the phi­los­o­phy of the cam­paign, known only inter­nal­ly as LWWO”
(“low-wage work­er orga­niz­ing”) was that law­mak­ers in Spring­field would not pri­or­i­tize rais­ing the min­i­mum wage unless work­ers col­lec­tive­ly demand­ed it through mass action. A group of oth­er new­ly hired orga­niz­ers and I would roam the stores and restau­rants of Chicago’s Loop and Mag­nif­i­cent Mile at all hours of the day, try­ing to get as many work­ers as pos­si­ble to sign peti­tion cards call­ing for a $10 min­i­mum wage. A com­mon response ear­ly on was that $10 would be nice, but was unrealistic.

As the cam­paign pro­ceed­ed in ear­ly 2012, my fel­low orga­niz­ers and I real­ized we were part of some­thing big­ger than we had first assumed. The cam­paign, we learned, was being fund­ed by the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU). In the wake of Occu­py — which had great­ly con­tributed to the rein­vig­o­ra­tion of class pol­i­tics with the pop­u­lar 99% vs. 1% slo­gan — SEIU’s top offi­cials were explor­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a nation­wide effort to union­ize the food-ser­vice and retail sec­tors, site of the largest post-reces­sion job growth.

The only prob­lem was that union lead­ers, often averse to tak­ing risks, have tra­di­tion­al­ly viewed low-wage, ser­vice sec­tor work­ers as unor­ga­ni­z­able” due to the pre­car­i­ous nature of their employ­ment and the intense anti-union ani­mus of com­pa­nies like McDonald’s. Our job was to gath­er enough con­tacts among down­town Chicago’s low-wage work­force to prove to SEIU offi­cials that these work­ers could indeed be orga­nized and that they should green­light the pro­posed union­iza­tion effort.

Of course, man­agers at down­town stores and restau­rants did not like us enter­ing their place of busi­ness and talk­ing with their employ­ees about how wages were stag­nat­ing while the cost of liv­ing kept ris­ing. My fel­low orga­niz­ers and I did not ask for per­mis­sion, but would talk with work­ers any way we could — behind the manager’s back, on shift changes or smoke breaks, or walk­ing into the kitchens of restau­rants unin­vit­ed. We got kicked out of vir­tu­al­ly every­where, but we kept com­ing back. Most effec­tive of all, we recruit­ed some of the work­ers them­selves to begin cir­cu­lat­ing our peti­tion among their coworkers.

By the spring of 2012, we had gath­ered over 20,000 con­tacts. This, along with the simul­ta­ne­ous suc­cess of a sim­i­lar effort in New York City, was enough to con­vince SEIU lead­er­ship to move for­ward with the orga­niz­ing dri­ve in both cities. Over the sum­mer and into the fall, after months of one-on-one con­ver­sa­tions and small group meet­ings, hun­dreds of fast-food and retail work­ers came togeth­er to found the Work­ers Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee of Chica­go, while a sim­i­lar orga­ni­za­tion was formed in New York.

In late Novem­ber and ear­ly Decem­ber 2012 — delib­er­ate­ly coin­cid­ing with the hol­i­day shop­ping sea­son — work­ers in both New York and Chica­go held 1‑day strikes to demand a $15-per-hour min­i­mum wage and the right to form a union. The Fight for $15 was offi­cial­ly on.

I had left the cam­paign in late sum­mer to go to grad­u­ate school, and was sur­prised to see that the wage demand had jumped from $10 to $15. But it made sense from a strate­gic stand­point. Ten, even twelve dol­lars would seem a lot more rea­son­able if work­ers were demand­ing fif­teen. More impor­tant­ly, it made sense from a moral stand­point. Work­ers need­ed and deserved at least a $15-an-hour wage.

In talk­ing with so many retail and fast-food work­ers, I had come to know in vivid detail how exploit­ed they tru­ly were — not only in terms of being paid pover­ty wages by multi­bil­lion-dol­lar cor­po­ra­tions and hav­ing to work mul­ti­ple jobs or receive pub­lic assis­tance just to scrape by, but also in terms of being sub­ject­ed to dai­ly harass­ment, abuse and dis­re­spect by man­agers and customers.

The Fight for $15 has nev­er been sole­ly about boost­ing work­ers’ wages, but also boost­ing their dig­ni­ty. The demand for 15 and a union” in the ear­ly 21st cen­tu­ry has become as icon­ic to the labor move­ment as the demand for the 8‑hour work­day was in the late 19th cen­tu­ry. In the years since the cam­paign went pub­lic, there have been count­less short-term strikes by low-wage work­ers across the coun­try, and the globe.

While the Fight for $15 has faced jus­ti­fied crit­i­cisms for being too top-down and too focused on media atten­tion, it has also scored numer­ous vic­to­ries. Dozens of cities and states have raised their min­i­mum wages, hun­dreds of thou­sands of Ama­zon employ­ees now have a $15-per-hour min­i­mum wage, and mil­lions of work­ers in five states and the Dis­trict of Colum­bia are now on the path to a $15-per-hour min­i­mum wage. As pro­gres­sives in Con­gress push for a fed­er­al $15 min­i­mum wage, work­ers in low-wage sec­tors will have to keep orga­niz­ing to win unions so they can bar­gain for increased pay rais­es, ben­e­fits and oth­er work­place rights — the next hori­zon of the movement.

To me, the pas­sage of Illi­nois’ $15 min­i­mum wage bill this week is proof that no mat­ter how impos­si­ble” they may seem, bold ini­tia­tives aimed at dra­mat­i­cal­ly improv­ing the lives of work­ing peo­ple are, in fact, achievable.

Jeff Schuhrke has been a Work­ing In These Times con­trib­u­tor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go and a Master’s in Labor Stud­ies from UMass Amherst. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @JeffSchuhrke

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