How Can the Fight for 15 Move From Winning Wage Increases to Winning a Union?

Max Zahn

(Steve Rhodes / Flickr)

The ubiq­ui­ty of Drake’s Hot­line Bling” has endured for months, but the song still shocks when played at 6 AM by a full march­ing band. That pre­cise spec­ta­cle swiveled grog­gy heads in mid­town Man­hat­tan recent­ly, when fast food work­ers ral­ly­ing out­side McDon­ald’s enjoyed a brassy ren­di­tion of Drake’s hit. Many work­ers danced, while oth­ers exu­ber­ant­ly sang the anthem’s pin­ing cho­rus, you used to call me on my cell phone.”

A nit­pick polit­i­cal con­sul­tant, how­ev­er, might’ve labeled Drake’s woe­ful lament as off-mes­sage.” Unlike the char­ac­ter Drake is rap­ping as in Hot­line Bling”, the Fight for $15 has nev­er felt a warmer embrace. 

Just two weeks before the sin­gle-day strike, New York Gov. Andrew Cuo­mo struck a deal with the leg­is­la­ture’s Repub­li­cans that put the state on a path to a $15 per hour min­i­mum wage. The momen­tous vic­to­ry, repli­cat­ed short­ly there­after in Cal­i­for­nia, enshrined into law one of the move­men­t’s prin­ci­pal demands. 

I’m proud to say we won $15 for work­ers, neigh­bors, and friends,” said Rebec­ca Cor­nick, an employ­ee at a Wendy’s in Brook­lyn since 2006. No one should have to work in poverty.”

Yet the move­men­t’s goals, even in New York, remain unfinished. 

Since the cam­paign began, the work­ers have always had two demands,” said Fight for $15 orga­niz­ing direc­tor Kendall Fells. It’s $15 and a union, not $15 or a union.” 

The prospect of the cam­paign’s flag­ship city and state turn­ing their atten­tion to the union­iz­ing effort rais­es a cru­cial ques­tion: Can the Fight for $15 trans­late the pop­u­lar­i­ty of its min­i­mum wage plat­form into an equal­ly suc­cess­ful union push? 

Unions have served as the finan­cial and orga­niz­ing back­bone of the pro­gres­sive move­ment for decades. Their insti­tu­tion­al strength will prove cru­cial for sus­tain­ing insur­gent ener­gy gen­er­at­ed by move­ments like the Bernie Sanders pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, Black Lives Mat­ter and the undoc­u­ment­ed youth move­ment. The stay­ing pow­er of this pro­gres­sive moment might, in turn, depend on whether Fight for $15 can make its union demand as suc­cess­ful as its wage hike. 

Fight for $15 itself receives the entire­ty of its fund­ing from dues-pay­ing mem­bers of the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU). Since the move­ment began in 2012, SEIU has spent approx­i­mate­ly $70 mil­lion on the orga­niz­ing, lob­by­ing and pub­lic rela­tions nec­es­sary to make the cam­paign effec­tive on a nation­al and inter­na­tion­al scale. Some SEIU locals, like New York’s home care work­ers’ 1199, will see their pay increase as a direct result of the hike. Yet many of the union’s mem­bers will only ben­e­fit indi­rect­ly, if at all. For them, the move­men­t’s promise rests in the hope that fast food work­ers will one day join SEIU, strength­en­ing the union’s over­all power. 

That said, work­ers with­in and with­out SEIU ben­e­fit from the polit­i­cal pow­er engen­dered by the grow­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty of Fight for $15.

It harkens back to a strat­e­gy where labor fights for a pol­i­tics for all work­ing peo­ple and does­n’t just focus on a par­tic­u­lar slice of orga­nized labor,” says Bill Lip­ton, New York state direc­tor of the Work­ing Fam­i­lies Par­ty. Not only does that cre­ate lever­age for unions across the coun­try, but it also changes the pub­lic’s view of unions.” 

Accord­ing to Gallup, he’s right: the nation­wide approval rat­ing of unions has increased from 52 per­cent to 58 per­cent since Fight for $15 began. 

The move­ment around the min­i­mum wage is part of an effort at the renais­sance of the labor move­ment,” adds author and activist Bill Fletch­er, Jr. It’s some­thing that goes beyond trade unions as organizations.” 

By eschew­ing myopic union pol­i­tics, Fight for $15’s advo­ca­cy has ben­e­fit­ed not only the movement’s mem­bers but also non-union work­ers and the broad labor left. Crest­ing along­side Bernie Sander­s’s gal­va­niz­ing cri­tique of wealth inequal­i­ty, Fight for $15 — and, by exten­sion, SEIU — have helped fos­ter a poten­tial revival of union sup­port in the Unit­ed States. 

Despite prompt­ing these changes in union per­cep­tion, the movement’s pri­ma­ry impact has come in the realm of pub­lic policy. 

I give SEIU cred­it for doing [Fight for $15] in the first place and stick­ing with it,” said schol­ar Frances Fox Piv­en. But it’s not a union­iz­ing cam­paign.” So far, the cam­paign has won wage ben­e­fits for fast food work­ers by push­ing munic­i­pal and state elect­ed offi­cials to pass friend­ly leg­is­la­tion in cities like Seat­tle and SeaT­ac, Wash­ing­ton, Emeryville, Cal­i­for­nia, and (poten­tial­ly) Baltimore. 

They are deploy­ing elec­toral pow­er, not work­er pow­er,” notes Piv­en. Low-wage work­ers in the Unit­ed States are search­ing for a source of work­er pow­er — pow­er against their imme­di­ate oppo­nent, the boss.” 

Labor His­to­ri­an Nel­son Licht­en­stein says Fight for $15 reminds him of Amer­i­ca’s Pro­gres­sive era of the late 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­turies, when union den­si­ty stag­nat­ed yet move­ments for social inclu­sion and gov­ern­ment inter­ven­tion flour­ished. In the Pro­gres­sive era you had Ted­dy Roo­sevelt, a trust-fund buster,” says Licht­en­stein. Bernie [Sanders] is a bank buster. Ted­dy was­n’t say­ing we’re going to use the unions to curb the pow­er of U.S. Steel. He said we’re going to break them up.” 

Licht­en­stein con­trasts the Pro­gres­sive era with the New Deal peri­od that came after­ward, when Franklin D. Roo­sevelt for­ward­ed unions as the pri­ma­ry coun­ter­weight against the pow­er of big busi­ness. It was for those mar­gin­al to that bar­gain­ing régime that [Franklin Roo­sevelt] passed a min­i­mum wage law,” says Lichtenstein. 

But times have changed. Since 88.9% of Amer­i­can work­ers are non-union, laws man­dat­ing employ­ee ben­e­fits — min­i­mum wage, paid fam­i­ly and sick leave, afford­able health insur­ance — have become para­mount. Con­verse­ly, the inclu­sion of such pro­vi­sions in col­lec­tive­ly bar­gained con­tracts is large­ly a dinosaur gone extinct. That said, the unions that do remain have played a cru­cial role in win­ning broad­ly impact­ful poli­cies like the Afford­able Care Act. 

There’s a turn to lib­er­al­ism and the rais­ing of the social wage,” said Licht­en­stein. But the dilem­ma is it’s not help­ing the trade union move­ment institutionally.” 

In oth­er words, unions remain in decline even as they win. 

You can win these vic­to­ries but if you don’t have orga­ni­za­tion, it all goes poof,” said Fletcher. 

If the polit­i­cal winds shift, min­i­mum wage laws could get repealed or reversed. Worse yet, the trend toward union decline fore­casts an even­tu­al decrease in polit­i­cal pow­er for the coun­try’s pro­gres­sive Left. It’s no acci­dent that the first state to win a $15 min­i­mum wage, New York, is also the state with the high­est rate of union­ized work­ers. Addi­tion­al­ly, issues like uneven or short-notice sched­ul­ing, work­er safe­ty, and employ­ee harass­ment do not eas­i­ly lend them­selves to leg­is­la­tion. They con­cern employ­ee con­trol of the work­place dynam­ic — some­thing trade unions can best address. 

Fast food work­ers, of course, real­ize this. They’ve made argu­ments along these lines from the begin­ning of Fight for $15. It’s very impor­tant to have a union that can pro­tect our rights,” says Rebec­ca Cor­nick, the Wendy’s employ­ee who went on sin­gle-day strike for the eighth time last Thurs­day. The way we’re treat­ed is unfair. The union can medi­ate between us and the corporation.” 

This belief ris­es from the work­ers all the way up to SEIU lead­er­ship, who vow full com­mit­ment to the union­iz­ing effort. We think there’s over­whelm­ing sup­port from work­ers in every store,” declared Mary Kay Hen­ry, SEIU’s pres­i­dent. Way more than 50+1,” she added in ref­er­ence to the 50 per­cent of work­ers plus one who must sup­port the union in order to get recog­ni­tion from an employer.

Whether or not Hen­ry is exag­ger­at­ing the scale of work­er sup­port, there remains the her­culean task of orga­niz­ing half of the approx­i­mate­ly 3.67 mil­lion fast food employ­ees nation­wide to sign cards in sup­port of the union. After deliv­er­ing those cards to the NLRB, the union would then have to retain the major­i­ty for a union elec­tion short­ly thereafter. 

To get a sense of how remote the pos­si­bil­i­ty of that orga­niz­ing effort is, take a look at New York City, where Fight for $15 orga­nized over 100 fast food work­ers to go on a sin­gle-day strike on April 14. Accord­ing to New York’s Depart­ment of Labor, there are 63,587 fast food work­ers in New York City, a lit­tle over half of whom would have to file a card with the NLRB in sup­port of the union. The chal­lenge of trig­ger­ing a fast food union vote at 50 per­cent plus one with the NLRB is, there­fore, gar­gan­tu­an. Even trig­ger­ing a union elec­tion at just one of the chains — say, McDon­ald’s — would prove dif­fi­cult; the com­pa­ny employs approx­i­mate­ly 760,000 peo­ple across the coun­try spread across over 10,000 restau­rants in the Unit­ed States. SEIU, a behe­moth in its own right, under­stand­ably seems to balk at the prospect.

The NLRB has old rules for small shops,” says Fells, Fight for $15’s orga­niz­ing direc­tor. This move­ment is too large to be put in that process.” Mary Kay Hen­ry echoed the sen­ti­ment: The best suc­cess we’ve had uses the orga­niz­ing of our work­ers to win, not the law.” 

After Hen­ry spoke, the pres­i­dent of SEIU’s pow­er­ful local 32BJ, Hec­tor Figueroa, chimed in: This is a David-and-Goliath fight. You don’t fight Goliath on his terms. We fight on our terms.” 

All of these some­what cryp­tic state­ments from SEIU lead­er­ship sug­gest an alter­na­tive strat­e­gy: vol­un­tary recognition. 

Vol­un­tary recog­ni­tion goes like this: If the Fight for $15 con­tin­ues to advo­cate on its own terms — by pub­licly and vocif­er­ous­ly crit­i­ciz­ing fast food chains — then it may force McDon­ald’s and oth­ers to agree to rec­og­nize the union out­right, with­out SEIU hav­ing to go through the oner­ous process of trig­ger­ing and hold­ing a union elec­tion at each indi­vid­ual McDonald’s restaurant. 

If SEIU could secure such an agree­ment from fast food com­pa­nies, then it could safe­ly invest the colos­sal time and mon­ey nec­es­sary to get 50% plus one of fast food work­ers to sign cards in sup­port of the union. SEIU could do so know­ing that once it secured enough cards, the fast food com­pa­nies would have to abide by the pri­or agree­ment and rec­og­nize the union. Even with such assur­ance, SEIU would have to scale up the cam­paign to such a degree that the like­li­hood of it doing so — and doing so suc­cess­ful­ly — remains in doubt. The poten­tial reward in mem­ber­ship growth, though, would sure­ly be substantial. 

This strat­e­gy calls on Fight for $15 to gen­er­ate so much neg­a­tive atten­tion for the fast food com­pa­nies that they’ll do what­ev­er it takes to stop the cam­paign. To its cred­it, Fight for $15 has already achieved quite a bit in this regard. By deploy­ing peri­od­ic, coor­di­nat­ed sin­gle-day strikes in hun­dreds of cities across the Unit­ed States and abroad, the cam­paign — in con­junc­tion with the pub­lic rela­tions firm Berlin Rosen — has dom­i­nat­ed the media nar­ra­tive. Plus, repeat­ed­ly invok­ing a mil­i­tant tac­tic like the strike allows Fight for $15 to demon­strate that work­er com­mit­ment will endure for how­ev­er long it takes to win a union. 

Yet the tac­tic has not cut into fast food sales. McDonald’s recent­ly report­ed its third straight quar­ter of prof­it growth, which it cred­its to a new all-day break­fast menu. Ide­al­ly, strikes shouldn’t mere­ly gen­er­ate favor­able press; they should hurt business. 

The great move­ments in Amer­i­can his­to­ry have been more than suc­cess­ful pub­lic rela­tions efforts,” not­ed Piv­en. They have been move­ments that have threat­ened to shut it down, using the pow­er­ful lever­age of refusal.” 

Until McDonald’s and oth­er fast food chains fear a threat to the prof­itable oper­a­tion of their stores, they will like­ly refuse to vol­un­tar­i­ly rec­og­nize a union.

Yet Fight for $15 has avoid­ed esca­lat­ing its tac­tics, per­haps out of con­cern it might alien­ate the mod­er­ate com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers and politi­cians that have flocked to the work­ers’ side. On the oth­er hand, by rais­ing the pay of many fast food work­ers, the leg­isla­tive strat­e­gy has made a union more like­ly. A high­er base wage means union­ism is eas­i­er,” argues Licht­en­stein. Peo­ple who have a per­ma­nent rela­tion­ship to their work have an invest­ment in it and will want a union.” 

Per­haps the patient approach, then, is to stay the course. The union is still await­ing the result of a law­suit brought by the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board that, if decid­ed in its favor, would deem fast food chains joint employ­ers with fran­chise own­ers, there­by allow­ing work­ers to union­ize nation­al­ly instead of store by store. Plus, as fast food work­ers across the nation win wage hikes, more and more of them will view the job as a viable career. In turn, they’ll become more will­ing to invest the ener­gy nec­es­sary to win a union at their work­place. This goal isn’t a fan­ta­sy; it’s already on dis­play in Euro­pean coun­tries like Den­mark, where fast food work­ers belong to a union that secures them a $20 per hour wage and five weeks of paid vaca­tion each year, among oth­er benefits.

Whether or not SEIU wins a fast-food union, its cam­paign has bol­stered exist­ing labor orga­ni­za­tions through sol­i­dar­i­ty efforts, lend­ing both its mouth­piece and its unapolo­getic mod­el of work­er pow­er. At a recent fast food ral­ly, for instance, City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York adjunct pro­fes­sor Luke Elliot-Negri spoke about how the fast food work­ers have giv­en mem­bers his own union, the Pro­fes­sion­al Staff Con­gress, the brav­ery to walk off the job amid their cur­rent con­tract dispute. 

When Staff Con­gress takes a strike autho­riza­tion vote,” Elliot-Negri declared, you all will be our inspiration.”

Moments lat­er, the fast food work­ers and their sup­port­ers marched to a near­by Ver­i­zon store, where they joined the pick­et line. We’re more when we’re unit­ed togeth­er,” said Mike Sweet­en, a Ver­i­zon field tech­ni­cian and mem­ber of the Com­mu­ni­ca­tion work­ers of Amer­i­ca (CWA).

CWA’s assis­tant to the Vice Pres­i­dent, Bob Mas­ter, praised the Fight For $15 for demon­strat­ing that you need to build a broad move­ment.” Yet Mas­ter won­dered whether peo­ple in the broad­er move­ment nec­es­sar­i­ly appre­ci­ate the impor­tance of a con­tract guar­an­tee­ing rules and reg­u­la­tions at work.” That is, he ques­tioned whether they under­stand the val­ue of old-fash­ioned trade unionism. 

A con­tract is about democ­ra­cy,” Mas­ter added. Ver­i­zon is try­ing to tear the heart out of that democracy.” 

The life or death of the pro­gres­sive move­ment may very well depend on whether Fight for $15 can get that heart beat­ing once again. 

Max Zahn is a free­lance reporter in Brook­lyn, New York.
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