First Fight for $15, Then West Virginia Teachers: Can a New Playbook Rescue the Labor Movement?

Max Zahn March 27, 2018

Striking McDonald's restaurant employees lock arms in an intersection before being arrested, after walking off the job to demand to demand a $15 per hour wage and union rights during nationwide 'Fight for $15 Day of Disruption' protests on November 29, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Shan­non John­son grew up with a birth defect in her throat that required mul­ti­ple surg­eries. Stuck in the hos­pi­tal, she found solace in Dis­ney movies. I could get so immersed in the char­ac­ters,” she said, recall­ing how she drew them on the walls of her bed­room. It looked like a princess’ castle.”

John­son, 40, now works in food ser­vice at Dis­ney­land Resort, a set of hotels next to the theme park, in Ana­heim, Cal­i­for­nia. She said her hourly wage is $11, the state min­i­mum. When she leads a shift, it’s $12, she said. Her hours vary sig­nif­i­cant­ly from one week to the next, as does her pay­check. She eats one meal per day, often con­sist­ing of a can of tuna and cel­ery sticks.

She and her approx­i­mate­ly 30,000 cowork­ers are ask­ing for a raise, but not from Dis­ney­land Resort. They’re count­ing on the res­i­dents of Ana­heim. After con­tract nego­ti­a­tions with Dis­ney­land Resort stalled, a coali­tion of unions sub­mit­ted a city bal­lot mea­sure this month that would require the resort and oth­er large employ­ers to pay an $18 min­i­mum wage.

The cam­paign exem­pli­fies an increas­ing­ly com­mon mod­el of labor advo­ca­cy: Rather than bar­gain direct­ly with their employ­ers, work­ers are push­ing state and city gov­ern­ments to grant them ben­e­fits found in tra­di­tion­al union con­tracts, like wage increas­es and even dues pay­ment. The teach­ers’ move­ments in West Vir­ginia and Okla­homa are the lat­est exam­ples of the strat­e­gy, which came to promi­nence nation­wide with the Fight for $15. If the Supreme Court decides in favor of Janus, wors­en­ing a decades-long decline in union mem­ber­ship by ren­der­ing all pub­lic sec­tor unions right-to-work, this strat­e­gy will become more pop­u­lar, labor schol­ars and union offi­cials say.

The strat­e­gy has deliv­ered cel­e­bra­to­ry head­lines and wide­spread work­er gains for an ail­ing labor move­ment. But it remains an open and vital ques­tion whether the shift can mean­ing­ful­ly com­bat labor’s decline, as observers wor­ry the mod­el depends too much on elect­ed offi­cials and fails to restore or replace union power.

Peo­ple are now using the leg­isla­tive process and the polit­i­cal process to get things that would nor­mal­ly have hap­pened at the bar­gain­ing table,” Ran­di Wein­garten, the pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers (AFT), told In These Times.

Fight for $15, launched in 2012 with back­ing from the 2‑mil­lion-mem­ber Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union, began with two demands on behalf of fast food work­ers: $15 per hour base pay and a union. The wage demand quick­ly rose to the fore. Deploy­ing high-pro­file sin­gle-day strikes, the cam­paign won min­i­mum-wage hikes in cities and states across the coun­try, includ­ing Cal­i­for­nia and New York laws that will grad­u­al­ly raise each state’s hourly wage floor to $15.

Cam­paign­ers real­ized employ­ers can under­mine a wage increase with an hours cut. Their solu­tion: local laws that require restau­rants to offer addi­tion­al hours to cur­rent work­ers before hir­ing new ones. A first-of-its-kind law passed in New York City last year, mean­while, per­mits fast food work­ers to con­tribute a por­tion of each pay­check to a sec­tor-spe­cif­ic advo­ca­cy group, mim­ic­k­ing union dues. The over­all strat­e­gy assem­bles the com­po­nents of a union con­tract with two parts miss­ing: the union and the contract.

In West Vir­ginia, strik­ing teach­ers recent­ly won a freeze on health insur­ance pre­mi­ums for pub­lic employ­ees and leg­is­la­tion that raised their pay by 5 per­cent. Lack­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights, the teach­ers found them­selves in a sim­i­lar posi­tion as nonunion fast food work­ers. Mil­i­tant tac­tics bol­stered pub­lic sup­port, as they had for Fight for $15. The strike made peo­ple aware of how bad things were,” said Jay O’Neal, a mid­dle school teacher in Charleston, West Vir­ginia. When peo­ple found out, they were sympathetic.”

The Okla­homa Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion, the top teach­ers’ union in the state, announced a statewide school clo­sure set to begin on April 2, unless the Leg­is­la­ture pass­es a bill that rais­es pay and increas­es school fund­ing. In Ana­heim, work­ers at Dis­ney­land Resort are gath­er­ing the 20,000 sig­na­tures nec­es­sary to put their wage hike on the ballot.

The Fight for $15 broke the ice,” said Austin Lynch, an orga­niz­ing direc­tor at UNITE HERE who has led the Ana­heim bal­lot strat­e­gy. Work­ers are being pushed to the edge. They’re going to stand up and find a way to do some­thing about it.”

Lynch acknowl­edged the approach is not where the union would like to be.” He said col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing can serve a spe­cif­ic work­place bet­ter than a one-size-fits-all wage law. Wein­garten, the AFT pres­i­dent, applaud­ed leg­isla­tive vic­to­ries but spoke wist­ful­ly of trade union­ism. When we had more eco­nom­ic pow­er at the bar­gain­ing table, peo­ple had more access to the mid­dle class,” she said.

Nel­son Licht­en­stein, a pro­fes­sor of labor his­to­ry at Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, San­ta Bar­bara, said leg­isla­tive gains can­not replace union con­tracts. How do you insti­tu­tion­al­ize the gains?” he won­dered. Con­ser­v­a­tives have always been smart enough to say, We’ll give in now, but in two years there won’t be an orga­ni­za­tion and it’ll be dead.’”

Leg­is­la­tion may fix that prob­lem, too. Fast Food Jus­tice, an advo­ca­cy group in New York City, has signed up well over 1,000 work­ers to con­tribute a por­tion of each pay­check to the orga­ni­za­tion. The city ordi­nance enabling the pay­ments faces a legal chal­lenge from the Nation­al Restau­rant Asso­ci­a­tion. If the law holds up, copy­cat groups in oth­er cities and sec­tors may follow.

But the spread of labor-friend­ly laws depends on sym­pa­thet­ic city and state elect­ed offi­cials. As of last July, 25 states had passed laws for­bid­ding cities from impos­ing wage hikes. Twen­ty-one states have yet to raise their wage floor above the fed­er­al min­i­mum of $7.25. There’s a lim­i­ta­tion on the city strat­e­gy, and pass­ing things at the state lev­el adds anoth­er wrench to the plan,” said Stephanie Luce, a pro­fes­sor of labor stud­ies at the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York Grad­u­ate Center.

But Luce caught her­self. I don’t think any­one thought we would see this lev­el of sup­port for strik­ing teach­ers in West Vir­ginia,” she said. We may be look­ing back at this moment in 30 years and say­ing this is when things changed. Whether for bet­ter or worse, remains to be seen.”

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