Is Fight for 15 for Real?

A hard look at the campaign by retail and fast-food workers to earn a living wage.

Micah Uetricht September 19, 2013

On July 31 in Chicago, employees and union activists protest outside a Whole Foods store. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

In August, fast food work­ers in 58 cities walked off the job — a dra­mat­ic esca­la­tion of a cam­paign for a $15-per-hour wage that has tapped into a latent anger among low-wage work­ers, whose eco­nom­ic pre­car­i­ous­ness at a time of record cor­po­rate prof­its has led to strikes, a tac­tic long thought out of style.

'This is a historic moment, and I think when people look back, they're going to say we did something amazing that no one believed we could do.'

As Occu­py Wall Street did in 2011, strik­ers have focused the nation­al nar­ra­tive on the appalling inequal­i­ty of 21st cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca and the evap­o­ra­tion of well-pay­ing jobs with ben­e­fits. But as the cam­paign — backed by the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU) — has advanced, some in labor have wor­ried that the strikes focus entire­ly on shift­ing the nar­ra­tive around low-wage work while giv­ing long-term orga­niz­ing among low-wage work­ers them­selves short shrift.

To dis­cuss the cam­paign, In These Times turned to Peter Olney, orga­niz­ing direc­tor of the Inter­na­tion­al Long­shore and Ware­house Union, and a for­mer SEIU orga­niz­er; Jane McAlevey, for­mer SEIU nation­al deputy direc­tor of strate­gic cam­paigns and SEIU Neva­da ex- ecu­tive direc­tor, who chron­i­cled her expe­ri­ences in Rais­ing Expec­ta­tions (And Rais­ing Hell): My Decade Fight­ing for the Labor Move­ment (Ver­so); and Trish Kahle, a work­er at Whole Foods and a mem­ber of the SEIU-backed Work­ers Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee of Chica­go, a new union that is lead­ing the Fight for 15 cam­paign. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of SEIU were invit­ed to par­tic­i­pate in this dis­cus­sion, but declined.

What has the cam­paign accom­plished so far? 

Trish: We had been try­ing to orga­nize at Whole Foods for at least five months in Chica­go, but no unions thought it was worth invest­ing in a cam­paign. Fight for 15 gave us resources to actu­al­ly orga­nize at work. After the April 24 strike, the orga­niz­ers at our store and many oth­er stores got rais­es — I got a $1.50 raise and oth­er peo­ple got small pro­mo­tions. We also got man­age­ment to agree to a new atten­dance pol­i­cy. And now we actu­al­ly have a water cool­er and a place where we can take breaks. Fight for 15 is giv­ing peo­ple an idea of how orga­niz­ing works.

Jane: Any time we’re talk­ing about inequal­i­ty nation­al­ly, it’s a good thing. Many peo­ple have long argued that the labor move­ment needs to act on behalf of the entire work­ing class. SEIU is doing that here.

Some say Fight for 15 is lit­tle more than a PR cam­paign — do you agree?

Trish: Among orga­niz­ers, the campaign’s pur­pose is debat­ed. For exam­ple, on August 29, staff were mak­ing sure as many cities struck as pos­si­ble, regard­less of the lev­el of orga­ni­za­tion — rather than actu­al­ly orga­niz­ing and exert­ing more pow­er in cer­tain work­places. At the same time, the minor­i­ty strike” has brought a lot of orga­niz­ing into the open. That has to trans­late into deep­en­ing the orga­niz­ing and devel­op­ing rank-and-file leaders.

Peter: At the Bay Area August 29 ral­ly, there was a huge turnout of sup­port­ers, but a neg­li­gi­ble num­ber of fast-food work­ers. An orga­niz­er told me that 72 work­ers were present at a meet­ing to autho­rize a strike in 40 fast-food out­lets and that about 40 work­ers walked. The action got tremen­dous press, but I’m con­cerned about actu­al par­tic­i­pa­tion by work­ers and what kind of orga­ni­za­tion is built in the long run.

Trish: The orga­ni­za­tion is extreme­ly uneven — across the coun­try and even in Chica­go. At places like Whole Foods, Sub­way and Dunkin Donuts, there is a high lev­el of work­er organization.

Chica­go Dunkin Donuts work­ers’ air con­di­tion­ing went off dur­ing a heat wave, and they phoned the union office and said, We are going on strike. We put a pad­lock on the door. We need you to come down and sup­port us.” That shows a lev­el of work­er dri­ven activ­i­ty that is not present at every work­place. And so the ques­tion for me is how we actu­al­ly get to that lev­el. I’m not sure the PR tac­tic that relies on the good­will of politi­cians and com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions is the best or most direct way.

In Chica­go, half of our staff is in research, com­mu­ni­ca­tions and out­reach, and half is ded­i­cat­ed to turf orga­niz­ing. We would want to see that shift toward more orga­niz­ing in the stores.

Jane: Nation­al­ly, some of the big­ger unions are trend­ing toward advo­ca­cy work, and to me that is the wrong direc­tion. In the last 15 years, a lot of mon­ey has been donat­ed to PR and research. But we need mon­ey and resources devot­ed to teach­ing work­ers about how to use their own pow­er — city by city, shop by shop— to win real gains.

In Salon, Josh Eidel­son report­ed that aca­d­e­mics and SEIU lead­ers have dis­cussed two poten­tial endgames for the cam­paign — reach­ing some kind of agree­ment with fast-food com­pa­nies, and launch­ing city-lev­el cam­paigns to pass liv­ing-wage laws. Your reaction? 

Jane: For a decade, SEIU was mak­ing top-down deals with lit­tle or no rank and-file involve­ment, like deals with nurs­ing homes that exchanged union­iza­tion for a leg­isla­tive push to pre­vent patients from suing nurs­ing homes. Those are the kind of deals we don’t need with fast-food chains.

Not all deals are bad. But the ques­tion is, Who’s involved in mak­ing them?” Is there actu­al­ly a struc­ture where fast food work­ers are sig­nif­i­cant­ly involved? It’s not clear from the descrip­tion Peter gave of the Bay Area, or here in New York — though it may be more clear in Chica­go, it sounds like from Trish— that there is a struc­ture that involves work­ers in mak­ing smart decisions.

Trish: I think the leg­isla­tive approach would be too fast-track. We need some sort of city-wide orga­ni­za­tion, where, for exam­ple, every orga­nized fast-food store could be cov­ered by the same con­tract. And any sort of deal we get has to include the right to strike. With the wide vari­a­tion among shops, that’s real­ly the only way for us to be able to effec­tive­ly enforce a deal.

What spe­cif­ic chal­lenges does orga­niz­ing the fast-food sec­tor pose? 

Peter: Unlike SEIU’s pre­vi­ous vic­to­ries with jan­i­tors — where the union already had a mighty fortress of orga­nized com­mer­cial jan­i­tor locals in NY, Chica­go and SF as a base to orga­nize from — and with home­care work­ers— where you had pub­lic financ­ing and could mobi­lize pub­lic pow­er — in Wal-Mart, or the fast food indus­try, you’re start­ing with a blank slate and doing pure pri­vate-sec­tor organizing.

That will require a long-term com­mit­ment of resources, and par­tic­u­lar­ly a com­mit­ment of cre­ative and bright orga­niz­ers like Trish who are will­ing to ded­i­cate their lives to build­ing pow­er from the bot­tom up, and cre­at­ing net­works across a city and a region. The orga­ni­za­tion of the West Coast Water­front took at least 12 years of orga­niz­ing by Har­ry Bridges and oth­ers. It involved failed strikes and failed orga­niz­ing dri­ves, but cul­mi­nat­ed in 1934 with the West Coast water­front strike and the gen­er­al strike in San Fran­cis­co. And that required incred­i­ble fortitude.

Jane: We still have 14 mil­lion union mem­bers in this coun­try. A more strate­gic approach to this would be a rela­tion­al mod­el, where you start with your mem­bers, and you chart all the organ­ic rela­tion­ships that your mem­bers have, and you begin with the work­ers them­selves build­ing off of exist­ing social networks.

Final thoughts?

Peter: Work­ers are walk­ing out on strike and going back to work with impuni­ty, at least ini­tial­ly. But then what we’re see­ing on the Wal-Mart cam­paign, and cer­tain­ly we’ll see it in the fast food cam­paign, is fir­ings six months lat­er for absen­teeism or some oth­er trumped-up infrac­tion. How can we defend these work­ers? And how do we pre­vent a chill­ing effect on the rest of the work­force if we don’t have the orga­ni­za­tion nec­es­sary to defend the fired workers?

Jane: Any­thing that encour­ages direct action is good. It’d be good if oth­er unions were at least attempt­ing new stuff like SEIU is cur­rent­ly doing. If orga­niz­ers in every city, every region, every part of the coun­try put their heads togeth­er, there could be a strat­e­gy to work togeth­er with the exist­ing rank- and-file mem­ber­ship and go for power.

Trish: What Fight for 15 has taught us is that if we fight we can win. We already start­ed mak­ing gains at work. We’ve unit­ed when no one thought we could. So if any low wage work­ers see this, I would encour­age them to join us. The more unit­ed we are, the stronger we are. This is a his­toric moment, and I think when peo­ple look back, they’re going to say we did some­thing amaz­ing that no one believed we could do.

Mic­ah Uet­richt is the deputy edi­tor of Jacobin mag­a­zine and host of its pod­cast The Vast Major­i­ty. He is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor and for­mer asso­ciate edi­tor at In These Times. He is the author of Strike for Amer­i­ca: Chica­go Teach­ers Against Aus­ter­i­ty (Ver­so 2014), coau­thor of Big­ger Than Bernie: How We Go From the Sanders Cam­paign to Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ism (Ver­so 2020), and is cur­rent­ly at work on a book on New Left­ists who indus­tri­al­ized.” He pre­vi­ous­ly worked as a labor orga­niz­er. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @micahuetricht.

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