After nearly a decade of activism, the Fight for $15 stands closer than ever to achieving its most visible goal: a $15 federal minimum wage. Leaders of the campaign, however, say that their work is only beginning.
“The next two years is the biggest window [of opportunity] we’ve had in my 40 years in the labor movement,” says Mary Kay Henry, the president of SEIU, the two-million-member union that has funded the Fight for $15. Her union committed to spending $150 million to get Biden elected, and the time has now come to reap the rewards. The $15 federal minimum wage is included in the latest Covid relief bill Democrats are pushing in Congress, although Republicans are strenuously opposed, and many believe it may get dropped before the final bill is passed. Separately, a group of congressional Democrats today are reintroducing the Raise the Wage Act, which would gradually move the federal minimum wage up to $15 over a period of five years. Though success is not certain, it appears for the first time ever that both the White House and the majority leadership in Congress is committed to a goal that was derided as unrealistic and pie-in-the-sky when the campaign began in late 2012.
“I view it as elected officials answering demands of the workers who had the guts to persist in making the demand since the early years, when they were ridiculed,” Henry says. Though the Fight for $15 has won an impressive string of victories on the local and state level — most recently a successful ballot measure to raise the wage in Florida to $15 by 2026 — the federal minimum wage has stayed stubbornly locked at $7.25 an hour for more than a decade. With Democrats in control of the federal government, and years of good PR under their belts, that may soon change.
The SEIU’s enormous funding commitment to the Fight for $15, which has been well over $20 million annually in some years, has been controversial in the labor world. Critics have often pointed out that despite the movement’s political and economic gains, it has not actually unionized the fast food sector, meaning that the campaign is being effectively subsidized by SEIU members without creating any new stream of dues revenue back to the organization. But Henry sees it as the sort of long-term structural fight that is necessary given the nature of today’s economy. Ten years ago, “we recognized that the right wing attack on working people and their unions was at a 40-year high,” she says. “We really thought what was required was for the labor movement to back a bold demand that was led by workers in a sector of the economy… that really needed the power of a workers movement.”
From the beginning, the Fight for $15’s call has been “$15 and a union.” As the “$15” part of that nears success, the “union” part remains a dream. The biggest legal barrier to collective bargaining in the fast food industry has long been the “joint employer” rule, which dictates whether or not it is possible to hold a company like McDonald’s directly responsible for the labor conditions in its many franchises. Under Obama’s National Labor Relations Board, the rule was changed to be friendlier to labor; under Trump, it was rolled back. Under Biden, it is widely expected to be flipped back once again. And Mary Kay Henry says that the Fight for $15 now plans to press hard for what would be an even more meaningful win than a $15 minimum wage: a national collective bargaining agreement for fast food workers.
“We’ve never given up that dream, as much as Fight for $15 has been characterized as a minimum wage movement,” says Henry. “We’ve always believed that what we have to do is create the way for workers to have the power to make those jobs good jobs, which is way beyond just raising the wage.” To that end, she says that SEIU is not planning on any reductions in the Fight for $15’s budget, even as victory on its economic plank is tantalizingly close.
The movement’s successes should not obscure the fact that even now, fast food jobs do not always offer enough for workers to get by. Nobody knows that better than Terrence Wise, a McDonald’s worker in Kansas City who has become the nation’s most visible Fight for $15 activist over the past seven years. He was even invited to star at an event with Barack Obama at the White House in 2015. Wise’s optimism is tempered with weariness, and full of the realization that it took work to get here, and that only more work lies ahead.
“Now we know the vast majority of Americans support $15 an hour. That didn’t just happen. Politicians didn’t just wake up and think that $15 an hour was cool,” he says. “We’ve only got to this point because of what workers have been doing: organizing. The [Biden] campaign didn’t decide, ‘It’s our idea to pass a $15 wage federally.’ You know we had to push.”
Henry says unequivocally that “we’re not stopping until all the fast food workers have a union.” For Wise, the goal has always been much more than a wage increase. “It’s always been a civil rights movement. A human rights movement,” he says. “Take the number out — it’s always been about a fight.”
Though Wise has become well known, his life has not become easy. When the pandemic struck, he and his family were living with his brother-in-law’s family, 10 people in a single house. He faced the threat of eviction as recently as a few weeks ago. When he joined the Fight for $15 in 2014, he was making $7.47 an hour at McDonald’s. Today, he is making $14 an hour there. If the Democrats do manage to raise the minimum wage, Terrence Wise — a grown man with a family, a job, and years of activism that have taken him all over America — would get a raise.
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Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.