Fast food workers and their allies in New York City, supported by protestors elsewhere around the country, flooded public hearings in New York today with the message that they deserve at least $15 an hour. They testified before a wage board appointed at the behest of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to determine standards for fast food workers in the state.
The board’s work is taking place as a widening movement to raise minimum wages for the growing share of Americans in ill-paid jobs is both raising expectations and winning concrete victories. But the Fight for $15 campaign has also spurred action by many groups of low-wage workers, from home care aides to university adjunct teachers. And it is generating a complex new current within the broader labor movement that goes far beyond even their ambitious wage goals.
The Los Angeles city council’s vote last month to raise the minimum wage in the nation’s second largest city to $15 an hour by 2010 was the latest — but almost certainly not the last — in a series of major local victories by low-wage workers and their advocates that started last year in SeaTac, Washington. The movement then won victories in Seattle, San Francisco and other local jurisdictions. Popular movements in other cities, such as St. Louis and Kansas City, are close to pressuring local legislators to set a minimum wage of $15 an hour.
Some employers, most recently Chipotle, are apparently reading the writing on the wall and improving pay, benefits and work rules (though generally offering much less than workers want).
In Los Angeles, more than 40 percent of its workforce, which has a high proportion of service workers, earn near California’s current state minimum wage of $9 an hour (or less for some tipped employees and for victims of employers’ wage theft, estimated in Los Angeles as afflicting nearly one-fifth of the low-wage workforce).
They also rely heavily on public assistance programs to survive. Such aid effectively amounts to taxpayer subsidies of nearly $7 billion a year across the country to companies like McDonald’s to support the substandard wages of non-managerial fast food workers in the U.S., according to the University of California at Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education.
The contemporary movement to “raise the wage” has roots that are often run deep and wide — for example, in Los Angeles, traditional unions, worker centers and other non-union worker organizations, non-profit research and advocacy groups, faith organizations, immigrant and civil rights groups and dozens of other allies are participating in the movement. Last year, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti advocated raising the minimum to $13.25, but he missed the wave of public opinion that swept away his by then passé proposal. In a poll of Los Angeles residents, 69 percent favored a strong package of workplace improvements, including a minimum of $15.25 an hour.
In Los Angeles, more than 100 groups formed the Raise the Wage coalition. Many of them had been involved in living wage battles or other campaigns to raise wages for specific groups of workers, such as hotel employees or people working at the publicly-subsidized LAX airport, or to raise awareness of how many employers cheated their employees. As a result of their work, the new law covers every worker and establishes an enforcement agency for the first time.
The coalition drew on studies of the economics of raising the minimum from the Berkeley Center, the Economic Policy Institute and the non-governmental think tank the Economic Roundtable (collaborating with two UCLA research institutes) that promised little or no loss of jobs, an economic shot in the arm (especially in poor areas) and a boost in economic well-being for more than 40 percent of Angelenos.
The minimum wage campaign even drew support from a few small business people. Kevin Litwin, chief operating officer of Joe’s Auto Parks (with 20,000 parking spaces in downtown Los Angeles), was told by his CEO not to fight the wage increase but instead investigate what happened to the company’s branch in Seattle after the local minimum wage rose to $15 an hour. Litwin discovered that revenue increased, workers were more productive, turnover declined, and, he said, “the whole thing seemed to work for us in Seattle. Why not LA? We think this is just good to do, and it was also good for our industry.”
The final legislation rejected requests for exemptions from some businesses, such as the restaurant industry’s standard plea for sub-minimum wages for tipped employees, as well as a labor movement proposal that workers under collective bargaining agreements not be covered. Business critics pounced on what they claimed was labor hypocrisy and an effort to entice employers to accept unions in order to benefit from the exemption.
But Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center, said, “The concern of labor is for unionized employees’ varying benefits — sick pay, pensions — with an overall package significantly higher than the minimum wage. It was an attempt to respect existing collective bargaining agreements.” The proposed revision may be taken up later, but many council members seemed unsympathetic to the union argument, even though such exemptions are common in local minimum wage laws.
Even if the Fight for $15 was only one Raise the Wage member among many, the broader movement owes much to the fast food fighters. Starting with a one-day strike action two and one-half year ago by several hundred fast food workers in New York City, the organization has spread throughout the country and to other occupations, though the fast food industry is its priority.
Fight for $15 has contributed to the low-wage worker movement its goals — which at first, seemed to be a far stretch — of at least $15 an hour and the right to join a union without harassment. Its grassroots dynamism and direct action tactics have inspired a variety of ill-paid workers but posed a formidable threat to its foes, most immediately McDonald’s Corporation, the world’s third largest private employer.
“Once you cut the head off the snake, it all falls in place,” says New York City McDonald’s worker and volunteer organizer Jorel Ware. “McDonald’s is the snake.”
Last weekend more than 1,300 Fight for $15 representatives gathered in Detroit for their second annual convention, and judging from their major resolution — and from the keynote speech by Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, their financial and organizational backer — the organization is counting on the New York wage board determination to be good enough to become the standard for the industry.
“We believe New Yorkers are leading the way to a new standard for fast-food workers and our families across the country,” the resolution reads (and Henry said that “New York is on the verge of setting a new standard that will change how we think about wages in this country”).
Despite the overwhelming emphasis on higher pay, the Fight for $15 has always been a fight for a union as well. Yet increasingly leaders at all levels are focusing on the need for a union as well as for a minimum wage raise. But Kendall Fells, national organizing director of Fight for $15, acknowledges that the union cannot organize store by store, but it can keep pressure on the company as a whole until there’s an agreement about how to proceed with recognition.
“The problem is the process of organizing is too small and Fight for $15 is too big,” he says, but there’s the possibility of organizing all of the stores at once, adding community pressure from clergy, allies and other unions to the pressure, including additional legal action on the company’s labor law abuse.
Meanwhile, even without official recognition of their status, the workers can bring some changes by a variety of challenges at work, in the courts, and before the National Labor Relations Board. “In these workers’ minds, they already have a union because they’re sticking together and bringing change,” Fells says.
Many workers are not only fighting for the $15 an hour and a union that first drew them to the campaign. They’re fighting for a better world. They see their actions as re-directing the course of history, as building a future for their children and grandchildren, and as helping workers not only in other fast food outlets but also in many other jobs and industries. They are exercising newly discovered rights as citizens of the United States and even enjoy a sense of being linked to workers in other countries. In these ways, they have already taken steps beyond developing a simple trade union mentality towards a consciousness of class that is as much ethical and political as economic.
“Our goal is a living wage when we say $15 and a union,” says Ware, an early supporter of Fight for $15. “That’s why we say $15 and a union. It looks like we’ve got the $15 but it may be a long fight for a union.”
But he notes that next year is an election year, which may open possibilities. Indeed, Hillary Clinton called into the convention saying that she wanted to be the “champion” of the organization and its members. Her move may have been simply political positioning, but it at least indicates that some Democrats may feel momentarily comfortable supporting a labor struggle.
Ware sees their demands as “good for the economy,” since their victories will likely encourage other companies to pay a living wage. And the campaign is good for him, helping him do something he had always wanted but did not know how to do. “I never thought I’d be doing this,” he said. “I always wanted to help people, but I didn’t know how.”
At his second Fight for $15 convention, Antione Hearon, 22, was impressed by how much the movement had grown in a year, spreading across the country and even around the world. Although he hopes to be able to afford to return to community college, he wants to know that McDonald’s will pay a living wage if he has to rely on it. But he’s in it for more than himself.
“My family [of 14 children] has been without lights, gas, water. At times we didn’t eat,” he said. “I need the money for myself and my family. I’m doing this not just for myself but for the whole country. I didn’t know anything about unions [before joining the campaign]. I didn’t think fast food workers could have a union. … It shocked me: this is a real thing. … Then there’s the unity aspect of this: there are people who I could go to personally, who have my back. I like that unity.”
At the convention, Connie Bennett, 57, an eight-year veteran at McDonald’s, found herself swapping ideas with other workers about how to recruit people — especially young workers — to the Fight for $15, as well as setting up “pen pal” ties with workers in other cities. She realizes some of them feel they need the job badly and are afraid of losing it, but she explains to them that organizing, even striking, “that’s our freedom, and that’s our right as citizens. I tell them that this is not only their fight but a fight for their children and grandchildren.”
She talks up the union at her bus stop and when she stops by the mid-morning daily coffee club of elderly customers. That paid off when workers at her Chicago McDonald’s went out on strike. The coffee club members joined in. “I can’t put into words how that support made me feel,” she said.
Fifteen dollars an hour might mean that she could take a bus to work all the time, not just half the time. More important, she might be able to visit four grandchildren she has never seen. But the experience of solidarity, of being part of a union, is a reward in itself.
“I believe very much in unions,” she said. “If this is a sign of what a union means, I believe a union will bring the $15 to us. I explain to the members that a union is a big part of what they need. A union will give them freedom of speech, and you’re the ones who make the decisions.”
Even without a formal union or a pay raise, the fighting fast food workers have become winners. They’ve won a new sense of their rights and power and a new view of how they fit in the world. And that’s worth at least as much in its own way as the pay raise they need and deserve.
David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.