Fight for $15 is reshaping the US Labor movement

The movement spans over 300 cities across the world. It is no longer limited to exploited employees in the fast food industry but has expanded to include home health aides, child care teachers, airport workers, adjunct professors and even retail employees.

May 01, 2019 by Neeti Prakash

A drastic shift in the public discourse on economic justice in the United States has been made possible by a sustained series of workers’ protests across the country over the last couple of years. At the forefront of these protests has been the “Fight for $15” movement.

Fight for $15 started in 2012 out of a workers’ protest in New York, where 200 fast-food workers walked off their jobs, demanding a wage of USD 15 per hour and the right to unionize without retaliation. Today, the movement spans over 300 cities across the world. It is no longer limited to exploited employees in the fast food industry, but has expanded to include home health aides, child care teachers, airport workers, adjunct professors and even retail employees. The movement is especially popular among minimum wage employees in the service industry where the wages and the working conditions are notoriously abysmal. It has reshaped the discussion around minimum wage in State and presidential politics.

In January, Democrats in the United States Congress introduced the ‘Raise the Wage’ Act, marking a watershed moment in the country’s minimum wage debate. The Act was co-sponsored by more than 190 members of the House of Representatives and 31 senators. On March 6, the House Committee on Education and Labor voted 28-20 in favor of the bill, which would raise the federal minimum wage to USD 15 per hour by 2024. A minimum wage legislation has amassed such overwhelming support for the first time since the Obama administration’s Minimum Wage Fairness Act.

The bill is a significant attempt at raising the country’s federal minimum wage, which has been stuck at USD 7.25 since 2009. According to a 2018 report by the Economic Policy Institute, over the last 30 years, wages of a large section of US workers have remained so low that even with full-time employment, their earnings, for their family size, would still fall below the poverty line set by the federal poverty guideline. An increasing number of minimum wage workers, many of whom rely on multiple jobs, are finding it difficult to make ends meet.

The push for a higher federal wage floor comes as a result of numerous states and localities hiking their minimum wages. In March, Maryland became the sixth US State to pass legislation to raise its minimum wage to USD 15 per hour by 2025. The bill is set to raise Maryland’s minimum wage from USD 10.10 to USD 11 by 2020, and to increase it incrementally over the next several years until it reaches USD 15.

Maryland will be following into the footsteps of California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey and Massachusetts, which have all passed USD 15 minimum wage bills that will be phased out over the next couple of years. Presently, 29 US States and the District of Columbia have a minimum wage higher than the federal one, with Washington and Massachusetts having the highest at USD 12.

Backed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and several other unions, Fight for $15 is taking on giant corporations for securing workers’ rights, including United Airlines, supermarket chains like Walmart and Target, as well as a host of fast-food chains like Wendy’s, Taco Bell and, most popularly, McDonald’s.

In 2015, it organized nearly 60,000 workers in Atlanta, Boston, New York, Los Angeles and more than 200 cities across the US to walk out on their jobs in protest.The widespread demonstrations garnered international support, with people protesting low wages in Brazil, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. In 2017, the movement managed to mobilize workers in Austin, Miami, Detroit and nearly 200 other US cities to demand a USD 15 minimum wage, union rights and paid medical leave. The protests saw active participation in traditionally Republican States, including Florida, Wisconsin and Missouri.

“We deserve dignity. We deserve USD 15 an hour. We deserve to be able to take care of our kids. My son, I can’t even buy him any shoes,” said Kenya Banks, a Taco Bell employee protesting in Missouri.

“I joined the Fight for $15 and a Union a little over six months ago because I truly believe that what we are fighting for should be made universal. It should not matter the organization you work for or the State you live in. We all deserve to be treated respectfully and paid fairly. And that’s why we’re speaking out today, demanding that McDonald’s respect workers and our right to a union,” said Eva Johnson, a McDonald’s employee from Florida.

Pressure exerted by these mobilizations has resulted in new legislation, as in the case of Maryland, as well as in voluntary increase of pay by numerous private and public sector employers. According to one estimate, nearly 22 million workers will receive USD 68 billion in raises in the coming years.

Sustained campaigns like Fight for $15 have helped keep the wage issue alive in public memory and made it an unavoidable discussion, especially as the US elections draw closer. Responding to the people’s movements, numerous democratic presidential nominees have emphasized on the fight for a USD 15 minimum wage as one of their key issues. Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden have made it one of the central issues in their campaigns.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration and State governments, dominated by Republicans, have scaled back the rights of workers to organize and refused to support minimum wage increases. Republican skepticism and hostility towards minimum wage has often resulted in long-lasting deadlock on crucial minimum wage legislation.

The movement also faces resistance from corporations who often collaborate with the State to suppress protests. In May 2014, 2,000 McDonald’s employees staged a demonstration at the fast-food chain’s headquarters in Chicago. The protesters were confronted by police officers in riot gear, who arrested nearly a 100 employees and 38 community allies. SEIU president Mary Kay Henry was also arrested. In a similar instance in September 2014, police arrested 436 employees who were rallying for better wage across 32 US cities. In milder instances, corporations have tried to suppress demands by withholding wages. McDonald’s workers have claimed that their wages have been cut since they started protesting.

The members of the movement are, however, undeterred. Fight For $15 national organizing director, Kendall Fells, said at the 2016 protest, “We’re not going to back down and we’re not going to be bullied.”

Refashioning tactics from the old labor movement to suit present demands has allowed Fight for $15 to make unprecedented strides in securing a decent minimum wage. It is re-imagining existing channels of protests to challenge the systematic barriers to workers’ rights. The movement’s grassroots mobilization has been particularly effective because it chooses to organize the most precarious groups in the US which have often been deemed too difficult to organize by traditional unions.

Unlike previous movements, it is not limited to a specific group of workers bound by a collective bargaining agreement. As Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Massachusetts put it, “In the Fight for $15, unions are helping to organize on a community basis, a group of workers who are on the fringe of the economy. It’s not about union members protecting themselves. It’s about moving other people up.”