We’ve come a long way since that crisp November day three years ago when a small group of New York City fast-food workers launched a strike with the slogan “Fast Food Forward.” Today, the movement continues its forward march with the viral hashtag #FightFor15. On November 10, workers in hundreds of cities again went on strike and rallied, this time with an especially militant overtone, timed to launch a year-long campaign to foreground low-wage workers’ issues in the elections.
Tuesday’s protests, supported chiefly by the SEIU with backing from an array of community and labor groups, showed how many methods of raising wages have made gains—through legislation, voter referenda, grassroots labor pressure—or even administrative intervention, such as New York’s Governor Cuomo’s two major executive-led wage hikes.
But more importantly, the efforts reveal why none of these measures add up yet to structural economic change.
In Seattle and Los Angeles, which got to $15 wages by legislation, and San Francisco, which voted for a raise via ballot initiative, municipalities face new challenges in labor enforcement in sectors that have traditionally had little oversight. On the upside, as other cities lean toward $15 an hour, concurrent local policy discussions have emerged around systemic worker empowerment, such as proposals for fair scheduling and paid sick days to improve workers’ overall economic stability.
And the executive actions in New York—along with new collective-bargaining agreements raising wages for home health aides in Massachusetts and Oregon—show grassroots pressure can spur reforms through administrative measures that might otherwise stagnate in legislatures. Governor Cuomo’s new executive action will boost wages for about 10,000 workers in state government offices and executive agencies. The move may serve as a prelude to Cuomo’s push for statewide legislation that will vie with a similar initiative in California for the first statewide $15 wage floor (a refreshing upward competition, after years of employers racing to the bottom in wages and labor standards).