On a cold day in November 2012, many New Yorkers were dragging themselves reluctantly to work after surviving the financial stress of Thanksgiving and Black Friday. But for some, it wasn’t back to work. About 200 fast-food workers decided it was their day off. And without quite knowing it, in that one act of defiance, they sparked a movement that would within four years put millions of workers on track to earn a living wage.
This week New York and California signed legislation setting a minimum wage of $15 an hour, phased in over several years. And so after more than three years of strikes, rallies, and organizing drives, what began as an unfathomable demand has become the new status quo for about 9 million workers.
While the results were hardly predictable, the demonstrations and strikes were never completely spontaneous. The first protests were planned by dozens of grassroots organizers, including New York Communities for Change and an ongoing outreach effort by the SEIU, the campaign’s main financial backer. Months of steady organizing catalyzed percolating unrest among the city’s working poor in a post-Occupy, post-recession urban landscape that had been both shellshocked by the financial collapse and primed for direct action.
In the dual campaign for $15 an hour and a union, activists articulated a message that was both specific and expansive. It was fair, but still bold for the most marginalized workers to demand decent work: a living wage and the right to unionize.
Within months, the number of cities staging Fight for 15 protests and strikes leaped from one to a reported 150 nationwide in 2014, eventually going global with various low-wage worker demonstrations in cities spanning more than 30 countries, Hong Kong to Helsinki. Along the way the colorful, clamoring rallies have been joined by childcare and healthcare workers, along with union carpenters and adjunct professors. Fifteen is a magical number of sorts: Roughly 40 percent of workers earn less—an underclass just large enough to feel both enraged and forgotten.
To counter stereotypes of fast-food workers as either casually employed teenagers or the undeserving ingrate poor, the campaign broadcast progressive economists’ analyses to highlight the workforce’s demographic reality: The typical fast-food worker is about 29 years old and has a high-school education. Fast food is essentially their family’s daily bread, though they can barely afford groceries at under $10 an hour (while the mega-corporations serving up these poverty wages effectively cost taxpayers some $7 billion annually in welfare spending). Fast-food service jobs, like retail and temp jobs, have expanded rapidly in recent years, part of a “bad jobs” trend in which occupations paying low wages with minimal benefits have driven most job growth during the “recovery.”
“When folks saw fast-food workers go on strike,” says Fight for 15 organizer Kendall Fells, “and they saw that they were adults, and they were working for a $200 billion industry, and they were living in homeless shelters…they started to identify with that story, no matter if they were a homecare worker, a childcare worker…or an adjunct professor.” Gradually, Fells says, various sectors, from construction zones to Capitol Hill, along with unions and grassroots community organizations, have joined the campaign “because they have been inspired by these fast-food workers taking such a big risk.”
By humanizing so-called “burger flippers,” the Fight for 15 has made countless Americans realize they know how it feels to be part of this struggling precariat.
So far, the movement has won its more tangible gains on wage standards, as workers’ unionization prospects are hindered by the fast-food industry’s legal structure, which keeps workplaces atomized into individual franchise units that can’t be readily unionized on an industry-wide scale. Wages, however, have incrementally risen through legislation, referenda, or administrative actions.
The tiny city of SeaTac in Washington was the first to experiment with the $15 minimum wage. Then came liberal hubs like Seattle and San Francisco, followed by not-so-hippie cities that simply saw $15 as a common-sense rate for workers. By late 2015, Nation Employment Law Project reports, “Fourteen cities, counties and states approved a $15 minimum wage though local laws, executive orders and other means in 2015. Dozens more ballot or legislative proposals were introduced around the country.” Additionally, about 23 private-sector employers have “voluntarily increased their minimum pay to $15 or higher in 2015 under public pressure or through collective bargaining.”
City by city, Fells recalls, the labor mobilization had “by 2015 pretty much morphed into a social movement with alliances with everyone from immigration to Black Lives Matter.”
Though conservatives often argue that raising wages too quickly puts jobs at risk, workers have advanced a moral counter-argument for a just wage, underscoring the fact that workers who stand to benefit the most are primarily women and people of color.
Roughly 6 in 10 Americans now support a $15 minimum wage. The Fight for 15 has hit the campaign trail, too, to spotlight low-wage workers’ issues in the primary debates (although Bernie Sanders remains the only major presidential candidate to endorse a nationwide $15 minimum wage).
But the campaign’s wins are also somewhat symbolic. Questions remain about how wage standards will be enforced when regulatory oversight is weak, and exemptions tucked into legislation could leave many workers out. In New York, for instance, the plan to phase in a $15 minimum wage will divide upstate and downstate workers on staggered timelines, forcing many upstate communities to wait indefinitely for the full $15 base wage.
Karen Scharff, head of the advocacy group Citizen Action of New York, says that, despite the statewide triumph, “the rest of the state is left behind and left with poverty wages.” Going forward, organizers will continue pushing lawmakers “to make sure that upstate workers get a bigger raise and get it sooner.”
Nationwide, the workers still don’t have a union, which means their wage hikes won’t be backed by real collective leverage in the workplace. So they continue to pursue the empowerment they sought when they risked everything that day in November.
But Fells argues, “Unofficially, these workers already feel like they’re a part of a union.” The law, in his view, is too narrow to encompass their coalition, but “the labor movement is beginning to look different with all of these industries of workers coming together to create broader change…. There are various paths to getting a union, but the best way to get a union is by acting like you already have a union.”
Why not? Nowadays, the movement is more willing to let their hopes chart the way forward.