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.