On Wednesday, the Fight for $15 campaign spread beyond the service sector to include construction workers and adjunct professors, and received significant support in the streets from students and the burgeoning racial justice and climate justice movements.
The day of action marked the campaign’s largest mobilization yet. Workers took to the streets in over 200 U.S. cities, according to organizers. Workers also joined the protests in Brazil, France, Scotland and Italy. In New York City, a couple thousand workers and their supporters marched from Columbus Circle to the Times Square during the late afternoon, following a 6:15 a.m. rally at a Brooklyn McDonald’s and a noon die-in outside a McDonald’s on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
The campaign, backed by the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, began over two years ago in New York City as a one-day fast food rally with less than a hundred workers at a handful of local stores. Within two years, the campaign would spread to over 200 U.S. cities and begin to form international alliances in its fight against U.S.-based multinational fast food corporations for $15-an-hour wages and union recognition. During the most recent one-day strike, on Dec. 4, the fast food workers were joined throughout the country by workers from throughout the retail industry, airport workers, car wash workers and home health care workers.
“This is what we’re about, sticking together — homecare workers, Walmart workers, fast food workers, Black Lives Matter,” said Shantel Walker, a member of the Fight for $15 national worker organizing committee and an employee at Papa John’s who makes $8.50 an hour. “We said we are going to stick together for $15 and a union and this is what we’re doing. This is a global movement. This fight is for everybody.”
The workers chose April 15, according to organizers, because it both symbolizes their demand — they are fighting in part for $15 an hour — and highlights on tax day the $153 billion of annual public subsidies needed to supplement the poverty wages that low-wage industries pay the working poor. Half of the U.S. fast food workforce is on welfare, while McDonald’s, the primary object of the protests and the world’s largest and most profitable fast food corporation, earned nearly $5 billion in 2014 profits — a brazen wealth transfer from the public treasury to private corporate profits.
“I refuse to be a slave on the corporate plantation,” Jawanza Williams, a black man in his mid-20s, said at the noon die-in on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “Economic justice is social justice.”
Williams, who recently graduated from Schreiner University in Kerrville, Texas, could find only a fast food job at Church’s kitchen upon graduation. Earning minimum wage, Williams fell behind on his student loan payments. He plans on attending law school but is unable to take out new student loans until he gets back on schedule with the undergraduate loans.
The workers are not impressed with the pay raises McDonald’s and Walmart recently announced. The McDonald’s raise amounts to a $1 hourly increase for 12 percent of its workforce.
“They announced the raise on April Fool’s Day,” explained Jorel Ware, a 34-year-old black man who works at a Manhattan McDonald’s. “They think the joke is on us, but the joke is on them. They made the announcement after we announced we would go on strike on April 15. This is clearly a public relations stunt on their part. What they need to understand is it’s not going to work.”
Ware makes $8.75 an hour and works between 32 and 37 hours each week. His monthly check typically is between $1,120 and $1,296 before taxes, while rent alone, according to Ware, costs $800 each month.
Development of sustainable coalitions
The April 15 actions turned out the campaign’s greatest numbers yet largely behind the strength of two distinct areas of low-wage labor organizing energy: college campuses and union partnerships spanning industries.
Following the example of other successful worker campaigns, like those of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Fight for $15 has established relationships with campus groups around the country. Many of the students involved already advocate for low-wage workers through United Students Against Sweatshops, or USAS.
Given the 11 percent unemployment rate and the substantial increase in low-wage jobs as a percentage of the job force since the beginning of the recession in 2008, the interests of students and low-wage workers are naturally aligned. Youth unemployment is double already significant national averages.
“We are all going to be future workers,” explained Robert Ascherman, a USAS member at New York University. “We’re really committed to fighting this campaign as one of our own campaigns.”
And many students find themselves working low-wage jobs in order to better afford the ever-increasing cost of higher education and to begin to pay down student debt — U.S. students possess $1.2 trillion of outstanding student debt.
“I come from an immigrant, working class family,” said Jenny Villegas, a USAS member at the University of Southern California. “Even before I came to USC I had worked for two years at McDonald’s.” Villegas continues to work for the minimum wage with USC’s Jumpstart program as an early childhood education teacher aid.
The ongoing organizing efforts of adjunct faculty, among the most educated elements of the workforce, enhances the low-wage organizing energy that exists on campuses around the country. In conjunction with the Fight for $15 campaign, which also goes by Fast Food Forward, the SEIU has launched a Faculty Forward campaign demanding pay of $15,000 per course for adjunct professors. Adjuncts are typically paid around $2,700 per course and are intentionally denied course loads that would entitle them to benefits.
The campaign is targeting a dramatic increase in adjunct pay in order to dramatize the disconnect between rising tuitions and stagnant university investment in instruction costs.
“The making of the precarious professorate has been a 40-year process,” said Dr. Alan Trevithick, an adjunct professor of anthropology, who typically teaches five or six courses per semester between Fordham University, LaGuardia Community College and Westchester Community College. “You’ll notice tuition is going up. Salaries for the regular faculty have been flat for many years, and obviously adjunct salaries are falling. Our labor is subsidizing all kinds of projects — administrative, construction of new facilities.”
In New York, labor groups like the New York City Central Labor Council, or NYC CLC, which represents over 300 unions and 1.3 million workers (around 90 percent of organized labor in the city), have worked with community-based groups like the New York Communities for Change, or NYCC, and Make the Road New York, or MRNY, to develop broad labor support for the campaign.
“What we’ve been seeing is really an effort for all workers to come together,” said Cara Noel, the NYC CLC’s director of communications. “There are workers who make significantly more than minimum wage. What they’re doing is standing with working brothers and sisters to raise their wages. They understand the importance of us presenting a unified front.”
The NYCC, which has been the main organizing outfit for the New York arm of the Fight for $15 campaign, organizes and advocates for low and moderate-income people, while MRNY organizes Latino and working class communities and has been central — along with NYCC — to recent successful efforts for car wash workers to earn union recognition.
Countless other labor and community groups have contributed to the effort. One such group, the Workers United NY/NJ Regional Joint Board, an SEIU affiliate, has been mobilizing its membership base of drug store, retail, manufacturing, food processing and garment workers.
“We’re doing massive outreach,” said Lucho Gomez, the NY/NJ Regional Joint Board’s organizing director. “There is a lot of great feedback from the workers themselves in terms of wanting to get involved — they have for sure heard about this [through the press]. It has been a big push to make it much more than just the fast food workers. We are thinking about how can we use our collective power to raise the standard for everybody.”
The union has been using the Fight for $15 mobilization, along with other solidarity actions for Bangladeshi workers who died in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013, to keep its base engaged.
“For us in terms of our union and our membership, it’s a good moment to be able to unify our workers and begin this conversation because of future bargaining sessions that we may have later in the year,” Gomez said.
The April 15 actions also marked the first participation from construction worker unions.
“Unions always have their own jurisdiction they are going after and their own issues they have to fight for, but some issues are bigger than what unions have on their own plate,” said Chaz Rynkiewicz, director of organizing for the Construction and General Building Laborers Local 79. “We’ve got to get together with other unions, other community groups to help people that don’t have any union in those industries whatsoever, like the fast food workers.”
The union members were also supporting non-union construction workers who do essentially similar work for lower pay without benefits or a pension and with far less training and safety precautions.
“Imagine working 30 years non-union and you don’t get a pension — that’s terrible,” said Brian Pressley, a retired union member.
Incorporating a systemic analysis
Despite widespread worker support for the campaign across a growing number of low-wage industries, Fight for $15 faces significant obstacles to achieving its goal of helping workers escape poverty to the material security associated with the middle class.
If official poverty measurements in this country were conducted according to the methodology used commonly around the world (poverty as income below half of the national median), then 70 million Americans would be identified as living in poverty, nearly 23 percent of the entire population. About half of the country now has zero net wealth, and economic insecurity — the inability to consistently purchase basic needs like food, housing, and health care — is experienced by 45 percent of the population.
Workers are up against long-term trends of upward income and wealth redistribution made possible by innovations in communication and transportation technologies. Under multinational corporate management, supply chains and distribution networks have been globalized. With national trade policies that only encourage the ensuing international labor arbitrage, the already weak bargaining position of the largely non-union American workforce continues to be further undermined. It is fitting that the beginnings of a renewed worker consciousness would come from the service sector, as 44 percent of post-recession job growth has been for low-wage positions concentrated in the service sector — there are now 1.85 million more low-wage workers than before the beginning of the 2008 recession.
In New York, relative newcomers to the demonstrations — Socialist Alternative, a national political party associated with Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant; and groups involved with the racial and climate justice movements — introduced to the demonstrations a previously absent systemic analysis.
Speaking at the 7 a.m. demonstration in Brooklyn, Chelsea Jackson, a childcare worker and Socialist Alternative member, declared: “Low-wage work is a form of exploitation under the capitalist system. Capitalism drives off of our backs … To fight the system, we need to blend together different movements — Black Lives Matter movement, the fight for better education, for women’s rights, for union representation, and all other movements.”
While acknowledging socialism is a “dirty word” in the United States, Jackson stressed that, in the form of 15 Now, the fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage began with the Socialist Alternative in Seattle. Jackson explained to the crowd, to significant applause, that a strategic systemic approach is needed. One such strategy that the Socialist Alternative supports is local democratically elected civilian review boards with independent budgetary power.
The growing racial justice movement also featured prominently. While the Dec. 4 actions alluded to post-Ferguson racial justice activism with moments of silence for Eric Garner and Mike Brown, demonstrators at the noon event on the Upper West Side staged a die-in to highlight for the media connections between physical and economic security. Black representation in the low-wage workforce (36 percent) far outpaces that of the U.S. population (13 percent).
“This is what they’re doing to us: killing us,” Jorel Ware explained. “With the wages, and cops shooting us, we are being killed. This is what is happening to us and our families. It has to stop.”
Youth racial justice groups also demonstrated with workers across the country. Members of BYP 100 — which has chapters in Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., Oakland and New Orleans — spoke following the die-in and emphasized similar connections between different forms of violence.
“A lot of people when they think of Black Lives Matter, they think of police violence or brutality,” said Karl Kumodzi, the New York chapter’s organizing co-chair. “Police brutality is one manifestation of a larger racist, violent, sexist, capitalist system. Another manifestation is the economic violence that corporations wage by keeping people on poverty wages.”
Kumodzi and Tay Pugh, another New York chapter member, discussed the social consequences of poverty — including increased health complications, substandard schools and housing and the disproportionate police presence found in poor communities. They mentioned Eric Garner, who was initially stopped by the police for selling loose cigarettes, as an example of the desperate — and often illegal — economic measures people must undertake given the absence of living wage jobs.
Kumodzi and Pugh also emphasized the disproportionate economic violence that black women and transgendered people face.
“They are the last to get hired, the first to get fired, they will get the least hours, and they will make below poverty wages,” Kumodzi said.
At the day’s final action in New York City, a rally and march from Columbus Circle to Times Square attended by a couple thousand people, climate justice activists drew connections between sustainable ecological and economic practices.
The climate activists involved are associated with Rising Tide NYC, a group that grew out of the planning for Flood Wall Street, a direct action in Manhattan’s Financial District the day after the People’s Climate March; the People’s Climate Movement New York, a network with activists associated with the 350 NYC, the Sierra Club, and Bronx Climate Justice North that also grew out of the People’s Climate March; System Change Not Climate Change, an eco-socialist group; and 99 Picket, a direct action worker advocacy group.
Chanting “living wage and a livable planet,” the group split in two. One contingent followed the main march, while the other broke off to stage direct actions in three Midtown McDonald’s, where they delivered a mic check stating:
“Our fight is one fight. Workers fighting for $15 and a union are fighting for system change. Climate activists are fighting for system change. We’re here because we’re ready to fight together for sustainable jobs and a sustainable world.”
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