Fifteen dollars and a union

By BILL ONASCH

— KANSAS CITY — “Fifteen dollars and a union” was the theme of a series of strikes, rallies, and marches in several U.S. cities at the end of July. They were by and for the working poor in the fastest growing component of economic recovery—fast food and retail workers.

Nearly all entering these new positions offered by the “job creators” start at the legal minimum wage. The federal minimum is $7.25 an hour; Missouri workers get a dime more than that. Those that stick it out get little reward for loyalty. The median wage is $8.95—equivalent to $18,500 a year for a full-time worker. But relatively few get steady full-time work. In fast food, employers have started using sophisticated software to project customer flow and schedule only the minimum workforce needed from day to day.

Not many of these workers will ever get a paid vacation. In the rare case of health insurance being offered, it’s unaffordable on their meager wages. None have pensions; few even have a 401(k) option. And, of course, paid sick leave is unknown.

These jobs are no longer just for students or entry level for those leaving high school. You’ll find just as many parents of high school students toiling at the only kind of job they can find. McDonald’s has boasted they are recruiting thousands of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The plight of these workers has long been widely known. But with the honorable exception of the Industrial Workers of the World in a few areas, prior to the last year or so unions have pretty much ignored them.

There are formidable obstacles to organizing. In addition to the boss advantage in current labor law, there’s a high turnover in the workforce. The amount of money spent on serious organizing may never be recovered through dues collection. It’s an attitude similar to that taken by conservative craft unionism that lost so much ground during the hard economic times of the Great Depression.

It was only when class-struggle unionism was revived that unions went on to great victories in the 1930s and ’40s. Particularly the CIO was seen as a broad social movement fighting for the interests of all workers. That’s what made organizing and bargaining success possible even in times of mass unemployment. Some forward-looking unions, such as the United Mine Workers, donated millions of dollars to organizing efforts in other industries with no expectation of ever being reimbursed.

There’s no figure comparable to John L Lewis in the labor movement today. I’m not predicting an imminent upsurge on the scale of the CIO. The actions in KC were organized by a diverse coalition that included the NAACP; Jobs with Justice; the faith-based Communities Creating Opportunity; the Cross Border Network, involved in solidarity with Mexican unions and defense of immigrant worker rights in this country; as well as SEIU and a number of AFL-CIO unions.

But the crowds were overwhelmingly workers and their families. Many were fast food and retail workers but there were hundreds of other union members and retirees who were there solely out of a duty of working-class solidarity. It was a mobilization that hasn’t been seen in a while and was actually treated as news by the media.

Just as there is turnover in low-wage jobs, too often there is a short attention span among movement leaders. Sometimes they quickly shift to talking points on a different topic that comes down from higher authority. It’s early days, but hopefully this time action for the most exploited of our class will be sustained.

Members of Labor Party Advocates got a friendly reception as we distributed leaflets advertising a Labor Day Weekend event. Entitled “Searching For Our Turning Point,” it features the showing of an award-winning documentary film, “Labor’s Turning Point.” It examines how the victory of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strikes helped inspire an insurgent union movement that organized millions and indirectly brought beneficial change to tens of millions more.

Of course, conditions are not exactly the same today as before most of us were born. We can’t simply try to duplicate the hard-won success of Minneapolis. But there are many social, political, strategic, and tactical lessons from that pivotal struggle that are still relevant and essential. After the showing there will be a wide-open discussion about those lessons and what we can do next.

That event is Saturday, Aug. 31, 1 p.m. at the North Kansas City Library, 2251 Howell Street, North Kansas City, Mo. For more information, call (816) 753-1672.

This article first appeared at http://www.kclabor.org. Photo of New York City picket: Marty Goodman / Socialist Action