Fast food strikers say: $15 and a union!

The web newsletter, “Anticapitalisme et Revolution,” which represents a current in the French New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), recently interviewed Socialist Action member Ann Montague in regard to the growing movement in the United States for a minimum wage of $15.. The interview appears below.

The French-language version can be found at: http://anticapitalisme-et-revolution.blogspot.fr/2014/09/nous-sommes-un-mouvement-maintenant.html

Anticapitalisme et Revolution: How did your union come to organize fast-food workers?

Ann Montague: I am a member of Socialist Action, and I have been a rank-and-file member of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) for 30 years. This is the union that provided staff and financial support to the fast food workers who have been organizing demonstrations, actions, and strikes, demanding a living wage of $15 an hour.

SEIU has around 2.2 million members. Most of them are in the United States, with some workers in Canada and Puerto Rico. There are over a million workers in health care, including nurses, laboratory technicians, nursing-home workers, and home-care workers. There are another million workers who work in public services in state and local governments and school employees like bus drivers and child care providers. They also include 225,000 workers in property services who work as security and janitors in commercial and residential office buildings. Fifty-six percent of our workers are women, and 40 percent Black and Latino/a. SEIU represents more immigrant workers than any other union in the United States.

When SEIU announced to the membership that they had decided to assist in organizing Fast Food Strikes in New York City in 2012, I was as surprised as anyone. In the 1980s, there were sporadic strikes by state government workers, and in the 1990s, SEIU organized janitors working for small cleaning companies in the Justice For Janitors Campaign. The tactics of the janitors were unorthodox and included mass civil disobedience with the closing of freeways in Los Angeles and blocking bridges into Washington, D.C.

But from 1998-2010, under the presidency of Andy Stern, we went through a horrible period of vicious fights with other unions. In addition, the top union leaders were purging on fake charges some elected leaders that they saw as disloyal. Some of those who were put in charge were later convicted of corruption. There also were contracts negotiated behind closed doors and deals made with the bosses.

By 2010 the union bureaucracy was divided. Some complained about Stern’s authoritarian leadership style, and in the middle of his term he was forced to resign. Saying they were looking for a consensus builder, they voted for Mary Kay Henry. She promised to rebuild relationships with other unions and clean up the corruption. The bureaucracy chose her to lead SEIU.

In 2012, Henry brought forward to her Executive Board the controversial proposal to put staff and resources into organizing fast-food workers. Not to bring them in as members but to raise wages of the entire sector. One wing of the bureaucracy was against it, and while Henry prevailed, it was believed that if the campaign were not successful, and all that money were spent on workers who are not even members of SEIU, she would not be re-elected. Her argument was that if they could raise wages in an entire labor sector that it would impact all wages.

AR: How did this movement start?

AM: In 2012, a group called New York Communities For Change was working on affordable housing in New York City. They soon realized that the fast-food workers they talked to could not even afford low-cost apartments. They were sleeping in homeless shelters and on the floors of friends’ apartments. As a result, SEIU started organizing meetings over the low pay for fast-food workers. The workers soon decided that they wanted $15 an hour and a union and that they were willing to strike.

The first strike was in New York in November 2012, when 200 workers walked off the job, and their numbers have continued to grow. In May of this year, there were strikes in 150 cities and 33 countries. On Sept. 4 was the seventh strike, and it was larger, including more cities in the South and Southwest. There was civil disobedience, and in eight cities home-care workers marched with fast-food workers demanding $15 an hour.

AR: What are the main demands?

AM: For now, there are only two demands. They are: $15 an hour and the right to a union without intimidation. In the United States there is a Federal Minimum Wage that applies to all 50 states. Some states have one that is higher. Currently, the Federal Minimum Wage is $7.25. In his speech at the March On Washington in 1963, Martin Luther King called for a $2 minimum wage. Adjusted for inflation today, that $2 would now be $15.27. In general $15 is considered to be a “living wage” while anything below that is a “poverty wage”.

AR: What is the government’s response?

AM: The main government response has been silence. We are entering elections in November. Politicians know that the people support raising the minimum wage, so they cannot openly oppose an increase.

President Obama finally came out with a proposal to raise the Federal Minimum Wage to $10.10. This was to undercut the strikes and demonstrations. However, they were unable to stop the momentum of this movement.

The labor organizations that are the most obedient servants of the Democratic Party are trying to get workers to support a state minimum wage of $11, but they are not having much success. The argument they cannot overcome is that anything less than $15 is a “poverty wage.” While the Democrats are experts at derailing social movements so far, they have not stopped the “Fight For $15 and a Union” struggle.

AR: How about retaliation?

AM: There has not been a lot of retaliation. Federal law permits “concerted activity” by workers. This means that workers are allowed to join together to complain to employers about working conditions.

The Fast Food Strikes are not traditional strikes where workers leave their job and picket their workplace to try to prevent other workers or customers from entering the place of business. These workers leave work for one day and are joined by community members and others who support them in demonstrations and rallies throughout the cities. Generally it is not all the workers in one restaurant but workers from many different fast food restaurants joining together.

Also there is what is called a “walk back.” The following day, when they go back to work, they are never alone. The staff of a union or other supporters go back into the restaurant with them. Generally, the response by other workers is applause, thanks, and congratulations.
I have heard that in a few places these workers have their work hours cut or are “written up” for some small infraction. But often a higher up manager has intervened. It seems the bosses understand that reprisals run the chance of sparking more protests, and possibly next time more workers will join the strike activity.

As these actions spread from big cities to smaller cities there may be some problems. This month Tucson, Ariz., had its first fast-food strike, and there are reports that there was some retaliation when the strikers returned to work. Arizona is a very anti-union state, and Tucson is a small city. However, supporters of the strikers are planning ways to pressure bosses to end harassment of these workers, and SEIU will take legal action based on the right to “concerted activity.”

AR: In some cities we saw union members join the Ferguson protests. What are the links between the two movements?

AM: Historically, there was a strong link between the Black civil rights movement and unions. Martin Luther King worked closely with many unions whose members were predominately Black. In fact, he was in Memphis to show his solidarity with striking sanitation workers who were members of AFCSME, a large public sector union, when he was assassinated. A. Philip Randolph was a leader in both the civil rights and the labor movements. He organized and led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first predominantly Black labor union.

While there is a strong history of racism in many unions, some public sector unions have a legacy of human rights and social justice. The American union tradition of solidarity, and the motto of “an injury to one is an injury to all,” is still strong in some unions. But more important is the fact that the victims of police brutality and their families are also union members. Members of SEIU 1199 in New York City were active in demonstrations against the police policy of “Stop And Frisk.” In the Black community, most young men have been harassed, stopped, and searched by the police without cause.

Ferguson is in Missouri, which is a relatively strong union state. There were big fast-food strikes in Kansas City and St. Louis—cities with large Black communities. In Kansas City, workers walked out of 60 restaurants. Most of the strikers were Black or Latina.

In Ferguson, contingents of a group called “Show Me $15” were active in the demonstrations. Shermale Humphries was one member who said that she used to work at the McDonald’s across the street from where Mike Brown was killed. “This [protesting] is something I had to do,” she said. “I’m African American, and this could be anyone I know. I just can’t let it go on any longer.” She credited her experience organizing fast-food strikes as helping her organize in Ferguson. Also, Michael Brown’s mother was a member of the United Food And Commercial Workers (UFCW). The head of her union issued an immediate statement condemning the behavior of the police and standing in solidarity with Michael’s mother in calling for an investigation and justice.

The issue of intersecting movements for economic justice was addressed by SEIU’s president on a news program, “Democracy Now”: “There is an incredible intersection of the immigrant rights movement and the fast-food workers’ movement. We understand it is necessary to grow a powerful movement so 11 million people can join in the fullness of our economy. And we are not going to stop our movement building on immigrant justice or economic justice until we win.”

AR: What is the meaning of this movement for the rebirth of the labor movement?

AM: I am not sure I can answer that yet. I can say that this is the most important working-class struggle in the United States at present, and its national scope is like nothing I have witnessed.

For there to be a rebirth of the labor movement, there needs to be a break with the Democratic Party. As you probably know, we have no working-class party in this country. We have two capitalist parties, and as long as the union bureaucrats are at the beck and call of the Democratic Party, the word “rebirth” just seems too strong.

This month a striker was quoted saying, “We are a movement now!” This was significant. There will be a point when the ruling class will say, “Enough is enough”. They will try to co-opt this movement, divide it, or buy it off. But if the movement is big and strong enough, the workers will fight back, and the struggle will expand.

What occurred recently in Seattle was significant. An open socialist candidate named Kshama Sawant, who is a member of Socialist Alternative, ran for Seattle City Council. She is a member of the American Federation Of Teachers (AFT), and she won by centering her campaign on winning a $15 minimum wage for all city workers. She used her campaign to organize the Fight For $15 movement in Seattle, and she took on the Democratic Party. As a result, 100,000 workers will be lifted out of poverty.

One of the important things that happened after Sawant’s victory was the formation of “15 Now,” which became a national movement with chapters across the country. While SEIU is currently supporting $15 an hour, there have been times that the leaders went in and negotiated less than $15. But with another organization of community residents, union members, and low-wage workers, the pressure for $15 can increase, and the movement will become larger and stronger.

AR: What do you think can be done?

AM: The advances in the Fight For $15 actions on Sept. 4 were important. Not only did the strikes expand to new cities but they also expanded to new workers who are under attack. In Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Seattle, home-care workers joined with fast-food workers in support of the demand for $15 minimum wage. The home-care workers’ union rights had been attacked just two months earlier by the U.S. Supreme Court. They are 90% women and 40% Black and Latina.

In addition to expanding to a new layer of oppressed workers, the demonstrations themselves were more militant. They included civil disobedience and more strikes in the South. In Charleston, S.C., a bystander was watching as fast-food workers were engaged in a sit-in in the middle of the street. He commented to reporters, “This is just not something you see in Charleston.”

We need to be in the streets supporting our brothers and sisters. We want the numbers to increase, the issues and demands to increase, and all workers who are victims of austerity to join together. One of our comrades who is most experienced in the labor movement said it best, “Our goal is to advance the interests of our class.” I can say it no better.

Photo: Tony Savino / Socialist Action