Low-wage workers unite for $15 Now

By ANN MONTAGUE

— PORTLAND, Ore. — On Dec. 4, the 2nd anniversary of the first Fast Food strikes—when 200 workers walked out—strike actions increased in number to include over 190 cities in the United States alone. Moreover, workers at convenience stores  joined them. As we go to press on Dec. 4, reports indicate that home-care workers have turned out in solidarity, and airport workers are striking in 10 cities. In some cities, workers in stores such as Dollar Tree and Big Lots are walking out with the demand of “$15 and a union.”

SEIU President Mary Kay Henry addressed the growing movement, “The Fight for $15 movement is growing, as more Americans living on the brink decide to stick together to fight for better pay and an economy that works for all of us, not just the wealthy few.”

Workers in industries beyond fast food have joined the fight because they face the same struggles, says Arun Ivatury, with the National Employment Law Project. “These are all some of the fastest-growing occupations in the country, and they’re also some of the lowest-paying, as little as $8 or $9 an hour in terms of the median wage in these occupations. These are struggles these workers are facing across these industries—they’re facing the same struggle for respect and decent schedules with advance notice and enough hours to make a decent living.”

Airport worker strikes were planned in New York, Newark, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, Minneapolis, Oakland, Fort Lauderdale, Seattle, and Atlanta. Protesting airport workers sent a letter to the CEOs of the six largest airlines, saying, “As airport workers we have pledged to stand together with people who work in home care and fast food to fight for $15 an hour.”

“Like many other airport workers, I make only minimum wage with no benefits,” said Abera Siyoum, a disability cart driver at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. “When I look at the fight of fast-food workers, I see my fight. We live in the same community and suffer the same problems and that’s why we’re all fighting to make a change.”

In recent months, some of the most promising organizing efforts have been taking place in Oregon. The 15 Now group started last March, with Portland (PDX) as the center of its activities. The constant activity has gained hundreds of supporters and endorsers. The strategy now has been to go statewide and add additional regional representatives and more organizations to its steering committee. The first successful organizing outside the Portland area has been in southern Oregon, where 15 Now is working with Jobs With Justice and Oregon Strong Voice. New chapters are starting in six other cities.

The work of 15 Now Portland has accumulated endorsements of over 20 union locals. Some endorsements are from statewide organizations, including American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), Oregon Education Association (OEA/Teachers), Service Employees International Union (SEIU 503), Oregon State Association of Letter Carriers (OSALC), and Oregon School Employees Association (OSEA). Rank-and-file activists from these and other union locals will help with moving 15 Now throughout the state.

Both AFSCME local 88 and Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA) 483 asked 15 Now PDX to join them in their campaign for a $15 floor in their contract. This resulted in winning raises for Multnomah County workers, Seasonal Park Rangers, and workers at Home Forward (Housing Authority of Portland).

Minimum-wage ballot measures

The midterm elections had a low turnout average of 34 percent nationally. But even where Republican candidates won election, ballot measures to raise the minimum wage also won—with percentages as high as 68 percent. None of the raises on the statewide minimum-wage ballot measures were for $15 an hour and were even below Obama’s proposed $10.10. Clearly, the Democratic Party was calling the shots on the wording of these measures. However, thousands of workers will get raises in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota.

The Illinois ballot had only a “non-binding advisory” calling for $10, which also passed. Two cities had important victories: Oakland, Calif., raised its minimum wage to $12.25, with rapid implementation and cost of living increases. San Francisco was the only place that $15 was on the ballot, and it passed by the most votes—76% voted yes.

Since it had become clear that San Francisco would score a victory for $15, 15 Now and Labor Notes in Portland started early to organize an event featuring one of the major leaders of the S.F. ballot campaign, Alysabeth Alexander, SEIU 1021 Vice President for Politics, along with Nicole Grant, representing Washington State Young Emerging Labor Leaders (YELL), who worked on the Seattle $15 campaign. The event was geared to union members and called, “Unions and the Fight for $15.”

Seventy-five union members from both public and private sector unions met to engage with these labor leaders about their struggles and the strategy for Oregon. Alexander introduced herself as a rank-and-file member of SEIU 1021 who ran and was elected as a reform candidate for vice president. She encouraged everyone to work for a statewide ballot measure in Oregon.

Alexander cautioned to not let people dismiss the San Francisco win by saying, “Oh, of course that is San Francisco.” She pointed out that the cities of Richmond and Berkeley, Calif., both have “left-leaning” elected officials, but their minimum wage is not close to $15. The difference, she emphasized, is that in San Francisco they worked to build the movement for two years before it was on the ballot. As soon as the pressure of that movement had moved the mayor to come out in favor of raising the minimum wage, they immediately decided to try to put the question on the ballot, so there could be no negotiating downwards.

Midterm election In Oregon

Oregon was an anomaly in November’s election. We had twice the turnout of the national average because we have vote by mail and usually have controversial or incisive ballot measures. In this election, driver cards for undocumented Oregonians, GMO labeling, and legalizing marijuana were all on the ballot. As a result the Democratic governor was re-elected, and the Democrats have increased majorities in the State Senate and House.

Democrats campaigned generically about raising the minimum wage, but all of the candidates refused to be specific. So with the expanding 15 Now movement being the only ones talking explicitly about the minimum wage, that is the number people are discussing.

Surprisingly, a state Senate Democrat and two state Representatives told 15 Now that they would introduce a $15 minimum wage bill. It ended up as authorizing a $15 minimum wage in 2016 for businesses with 10 employees or more, with a two-year implementation for small businesses of nine or less. No one believes that the bill will pass, but it will facilitate $15 Now’s conducting public hearings across the state in preparation for launching a ballot measure.

On Saturday, Jan. 24—before the legislature is even in session—there will be a statewide rally at the capitol in Salem, which will be a platform for low-wage workers to talk about why they are fighting for $15 an hour. Afterwards, a statewide 15 Now gathering will take place for workers across the state.

How can we win 15 for millions?

There is no question that the movement to raise the minimum wage to $15 has been developing into an important component of working-class organizing. In just two years it has spread from a single city, Seattle, to 120 cities. There have been eight one-day strikes. In April 2015, a second global strike of low-wage workers will take place—with actions throughout South America, North America, Asia, and Europe.

Organizing in the United States so far has been uneven. In some cities, unions have managed the organizing efforts in a top-down manner. In some areas, coalitions have been formed, although not yet on a very broad basis. But the movement continues to broaden and grow with each mobilization—including workers who have no union, as well as union members who are winning a $15 floor in their contracts. Union members in the public sector have especially shown their support, although no union strikes for $15 have taken place.

To win $15 for the nation’s workers, a national movement must be built. Although more victories can be won in city and state ballot measures, the movement’s tactics must progress to the level of national actions. A broad sector of the working class must be involved in organizing activities, including the unemployed and workers who make more than the minimum wage.

All-inclusive coalitions must be constructed in every city to encompass every possible organization, community group, or individual that is willing to make a commitment to the fight to make $15 a minimum for all workers throughout the nation. An indication of the potential power of a united movement was seen in the Ferguson protests on Black Friday (Nov. 28) when an activist in New York City pointed out to the media, “There is no racial justice without economic justice.”