By BILL ONASCH
“Largest Protest By Low Wage Workers In US History.” That was the Guardian headline above a perceptive story about the 4/15 4 15 actions by Steven Greenhouse and Jana Kasperkevic. They wrote, “Some 60,000 workers took part in the Fight for $15 demonstrations. … The demonstrations were the latest in a series of strikes that began with fast-food workers in New York in November 2012. The movement has since attracted groups outside the restaurant industry: Wednesday’s protesters included home-care assistants, Walmart workers, child-care aides, airport workers, adjunct professors and other low-wage workers. It also sparked international support, with people protesting against low wages in Brazil, New Zealand and the UK.”
Before analyzing this historic mobilization, it’s useful to review how it played out in some of the more than 200 cities involved.
Soles on the ground
Agence France-Presse estimated that 15,000 took part in actions in New York City. Writing in the In These Times Working blog, Andrew Elrod described some unexpected augmenting of Fast Food workers: “From Canarsie, Brooklyn to Lincoln Center, workers in New York rallied in support of a $15 minimum wage on Wednesday. The most recent day of action in the nearly three-year-old Fight for $15 campaign included protests from racial justice activists and workers across industries, and ended with a raucous finale in Midtown Manhattan, where an estimated 10,000 construction workers took the streets against the exertions of both police and union leaders … warehouse workers at a UPS facility in Canarsie hosted their own rally with state and city elected officials to demand a $15 minimum wage.
“Workers say the Brooklyn loading facility is operated almost entirely by part-timers who earn a starting wage of $10 an hour.”
The Chicago Tribune centered on actions in support of adjunct college faculty: “The Fight for $15 campaign is rallying to unionize an estimated 8,000 part-time professors in the Chicago area, aiming to expand its initial focus on fast-food workers at chains such as McDonald’s and Burger King, to child care, janitors and other service-sector employees.” A Socialist Action correspondent reported that about 5000 participated.
From the Los Angeles Times: “Nearly 1,000 fast-food workers, Walmart employees and union members in Los Angeles joined nationwide protests Wednesday calling for a $15 minimum wage. The protest, which also called for unionizing fast-food workers, started in front of a McDonald’s on W. 28th and Figueroa streets and ended at USC.
“Protesters chanted ‘We want 15’ or ‘Sí se puede’ (Yes we can) to the beat of drums and the music of a full band that played on a truck parked outside the McDonald’s. Many protesters wore brightly colored union T-shirts, and three huge balloons with ‘$15’ or ‘#fightfor15’ drifted above the crowd.”
Minnesota Public Radio said, “Workers and other supporters of a minimum $15 hourly wage, paid sick days and other benefits staged protests across the Twin Cities Wednesday, including at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and University of Minnesota. The U event drew an estimated 1,000 people.” Barb Kucera on Workday Minnesota described how the University action evolved in to massive, peaceful civil disobedience.
“At age 17, Keonna Laury attends high school—and works 33 hours a week at Burger King to help support her family of seven. Some nights she does not get home until after midnight, then must do her homework before arising early for school. She earns $9.25 an hour and has no sick time or other benefits. When she came down with the flu, ‘They told me to come to work or get someone else to take my shift—or I was fired.’ On Wednesday, Laury was on the back of a pickup truck blocking the main intersection in the Dinkytown neighborhood of Minneapolis during the evening rush hour, telling her story to a huge crowd during a national day of protest.
“The demonstrators, who had rallied on the University of Minnesota campus before marching to Dinkytown, chanted and carried signs calling for a $15-an-hour minimum wage and paid sick leave.”
In my home town of Kansas City, there was an ambitious schedule of action starting at 6 a.m. and ranging well in to the night, including strikes at McDonald’s properties, campus protests, a press conference and a mass rally followed by a march. The 5 p.m. rally in Theis Park was the main unifying event. Steady streams of folks getting off work, or picking up kids from child care, were able to grab donated hamburgers or grilled vegetables as they found a spot on the grass of the giant amphitheater.
I estimate there were 600-700 on hand, with people still arriving even at the end. The majority were Fast Food workers and their families, mostly African American and Latino. But at least 40 percent were workers and students showing solidarity, many organized by unions and Jobs with Justice. Labor Party Advocates was visible with their signature banner and received many thumbs-up.
Speakers at the brisk KC rally included the mayor; the president of the 6000-member UAW Ford Local; two prominent clergy; and a Fast Food worker who read a poem she had written about the challenges of low pay. At the conclusion, most lined up for a march of a few blocks to the University of Missouri Kansas City campus, where they were welcomed by a contingent of UMKC students as well as adjunct professors explaining why they were getting on board with the Fight for 15. The actions merited front-page coverage in both the April 15 and April 16 editions of the Kansas City Star and were the lead stories on local television news.
The 15now.org website featured a round up of reports of April 15 actions in a number of other cities including Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon.
15 and a Union! 15 Now!
These two slogans arise from different perspectives of complimentary movements sharing the same goal for a new wage floor. The testimony of the working poor makes clear they suffer not only from unconscionable low pay; they also face terrible working conditions, disrespectful and arbitrary treatment from management—and a high rate of on the job injuries. They need a union to effectively address those issues in addition to winning 15.
The 15 Now movement focuses on establishing city and state minimum wage laws with a floor of 15 for all workers, organized or not. As the UPS workers in Brooklyn made clear, there are union members doing hard work for highly profitable corporations for as little as $10 an hour.
15 Now came out of successful struggles in SeaTac and Seattle in 2013-14. It is a coalition of union and community groups as well as many individual activists. Socialists have played an important role there, especially after the election of Kshama Sawant of the Socialist Alternative party to the Seattle City Council.
The new Seattle minimum means substantial wage increases for 100,000 workers in that city. Since that victory, 15 Now has established 23 state or local chapters around the country. Recently, San Francisco became the third city to pass a 15 minimum. Both the “15 and a Union” message promoted by organized labor and the coalition effort of 15 Now for minimum wage laws deserve our support.
Will history repeat itself?
U.S. unions went through their greatest period of membership growth and bargaining breakthroughs during the Great Depression, which was marked by mass unemployment. The union successes under such harsh conditions were only possible because insurgent unions came to be recognized as a broader social movement, advancing the interests of the entire working class.
The newly formed CIO especially went after the low-paid, unskilled factory workers who had been ignored by AFL craft unions in basic industries—building from scratch what became the United Auto Workers, United Steel Workers, United Electrical Workers, United Packinghouse Workers, and others. They were assisted by generous financial support from one of the oldest unions—the United Mine Workers—who had the vision to understand that organized labor had to grow to remain viable.
All talk about the de-industrialization of America is bogus. U.S. manufacturing production is second to none. But technology has greatly reduced manufacturing employment, and industrial union membership has plummeted. Food and Retail are the dominant sectors of job growth today. Walmart is the biggest private sector employer in the USA—and the whole world. More workers toil under the Golden Arches of McDonald’s in this country than are covered by union contracts at General Motors, Ford, Fiat-Chrysler, General Electric and Boeing combined.
With much more vision and honesty than her predecessor, SEIU president Mary Kay Henry has staked her reputation and the union’s resources on organizing today’s equivalent of Depression-era factory hands—again so long neglected by mainstream unions. Reports filed with the Labor Department indicate SEIU has spent $25 million so far on the Fight for Fifteen.
SEIU has also reached out to natural allies in civil rights, women’s rights, immigrant worker rights, and student activist groups, giving the Fight for Fifteen the character of a movement for social justice. The Guardian article mentioned above quotes Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University: “In the Fight for $15, unions are helping to organize on a community basis a group of workers who are on the fringe of the economy. It’s not about union members protecting themselves. It’s about moving other people up. This is the whole civil rights movement all over again.”
To be sure, sister Henry is not a paragon. SEIU is still politically devoted to the Democrats—a concealed lethal weapon of boss rule. But John L Lewis, who used the Miners union to enable the CIO, was no saint either. It’s still early days, but the Fight for 15 is the most promising front for our side in the class war being waged against us today.
This article contains major excerpts from the “Week In Review” blog at kclabor.org/wordpress. Photo: Tony Savino / Socialist Action