Fight For 15: ‘We’re Not Backing Down’

By ANN MONTAGUE

Fight For 15 National Organizing Director Kendall Fells, while helping arrested protesters get out of jail in New York, stated, “We have a tone change. The change is, ‘We’re not going to back down’ and ‘We’re not going to be bullied.’” He was surrounded by signs and t-shirts that gave the same message. The signs also made clear that the escalation of the Fight For 15 movement, vividly expressed on Nov. 29 with walk-outs and rallies in hundreds of U.S. cities, was also a fight against xenophobia, racism, and sexism.

While many union members around the country have expressed dread of Washington’s policies over the next four years, these workers are showing the way forward. They are building on their wins with great determination and grit. But of course, these actions were planned to take place regardless of who was elected president. They never were diverted or changed their focus throughout the entire election period.

This was the fourth anniversary of the movement for a $15 minimum wage, which started with 200 strikers in New York City. This year, workers walked off their jobs, marched, rallied, sat in, and got arrested in 340 cities and at 20 airports, declaring that they won’t back down no matter who is in the White House or the State House.

Once again, new groups of workers joined in the national actions. This is the first time that Uber Drivers joined the Fight for 15, and it is the beginning of gig workers protesting side by side with traditional labor. These workers who are in temporary positions and often do contract work for short periods of time are often overlooked by traditional unions, but they are finding that they are welcome in the growing movement of low-paid workers.

Adam Shahim, an Uber driver in Pittsburg, Calif., said that even though he worked 40 hours a week he could not make enough to pay his bills. In a statement released by Uber protest organizers, Shahim said, “I would like a fair days pay for my hard work, so I joined with fast food, airport, home-care, child-care, higher education workers who are leading the way.” He also explained that although it was difficult to know how many Uber drivers were striking, the bosses will know when they look to see how many drivers did not open their app on Nov. 29. This is the beginning for those who are looking for ways to organize and act collectively in the new gig economy.

There was also a more traditional action at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, where workers went on strike to protest wages and union rights. The shuttle drivers and housekeeping staff protested being prevented from joining SEIU-Health Care Pennsylvania, which is the largest health-care workers union in the state and represents 45,000 workers.

In cities where the movement for 15 has been strong over these last four years, the size of the strikes and rallies continue to increase. Reports from Socialist Action correspondents in Kansas City, the San Francisco Bay Area, Hartford, Chicago, the Twin Cities and elsewhere show that an energized and expanded movement continues to grow. In Minneapolis, 21 people were arrested, including some who were arrested while they were being interviewed by the press. Los Angeles seems to be the only city where a fully militarized police force was used to arrest people participating in a peaceful sit in.

The struggle for a $15 minimum wage has brought $61.5 billion in raises to low-wage workers, according to a report just released by the National Employment Law Project. The study estimated that this means increased wages for 19 million workers. More than $40 billion came to the workers in California, New York, Seattle and SeaTac, Wash., and Washington, D.C. These are all places that adopted a $15 minimum wage either by ballot measure or governmental action.

As a result of the movement for a $15, Democrats in some states have moved to make small raises to the minimum wage. But many activists have called these raises, “Too low and too slow.” Now activists have redoubled their demands, pointing out that anything less than $15 is still a poverty wage. This is happening in Connecticut and in Massachusetts.

In Massachusetts, a month before the minimum wage is moving to $11, a state-wide coalition is pushing again for $15. Previously, they dropped their ballot measure campaign when it looked like the state legislature was going to raise the minimum wage. A third of the state workforce still makes less than $15 an hour.

In Connecticut, on Nov. 29, the same day as fast-food workers were striking for $15, a hundred low-wage workers descended on the State Capitol to demand a $15 minimum wage. In January 2017, the minimum wage is scheduled to increase to $10.10, but like workers in Massachusetts they are saying that the compromises in the past are just not good enough.

Alvin Major, who works at KFC in Brooklyn, N.Y., would agree. He went on the first fast-food strike in 2012 when he was making $7.25 and now he is making $10.50. But he says he will continue to strike for $15. “I used to be scared when I first went on strike. Not anymore. We don’t have a union, but we are acting like one.”

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Photo: Marty Goodman / Socialist Action. Marty Goodman writes from New York City: “This shows a major $15 action by SEIU 32 BJ at LaGuardia Airport on Nov. 29. Hundreds donned yellow raincoats as six buses unloaded union protesters. We filed into two terminals and basically shut everything down for several minutes. Worker energy was great. Finally, there was a mass sit-in inside a terminal. After a brief press conference, people got up and marched back to the buses. It was a wonderful show of membership willingness to take action.”