How the Fight for $15 Transformed the Political Debate

The following is an excerpt from the new book Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform America, by Tamara Draut.

Back in November 2012 in New York City, a brave band of two hundred fast-food workers walked out of their jobs and into the streets to demand a better wage and the right to form a union. Just six months later, fast-food workers went on strike in six major cities across the country. As workers were joining the movement in greater numbers, the organizers added another tactic to their cam­paign: corporate shaming. Tipped off by a McDonald’s worker, the campaign made public a website that McDonald’s had created for its employees called, naturally, McResource. Part of the web­site was geared toward helping employees make a simple budget. Unfortunately, the sample budget revealed the behemoth to be just a tad out of touch with reality: It provided just twenty dollars per month for health-care expenses and nothing at all for gas expenses. Other parts of the site urged employees to adopt a healthy lifestyle by eschewing—wait for it—fast food.

Further gaffes were exposed when a McDonald’s employee called the McResource helpline and was told she would qualify for food stamps, and the website added new advice for its workers like cutting food into smaller pieces to stave off hunger. The exposure generated lots of bad publicity, even from business-friendly outlets like Forbes and CNBC, prompt­ing the company to pull the website. With the press increasingly on its side, the Fight for $15 staged its first national strike in August 2013, with workers in over sixty cities participating. Two months later strikes occurred in more than one hundred cities. Then just six months later, on May 15, 2014, fast-food workers in 230 cities, on six continents, joined the campaign, staging strikes, rallies, and protests, and bringing many supporters along with them.

But all of these actions paled in comparison to what happened on April 15, 2015, when the campaign officially expanded from fast-food workers to include retail and home care workers and even adjunct professors. It was the largest protest of low-wage workers in United States history, with at least sixty thousand people joining protests and rallies in cities across the country. Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees Interna­tional Union, who has put the full resources of the SEIU behind this fight, said this about the movement: “There is not a price tag you can put on how this movement has changed the conversation in this country. It is raising wages at the bargaining table. It’s raised wages for eight million workers. I believe we are forcing a real conversation about how to solve the grossest inequality in our generation. People are sick of wealth at the top and no account­ability for corporations.”

There is not a price tag you can put on how this movement has changed the conversation in this country.

I spoke with Scott Courtney, assistant to the president for orga­nizing, about why the SEIU decided to support the campaign. He told me that when Mary Kay Henry became president of the SEIU in 2010, she asked the question “not how do we just rebuild unions and have a bigger union, but how do we make income inequality the issue that politicians in our country have to deal with?” The answer to that question over time became the Fight for $15.

The ability of the leader of the nation’s fastest-growing union to ask that kind of question, one that reaches beyond the parochial goal of fighting only for its members, is the result of over a decade of work by leaders organizing people who had been excluded from traditional union membership (sometimes by laws and sometimes by the practice of labor unions). Jodeen Olguín-Tayler was active in the effort to engage union leaders to fight for the broader social struggle of the working class. Olguín-Tayler has spent fifteen years organizing the working class, first as a labor organizer at a local union and then running a national campaign to address the needs of elder-care workers and clients. She’s now my partner in crime at Demos, as our vice president of campaigns and strategic partner­ships, and she explained the long trajectory that made the Fight for $15 possible. “We knew that social agitation and public cam­paigns that reframe and transform ‘worker issues’ into community and social issues—that is, into class issues—was key to our ability to build a movement that could put economic, racial, and gender inequality back into the spotlight of public debate.

This was a pro­active, offensive strategy to move from protesting bad conditions to winning dignity and power for a broad, multiracial working class—a class where we, people of color, women, and immigrants, would finally be recognized as equals and deserving of our dig­nity,” she explained. There were many successful predecessors to the Fight for $15, such as the living wage campaign of taxi drivers in San Francisco. All these wins demonstrated to the union move­ment that victory was possible by engaging a larger set of workers in the fight and building pressure for them to heed the call bub­bling up across the country.

With the immense courage of the workers matched with the considerable financial resources of the SEIU, the Fight for $15 has taken those proven strategies and racked up major wins. In less than three years, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles have raised their minimum wage to $15. In the summer of 2015, New York State’s Wage Board approved a $15 minimum wage for fast-food workers at major chains. What’s remarkable is how the demand for $15 has quickly become mainstream. “We don’t get laughed at anymore when we walk in the room,” Courtney observed, remem­bering the rough times when the movement started. Back in 2012 the demand for $15 was greeted with incredulity. Fast-food work­ers, long seen as the bottom of the economic food chain, earning $15 an hour? It’s a testament to the workers, who across race, gen­der, and age have shown a level of class solidarity America hasn’t witnessed in at least a generation. And perhaps most important, it’s brought hope to the new working class.

I asked Courtney how the movement has been able to build and maintain solidarity across such a wide range of experiences, and he talked about how the SEIU has given people the space to talk. And through that talking, they’ve come to realize that only by standing together will they be able to make their lives better. “People are smart. They get it. They get that they’ve been get­ting a raw deal, they’ve been getting a raw deal for a long time. And they haven’t had hope. They have hope now. They do believe they’re going to win. And when people come together and start thinking they can win, it’s pretty spectacular to be a part of,” he told me. This is a movement primarily, but not entirely, of people of color and immigrants, the very backbone of the new working class. And their success is made all the more sweeter by the reality that most people were skeptical at best when the first calls for $15 and a union were made. As we head into the 2016 elections, the Democratic candidates for president have already publicly sup­ported the fight for $15, meaning that one way or another, this issue will continue to take its rightful place on the national stage.

The Fight for $15 uses a strategy well honed by conservatives: Establish a strong left flank in order to make any negotiation away from the big demand, in this case $15 an hour, seem moderate and commonsense by comparison. When the Fight for $15 started, even dyed-in-the-wool progressives thought a $15 minimum wage was ridiculous. But for cities with high costs of living, like Seattle, New York, and San Francisco, a $15 minimum is actually rea­sonable. So now for other cities, like Kansas City and Cincinnati, $10.10 feels not only reasonable but maybe a bit low. The Fight for $15 has fundamentally changed what’s considered mainstream in our political debate about wages.

From the book:
SLEEPING GIANT: How The New Working Class Will Transform America, by Tamara Draut.
Copyright © 2016 by Tamara Draut.
Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.



How Access to Public Assistance Impacts Political Participation

Poverty was all Lucy* had ever known. Early in her adult life, a mixture of desperation and patriotism led her to join the military. When she left her three children and headed to the frontlines of the “war on terror,” it was with the goal of providing a better life for them. There, Lucy gained skills that she hoped would enable her to earn a steady income, but she returned home to find that good jobs were scarce, especially for an African-American woman. As a result, Lucy accepted a part-time position as a cashier making $7.50 an hour. Her pay was not enough to make ends meet while supporting her children and caring for her elderly parents. Most distressingly, she could not afford health insurance, and even though her income fell below the poverty line, she was ineligible for Medicaid.

If Lucy lived in New York, where I was born and now live, she would have access to health care. But her home state of Georgia had the second-highest percentage of uninsured residents in the country and did not plan to utilize the Medicaid expansion subsidized through the Affordable Care Act. As the summer of 2012 came to an end, she had difficulty getting her children signed up for Georgia’s Medicaid program and could not afford to pay for the immunizations required to enroll them in school. Adding to this, Tiffany, her eleven-year-old daughter, had a severe case of asthma, so Lucy placed a moratorium on all outdoor play. When Tiffany protested, Lucy regretfully explained, “You can’t go outside and play now, I don’t have Medicaid… if something happens and you have an asthma attack, I don’t have the medicine to give you.”

Lucy’s narrative is not unique. I have interviewed many Medicaid beneficiaries who recounted similar struggles. The details differ but the theme is clear: for Americans who live in poverty, the public benefits available to them are contingent on where they live. Your state legislature determines whether your kids are left without braces, whether your third degree burns remain untreated, and whether your illnesses go undiagnosed.

This is not an accident. Rather, it is a direct product of our nation’s enduring commitment to federalism, a political system that divides power between the national government and subnational entities, giving states and localities significant discretion in shaping policy outcomes.

Consider the perspective of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, whose silver-bullet solution to poverty is to “consolidate many of our federal poverty programs into flexible programs that go to our states to customize a welfare benefit for a person’s particular need.” Ryan’s ideas are widely shared. When conservatives recently gathered in South Carolina for a forum on poverty, their devotion to increasing the power of states was on high display. Common proposals involved converting Medicaid and SNAP into block grants, which give states broad flexibility to design and distribute public assistance programs—with little oversight. While conservatives reason that states could leverage this increased control to tailor anti-poverty policies to the needs of local populations, evidence suggests that such grants are harbingers of retrenchment: dramatically decreasing the resources directed to the most needy and removing any guarantee of aid.

There is a sordid history that links race, class and federalism in the United States.

In addition to promoting harmful budget cuts, block grants are simply unnecessary. States already have plenty of power over anti-poverty programs like TANF and Medicaid and, in some cases, an infamous proclivity for misusing it. States decide whether to offer certain medical services to the needy, like dental benefits and eye care. They set income caps for various forms of assistance. They choose how often beneficiaries need to re-enroll, how burdensome application processes will be, and much, much more.

What it means to be poor in Mississippi is very different in Maryland and starkly divergent from Maine. It is clear that, in the realm of poverty, states already dominate. And to what end? There is scant evidence that local control is an effective way of alleviating poverty. Instead, research demonstrates that it undermines racial and gender equality and exacerbates geographic disparities. In short, unbridled federalism takes us down an inegalatarian path.

But perhaps most troubling, such a road leads us away from a robust democracy.

For Lucy, the first word that came to mind when I asked her about politics was, “dirty.” After nearly an hour of discussing how sharply Medicaid differed across states, I asked her if she thought this was at all connected to the political system. She deftly declared:

“Instead of sitting up high and looking low, they sit high and look higher… I don’t even know who my politician is, I don’t know who half of who the higher-ups are because they don’t branch out, they don’t make themselves known. …To us, sitting down here looking at those up there, it’s like our voice, what is my little voice going to do?”

Political scientists have already shown that citizens’ experiences with the government have profound consequences for democracy. When states use their considerable authority to retract services or limit benefits, struggling Americans’ views of government are negatively affected, and they exhibit decreased willingness to engage in politics. In particular, when individuals who bear the brunt of harmful state policy decisions become aware of geographic inequities in assistance, they can begin to view the political system as arbitrary and unfair. For instance, after John, a chronically ill Medicaid beneficiary from Michigan, discovered that he could not move with his family to Arizona without risking the loss of life sustaining treatment, he began to see the government as an oppressive force in his life. Similarly, when Terrie’s grandmother visited from out-of-town and Medicaid refused to cover her prescriptions, Terrie wondered, “what kind of government” would punish you for crossing state lines? People like John, Terrie and Lucy do not experience social policy in a vacuum, but rather within a multi-tiered political system.

Devolving power to states serves many purposes and can sometimes be quite beneficial. But when it comes to anti-poverty policy, federalism has too often been used to harm those who are most vulnerable. Policymakers must take care to limit those harms and ensure that they do not imperil democratic citizenship.

State residence is a basic condition of birth and circumstance.  Why, then, should it determine access to potentially vital resources like food or medical care? We cannot fully grapple with economic and political inequality unless we ask this question and press for better answers. There is a sordid history that links race, class and federalism in the United States. Learning from our past means listening to people like Lucy and challenging both the retrenchment and the ballooning geographic inequities that accompany block grants. It also means interrogating any policy that empowers subnational governments while disempowering low-income Americans.

*Name has been changed to protect confidentiality


First Person

The Inequality of Online Dating

I recently discovered for myself the frenzy that has consumed my generation: online dating. In addition to the old standbys of Match.com and OkCupid, young, unattached people are spoiled for choice with a bevy of apps: Tinder, the one best suited for one-time hookups, Hinge for more serious entanglements, Bumble as a so-called feminist alternative (only women can initiate messages), and more. While some may declare that these apps spell the death of romance, they are here to stay. And that raises the question: casual and noncommittal as it may seem to online date, do our swipes carry material consequences for the marriage market?

In theory, apps like Tinder offer us the chance to expand our networks beyond our campuses, workplaces, and wherever else we meet people who are socioeconomically similar. But in practice, not so much. In fact, it becomes quickly obvious that, regardless of the app or website in question, users pair off within social strata—myself included.

On most of these apps, users swipe through a series of profiles that often consist of no more than a few photos and, importantly, a workplace and alma mater. (Notably, Tinder did not always feature the second set of details, unlike its competitors. It introduced this section in November to allow users to make more “informed decisions.”) In the absence of any meaningful information about a potential partner, users have a tendency to substitute employment and education—both signifiers of social status—for, say, mutual interests and compatibility. Racial biases also determine how we select matches. Among straight OkCupid users, the data show that women across the board favor men of the same race or ethnicity, while black women face discrimination on the website—a phenomenon that online daters have masterfully detailed online.

The result is that people couple up along socioeconomic lines. Case in point: of the three people I met up with from Tinder, each was white and had the social and economic capital to build enviable resumes and graduate from some of the most elite institutions in the country.

Of course, none of this is new exactly. Over the past fifty years, the likelihood that two people with a college diploma will marry each other has risen markedly. This may seem perfectly innocuous, but the fact is that this behavior, known as “assortative mating,” has reinforced the growth of income inequality in this country. In a labor market as polarized as the one we face today, wage increases have mostly accrued to college graduates. And given the tendency to marry someone with similar education levels, a pair of well-educated breadwinners can pool those incomes to form a stable financial bedrock for a marriage. Among this demographic, marriage rates have actually risen over the past few decades, while divorce rates have fallen.

The opposite is true for Americans with less education. Wages have stagnated over the past half-century as globalization has driven factory work overseas. Employer hostility coupled with changes in labor law have hacked away at union strongholds. Blue-collar jobs, which once paid wages that allowed a single breadwinner to support a family, have been replaced by low-wage work in the service sector. And so, while a steady income and job stability are hard to come by for many Americans, they remain a prerequisite for marriage, as was the case in the post-war era. The result is that Americans with lower education levels are less likely to get hitched. And if they do get married, financial strain has made them more likely to divorce. As sociologist Andrew Cherlin once said, “I think that a college degree is the closest thing we have to a social class boundary.”

It is in this era of social stratification that a marriage gap has emerged—a gap that apps are certainly not equipped to remedy. Never mind exclusive apps like the League, which puts a premium on prestigious college degrees and high-income careers. Hinge, for example, is much more democratic—anyone can join. But it sorts users based on social networks, which means that a college graduate whose Facebook friends also have a four-year degree is far more likely to match with someone with similar levels of education.

To add to these disparities, these apps are simply used in greater frequency by the relatively affluent. While 46 percent of college-educated Americans know someone who met a long-term partner or spouse online, only 18 percent of those with high school degrees can say the same. Moreover, a full 58 percent of college graduates know someone who has dated online, versus just 25 percent of high school graduates.

Why is this the case? One intuitive theory is that low-income people simply cannot foot the bill for all of the coffees and cocktails often associated with dates. With unpredictable work schedules, which are all too common among low-wage workers, it may also be logistically difficult to make plans. And young adults with lower incomes also are more likely to live with parents and even grandparents, which makes it even harder to date.

The digital divide may also account for some differences in use. Even as smartphone ownership increases among Americans, only half of all adults with annual incomes below $30,000 possess smartphones, versus 84 percent of those who earn more than $75,000. In the more extreme cases, when people struggle to make ends meet at the end of the month, the cell phone bill is often the first to go. A full 23 percent of smartphone owners have had to shut off service due to financial constraints.

Today, 5 percent of Americans who are in committed relationships or marriages met online. I suspect this number will only climb as these apps grow in popularity. But as income inequality widens—fueled in part by our tendency to gravitate towards those who are similar to us—apps can do very little to stymie this very behavior. They very well may accelerate it.




A Bill to Let Workers Save Like Members of Congress

America is facing a looming retirement crisis. With wages stagnant and the costs of basic needs like housing, education and child care rising rapidly, it’s already difficult for low- and middle-income Americans to save. And to make matters worse, 68 million Americans currently do not have access to a retirement savings plan through their employer.

Contrast that with Congress, where every Member and millions of federal employees are able to take advantage of what is known as the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). The TSP helps ensure a secure retirement through automatic enrollment; simple, easy-to-understand, investment options; and low fees—all of which are proven to increase retirement savings.

If federal workers can have this plan, then why can’t American workers? Giving every worker who lacks an employer-provided retirement savings plan access to a plan like the TSP is a no-brainer.

That’s exactly why one of us, Senator Merkley, recently unveiled the American Savings Act, a major new piece of legislation that is based on the effective TSP model and mirrors many policy recommendations from the Center for American Progress Action Fund. It would ensure that if an employer doesn’t already offer a retirement plan, each of its workers automatically would be given his or her own American Savings Account (ASA). Initially, the employer would put 3 percent of a worker’s earnings into the account with each paycheck, but individuals could choose to adjust the contribution or to opt out entirely. Employers would simply send employees’ ASA savings to the federal government alongside employee tax withholdings. Americans who are self-employed would have the option to open an ASA at any time.

If federal workers can have this plan, then why can’t American workers?

These accounts would also benefit workers by featuring the same sensible investment options that are offered to federal employees. Workers would control their own accounts directly through a website, and an independent board of directors would manage the investment of the funds.

This legislation would make a big difference in the lives of millions of Americans who are currently struggling to save for retirement, which is why it is endorsed by groups representing seniors, workers and small businesses—including AARP, UNITE HERE, and the Main Street Alliance. The Center for American Progress Action Fund found that a worker saving under a similar plan would be more than twice as likely to have a secure retirement than a worker contributing the same amount to a typical 401(k) plan—to say nothing of the difference between a worker with this kind of plan and one with no retirement savings at all.

That’s not to say that expanding access to retirement plans is a silver bullet solution to the retirement crisis. We also need to strengthen Social Security. But Social Security was never intended to be the sole source of income for retirees, which is why we need to also make it easier for Americans to set aside and build savings that can supplement their Social Security income.

When workers do not have access to a retirement plan at their workplace—either because their employer doesn’t offer one or because of the nature of their work—they are unlikely to save for retirement. Expanding access in the manner called for under the American Savings Act would help shore up our retirement system—which, ever since the decline of private-sector pensions, has increasingly failed to meet the needs of a significant part of our workforce.

It shouldn’t matter whether you’re a Member of Congress, or you work part-time or full-time for a huge corporation or a small business: every American worker deserves access to a financially secure retirement.


First Person

Living in Poverty Amid Affluence

As income inequality grows among Americans, so does the tension it fuels.

As one of millions in this country struggling to make ends meet, I am weary of inequality and poverty—not only from my own personal hardship and the financial hurdles that exhaust me each day, but also because of the differences in treatment I experience compared to the more affluent.

Case in point: Denver, my hometown—one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. In Denver, the poor and the well-off are practically on each other’s doorsteps. On the 16th Street Mall in Downtown Denver, young professionals walk past homeless individuals daily. Recent college graduates hit the bar scenes in posh Cherry Creek or the exploding RiNo District as minimum wage workers prepare customers’ food and clean their homes—just one of the two or three jobs they likely juggle. At the King Soopers in Stapleton, one customer pays for groceries with a Platinum MasterCard and the next with an EBT card. And in areas like Park Hill, while the majority-black side of the neighborhood struggles with poverty and gang violence, middle and upper class families—mostly non-minorities—live in architecturally ornate homes valued at over a half-million dollars.

These inequalities are more than visual—they add to the huge burden that already weighs on those of us who face economic hardship. Research has demonstrated that inequalities in the housing market drive up rents, and Denver is no exception. While I am grateful that my children and I have been able to live in a two-bedroom apartment for eight years, my rent went up by 11 percent this year and it has been a struggle to meet that increase every month. At this point, I cannot afford a three-bedroom rental (which would be helpful to accommodate my growing children), let alone secure the money to put down a deposit.

Where there is stark hardship in close proximity to wealth, there will be unrest and desperation.

And there are also psychological impacts that arise from these inequalities. A 2010 study highlighted this phenomenon when it revealed that countries with high levels of income inequality face high rates of mental illness. In no country was this more evident than in the United States, where income inequality is associated with heightened risk of depressive symptoms and anxiety disorders. This also applies to Denver—I’ve seen firsthand that where there is stark hardship in close proximity to wealth, there will be unrest and desperation.

There are times when I struggle with envy, wishing that I could simply afford a bigger place to live that was closer to the kids’ schools, my evening and weekend jobs, and our friends. My children and I are frugal and enjoy everything we can on a minimal budget—which means not going to full-price movies more than two to three times a year, rarely visiting museums or attending events that cost money, and avoiding vacations. In fact, last summer my kids and I took our first vacation in years—and it was 48 hours long. While we appreciate all that we are able to do and what we do have, it only exacerbates our hardship when we struggle to make rent month after month, and then look across the street to see a manicured lawn, two nice cars, and a double- or triple-sized garage attached to the five bedroom house that holds a family of four.

To make matters worse, my daughter’s friends started excluding her from their plans, saying, “There wouldn’t be a problem if you just had an iPhone.” My child was distraught, telling me, “They don’t understand because their parents haven’t lost their jobs, they’re not on food stamps, and they live in nice homes and drive nice cars.”

The inequalities don’t stop there. We can’t afford to live close to school so my kids spend a significant chunk of their after-school time in the car and with me at work. When other kids are benefiting from enrichment activities outside of the classroom (and have nannies to facilitate the process), my kids go without because I am not always able to be there at drop-off or pick-up time due to my unusual work schedule, and I cannot always afford the fees. It’s these kind of income-based differences in afterschool participation that fuel the widening achievement gap between rich and poor.

And then there are health issues. I haven’t been to a dentist in years because it has been a major challenge to find one who still accepts Medicaid—it’s generally more cost-effective for doctors’ offices to accept private insurance, which more and more Denver residents are able to afford. Unfortunately, the same principle applies to mental health care. And when those in poverty or on the brink of it cannot afford care, mental health needs often go untreated. Meanwhile, those who can afford a therapist or psychologist get the help that they need and it positively impacts their health.

The fact is that how much money you have relative to others matters: from the level of health care you can afford, to the quality of your kids’ education, to where you can live. And as the gap widens between those who have enough and those who are barely making it, it threatens to divide us as a country and as a society.