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.
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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.”
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.