We don’t live in the world we were promised.
With hard work we could achieve dreams, the kind of which our parents never could have seen. Instead we have collectively headed into a “lost generation” where we will be the first generation to be poorer than our parents. The concept of preparatory work, or jobs you have while preparing for your life with a fulfilling career has been completely abandoned and instead we are grabbing at any paying position we can get. This has started a labor struggle that should have begun decades ago, but has dominated the discussions about the future of workplace organizing in the U.S. Fast food one of the largest employing sectors in the country, yet continue to maintain poverty wages. These jobs additionally tend to have some of the highest turnover rates, miniscule avenues for progression, institutionalized wage-theft, and have an industrial food model that both pumps out unhealthy food while attacking the bodies of the people forced to work in its restaurants. In this climate, Fight for Fifteen is a concerted union effort to demand both a union in one of America’s most debilitating workplaces, and a base pay of $15 an hour.
Today, April 15th, was the 2015 Global Day of Action where hundreds of cities worldwide will go on strike demanding $15 and a union. In 230 cities, workers walked off the job in one of the largest strikes of the 21st century. Marches, solidarity rallies, and speak-outs will match the workers walking out in protest, showing a global support for workers taking power in their workplaces and us collectively having access to a living wage.
In Portland, Oregon, $15 Now PDX, Portland Jobs with Justice, SEIU, AFSCME, and LiUNA organized a mass action supported by dozens of other groups like other unions, the Portland Solidarity Network, Socialist Alternative, and the Black Rose Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation. Standing openly in support of workers at Portland State University, food service workers, janitorial staff, care providers, city workers, and everyone else who cares about worker justice, the event drew hundreds from around the metro area.
The action saw heavy participation from SEIU 503 and 49, as well as the $15 Now organizing effort. Home care workers, who have made headlines recently for joining the Fight for $15, we well represented, as well as many state and city workers, adjunct faculty, and others. SEIU 503 represents home workers with the Department of Human Services locally, and who got a massive raise to over $13/hr in their 2013 contract. This is above the average, where many non-union workers in private home care agencies are making barely above minimum wage for aggressively difficult labor.
One noticeable element of Portland’s Fight for $15 action was the age of participants. Unlike many other Big Labor actions of recent years, young people dominated those who came out as actual union workers. This came especially from home care workers, but also from those organizing with the AAUP, AFT, and AFSCME. This is a testament to the position of workers in their 20s and 30s who are often taking low-paying jobs rather than moving into middle income salaries right out of college.
The rally began with mentioning the San Francisco and Seattle $15 minimum wage hikes, and the fact that Oregon has began a “conversation” at the legislative level about this. SB610 and HB2009 in the state legislature are being debated in the Business and Labor Committee, and a ballot measure in Oregon is about to be filed for the minimum wage increase. This is huge for those organizing in the electoral sphere, which many seem to be trying to shift the movement into. There was broad support for this, but labor’s touchstone is to still see these increases through collective action and bargaining. The bill they were suggesting was a very slow increase to $15/hr by 2019; not exactly the revolution they were touting.
“The movement’s growing, and it’s spreading, and before we know it, we are going to have 15 in all 50!” an organizer with $15Now declared, to cheers and applause.
A “hazardous waste” worker Tim Combs represented by AFSCME got on the megaphone and told about what it took to get his wage up to this bar.
“I’m a worker at the bottom, like many of you,” said Combs. “Don’t make a lot of money. The permanent staff that do the same job I do, they get paid twice what I got paid. AFSCME organized us, we fought, they retaliated against us. They didn’t give some people more work. We stayed strong with community partners on the best day of bargaining, we scared them! They didn’t want public action. We got a thirty percent raise! We got fifteen plus! Fifteen now, more later!”
This returned us to the overarching theme that what is required is actual on-the-ground organizing inside workplaces. While both the approaches, the legislative and the labor organizing, were present and complimentary, this showed where some of the tactics diverged.
SEIU then began the march by leading the crowd to the Pittock Block, where building managers had brought in non-union janitorial staff that make significantly below what their SEIU represented counterparts were making. After security tried to block the protesters from entering, marchers broke free and began releasing purple balloons inside the building. Security’s response to the noise was to turn the lights off. The march then took the streets, pushing the demand for $15/hr, with glowing support from onlookers. Eventually they made it to Portland State University, where students and workers alike were standing up to support Aramark workers in janitorial and food service positions, which are again pushing for this wage increase. They entered the student union, completely overtaking the space. The university was an important area of struggle for adjunct faculty and graduate teaching staff as well, who have been fighting for increases and, in the case of teaching assistants, just the ability to be represented in a bargaining unit.
This day of action erupted around the country as cities drew together workers from a host of industries under the banner that was started by fast food workers. In Brooklyn, a thousand fast food employees, construction workers, and community workers hit the streets, while 700 hit a Manhattan McDonald’s. In Rochester, NY, a local community non-profit with a 50-year history mobilized hundreds to stand with the workers that they have been actively organizing in Wendy’s and McDonald’s locations. Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, big cities, and small towns saw these actions, coordinated into one massive movement. Over 60,000 people estimated to stand with today’s actions in more than 40 countries and a hundred 170 college campuses. Student leaders have begun to use this momentum as a chance to target inflated administrative salaries while tuition rises and adjunct faculty and other staff make poverty wages. Students at Northeastern University rose up today, citing the president Joseph Aoun’s salary that is 117 times more than the average service employee at the school. Aoun made news in 2013 when he hired the union-bustin firm Jackson Lewis to fight adjunct faculty’s work at organizing a union.
Ramping up to the Global Day of action, McDonald’s recently threw the workers the smallest possible bone in the form of a $0.89 raise for non-franchised locations. This would not affect a full 12, 500 employees in America who are working at franchise locations, not to mention that it is nowhere near the $15 demand or any calculation of a living wage.
Today we saw that Fight for $15 is moving beyond simply being a fast-food organizing project, but a way to address underserved positions that are and precarious. This includes Wal-Mart workers often associated with the Our Wal-Mart campaign , home-care workers who have been joining SEIU Fight for $15 actions recently, and adjunct professors who are organizing across the countries to get consistent employment and benefits. This is an important component because what we see here is workers in radically different types of jobs, requiring different skills and educational backgrounds recognizing a common class interest: they are all exploited. Adjunct faculty often harbor a six figure student-loan burden, but are often forced onto public services from a pay scale that is barely above minimum wage at times. Home-care workers have had a lot of victories recently, including a huge jump of several dollars in pay for SEIU workers contracted through DHS, but this is still not the norm. These workers, who care for special needs and elderly patients in the home, have one of the most physically demanding jobs in the country, often working shifts more than twelve hours at a time for a pay that is far below something reasonable. Today they have come together with a common goal, a process of solidarity that is going to be critical if any of them are going to see the projected goals met. If one person is made stronger in the workplace by connecting with several other co-workers along a shared need, then one struggle is only going to benefit from the support and common campaign of joining with several other movements. If the messaging of Fight for $15, for example, is to be successful, it will need multiple sectors of organizing workers to get behind it, and in that way they have strengthened the demand through its increase in numbers. Because this language is both lofty and attainable, it serves as a great rallying point for a number of industries to raise the bar workers in general. The big risk now is if Big Labor is to make concessions with employers that will weaken the demands, destroy bargaining units, and rob the workers of autonomy and a propensity for direct action.
The April 15th Fight for $15 action will stand out as one of the biggest labor actions since the campaign started in New York City on November 29th, 2012. The walkouts in April and May of 2013 also saw impressive numbers, but now we are seeing that this movement is only increasing as it diversifies. This diversity needs to also be matched by allies that see the place for the Fast Food fight in the general fight for economic justice and working class gains. Fast Food workers are one of the largest segments of the population on public assistance, and we have seen recent instances where McDonald’s management actually tells their employees to go on public assistance to make ends meet since their wages are so low. This is just one example of the negligence of McDonalds expanding out and coming at the cost of people completely unaffiliated with the company. Taxpayers are paying to subsidize their low wages, which means that there is a direct economic benefit to see these wages come up. This is on top of the general gain for working industries when a major labor victory comes through, the ability to strengthen our labor organizations, and to inspire even larger fights from the energy of massive gains. Having this day of action on “tax day” really helped to highlight the way that our taxes go to pay the rich, not subsidize the poor.
Right now the movement is touting legislative victories in Seattle and San Francisco towards a $15 and hour minimum wage, but the true victory will be when this victory comes directly in the workplace from worker action. When we are able to force these concessions from our employer through collective bargaining we prove that we can do it because of our power as workers, rather than because of the benevolence of progressive politicians. On July 29th, 2014, the National Labor Relations Board finally ruled against McDonalds who had been claiming that they couldn’t be held as “joint employer” around wage issues that was coming in from their worker-rights violations. They were determined to be “the boss,” even though they sell franchises that are independently operated. This was a major victory that labor leaders used as a sticking point, and, like the increase in the local minimum wage, was the result of an official ruling sanctioned by the state. We should not dismiss these victories, but we should not use them as a barometer of a movement’s success since the victories that come directly from movement action is the best measure of what kind of power the workers are exercising. The last thing that maintains a successful labor movement is to stand back and let liberal agencies and politicians to throw us some concessions. Instead, we need to keep the pressure on, organizing new workers and keeping a focus on action.
While the action was appropriately labor focused, there was a lot of ways that this was bleeding out into complimentary movements like housing justice. The Portland Solidarity Network, an active part of the Portland labor community, has been known for wage-theft work and their co-organizing with the Voz Worker’s Justice Project and the Portland Jobs With Justice. They take on both wage-theft and tenant justice campaigns, working on specific instances of exploitation and developing escalation-campaigns with a direct action focus. As a part of their campaign in support of two former tenants of Fox Management in Portland, they were handing out flyers alerting the crowd to the problems with this management company. As the large unions are being energized around this common project, we wonder if they will begin continuing their stated commitment to community projects as well. SEIU was known for this in recent years where they were funding community projects dealing with housing justice, which resulted in Portland with the We Are Oregon and Housing is for Everyone campaigns. Hopefully we will begin to see the issues in underpayment and its effect on housing more thoroughly united, and we can see housing justice and labor organizers working on coordinated campaigns and actions. This is especially true as Portland, like many other cities, is beginning to have “tenant assemblies” and are organizing to fight “no cause eviction.” This is a major step towards tenant unionization, the kind of long-term organizing work that builds on the organizational strategies of labor.
$15Now is getting the momentum that it rightfully earned through the last two years of organizing, and we need participation to keep it a movement driven by the workers and focused on direct-action. This year’s May Day march in Portland was heavily promoted there, and we can guess that Fight for Fifteen will join Black Lives Matter as being the represented movements in the streets.