Fight for $15 (Part 1) – A Growing Movement for Justice

Fight for $15 rally in front of Cincinnati City Hall November 10, 2015.

The Fight for $15 has grown, over three short years, from a strike by 200 fast-food workers in Brooklyn to a nationwide movement that now includes Cincinnati. The original push for McDonald’s fast-food workers has evolved into a movement for low-wage workers. Links to the racial justice movement, Black Lives Matter, are also developing.

On Nov. 10, Cincinnati’s City Hall was the site for one of 500 protests around the country where the Fight for $15 campaign rallied for higher wages and union rights.

The campaign’s National Day of Action also included walkouts in 270 cities and, in Milwaukee, a march on the Republican presidential debate.

In Cincinnati, David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic party, addressed a modest rally of workers, activists, and union members at City Hall. “Ohioans are making less now than they did in 1984,” Pepper said.  “Lifting wages is a key step in giving people a fighting chance economically.”

Economic justice is “part and parcel” of what Black Lives Matter is all about, said Brian Taylor, a leader of Black Lives Matter-Cincinnati, speaking after the rally in a telephone interview. “It’s extremely important, and it’s broader than just the minimum wage.”

“There is a substantial gap between actual wages and living wages, and this gap disproportionately affects people of color,” Taylor said.

Dina Smith and David Pepper.
Dina Smith and David Pepper.

Dina Smith, a single, African-American mother, works as a janitor in a downtown office building. As a nine-year employee of the same company, she makes $10.10 per hour working four hours a night, five days per week. “I would love to have more hours,” she said, but that is not happening. “I have to work two jobs just to maintain.”

The Fight for $15 campaign hopes that Smith and low-wage workers like her will take their workplace frustrations to the voting booths next November to elect candidates willing to boost wages and protect workers’ right to unionize without retaliation. Recently, the Fight for $15 website has come to feature a prominent banner that reads, “Come Get My Vote.”

“We think there will be a whole new flock of people who will be coming out and voting,” said Kay Bishop, a member of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), District 1199, from Mt. Healthy.

A New Bloc of 64 Million Voters?

“There are 64 million U.S. workers making less than $15 per hour,” said Anthony Caldwell, a communications coordinator for SEIU, which is a key supporter of the Fight for $15 campaign.

In a November 2015 study, the National Employment Law Project found that 42 percent of American workers make less than $15 per hour.

Most (54.7 percent) are women. Nearly half (46.4 percent) are 35 years old or older.

More than half of African-American workers and close to 60 percent of Latino workers make less than $15, according to the NELP study.

“We believe the general election should be decided by working people’s issues,” Caldwell said.

The Republic presidential debates in Milwaukee focused on the economy, and the first question of the night concerned the minimum wage.

Neil Cavuto, the Fox Business Network co-moderator, introduced the question by referring to the Fight for $15 campaign. “Candidates, as we gather tonight in this very august theater, just outside and across the country, picketers are gathering as well. They’re demanding an immediate hike in the minimum wage to $15 an hour.”

Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Marco Rubio said they would not increase the minimum wage, while the other five candidates were not asked or did not volunteer answers.  Trump argued higher wages, like higher taxes, would make America less competitive with the rest of the world.

Carson reversed an earlier position and argued that a higher minimum wage would increase joblessness, especially among black teenagers who need entry-level jobs, like he once did, to gain the experience “to ascend the ladder of opportunity.”

Rubio argued that higher wages would be a disaster and would make people more expensive than machines, thereby accelerating the replacement of jobs and workers with automation.

David Pepper address Fight for $15 rally. Jan Bishop, SEIU, looks on.
David Pepper address Fight for $15 rally. Jan Bishop, SEIU, looks on.

In Cincinnati, during the Fight for $15 rally outside City Hall, Pepper said, “The Democratic party is very proud to be a part of this . We very much believe in what you are doing.”

While it is uncertain whether the Fight for $15 campaign can transform low-wage workers into a real voting bloc, the campaign has created a public debate on wages, worker voice, and corporate responsibility.

Electoral politics is not of interest to Black Lives Matter-Cincinnati, although national leaders may feel differently. “That’s not us,” said Taylor, who said electoral politics is the least effective way to bring about change. “We (in Cincinnati) prefer to focus our energy on street action, canvassing, and the like.”

Taylor points to the resistance on college campuses to institutional racism. “What we bring is the link between the college students and the community at large, including the economic issues that Fight for $15 represents.”

Influence on Public Policy and Corporate Decisions

The Fight for $15 campaign influenced not only the Republican presidential debates, but also positions within the Democratic party. The Democratic National Committee and all presidential candidates have endorsed a $15 minimum wage except Hillary Clinton, who proposes a $12 federal wage floor with higher minimum wages in states and municipalities where they are economically justified.

The campaign has influenced legislation to increase minimum wage rates in Seattle, Oakland, San Francisco, Berkeley, Los Angeles, San Diego, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Kansas City, Mo., Chicago, Louisville, and Portland, Maine as well as pending legislation or legislative debates in other cities.

Coinciding with the campaign’s National Day of Action on Nov. 10, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York issued an executive order establishing a $15 minimum wage for the state’s public employees by 2021. This follows an earlier action to increase the minimum hourly rate for fast-food employees of national chain restaurants in New York from the state minimum of $8.75 to $15.

The campaign has also been felt during union contract negotiations, such as the 35,000 home care workers in Massachusetts who became the first in the nation to achieve a statewide starting wage of $15 an hour.

The campaign’s pressure on large, brand-conscious businesses likely led to  some wage increases, but no meaningful progress on unionization. Since February, Wal-Mart, T.J. Maxx, Target, and McDonald’s corporate-owned restaurants have increased wages, but they are still far from $15.

McDonald's restaurant at Reading and Benson.
McDonald’s restaurant at Reading and Benson.

Fast-food chains like McDonald’s maintain they’re not responsible for hiring and employment decisions at franchised locations. About 90 percent of McDonald’s 14,000 restaurants in the U.S. are owned and operated by franchisees.

Low wages cost U.S. taxpayers $152.8 billion each year in public assistance for working families, according to an April 2015 study by the Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California.

Nearly three-quarters of the people helped by public assistance programs are members of working families, according to the study. As a result, taxpayers are providing not only financial support to the poor but also, in effect, a  subsidy for McDonald’s or other employers of low-wage workers.

by Mike Brown,