Nearly three years after launching its first worker strike, the Fight for 15 was reaping the fruits of its labor on Tuesday.
The union-backed campaign aimed at boosting the minimum wage held what organizers described as its largest mass demonstration yet, with fast-food and other service-sector workers taking part in strikes and protests in scores of cities around the country. Some of these protests were no doubt small, but others, in cities like New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh, had huge turnouts.
The campaign’s startling political success became clear on Tuesday, if it wasn’t already. Hillary Clinton, the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination, offered a message of encouragement directly to the strikers, while another candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), spoke to striking workers outside the U.S. Capitol. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) joined workers at a demonstration in Brooklyn. And both the city of Pittsburgh and the state of New York announced new policies centered on a $15 wage floor.
In Pittsburgh, Mayor Bill Peduto (D) announced that city employees and contract workers would be paid at least $15 per hour by 2021, and in New York, the office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said all state employees would be making $15 by the end of 2018.
In a statement, the Fight for 15 described workers paid less than $15 an hour as “a voting bloc that can no longer be ignored.”
"I think that these workers have shown in the past two years that they are a potent political force. They have been changing the debate," Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, told The Huffington Post. "City councils and states have raised minimum wages as a result of this movement. It’s because of the courage of individual workers to strike and to be joined by other workers all across the service sector."
SEIU is the roughly 2-million-member labor union that’s been funding the Fight for 15 campaign. Three years in, it is still no clearer where exactly the campaign is headed, or how it plans to become a sustainable model for labor activism. For all its success in embarrassing low-wage employers like McDonald’s and raising local wage floors, the campaign and its strikes have not led to more dues-paying union members to financially support the cause. Meanwhile, SEIU has poured millions of dollars into the effort.
Yet while its endgame remains murky, the campaign’s growing political muscle is obvious. According to Henry, the campaign aims to “expand the movement and take it to the ballot box.” Tuesday’s protests were scheduled one year ahead of the 2016 elections, and the campaign released a voter agenda, focused on a $15 minimum wage and union recognition, which it hopes to hold candidates to. Organizers said the day would culminate with a protest outside the GOP presidential debate Tuesday night in Milwaukee.
“Whether it’s fast food, retail, child care … we’re all being underpaid for our services.”
One of the campaign’s biggest policy victories to date was a July decision by New York regulators to set a $15 minimum wage specifically for fast-food employees. That rate is gradually being phased in throughout the state, after an order issued by the state’s wage board. Meanwhile, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles are all raising their city minimum wages to $15 in the coming years.
In Oakland on Tuesday morning, roughly 50 fast-food workers, union organizers and supporters flooded a McDonald’s, disrupting the tail end of the breakfast rush. Three workers behind the counter walked off the job to join them. The crowd, chanting in English and Spanish, temporarily forced the restaurant to stop serving food.
Fast-food workers at the protest said they’d been deprived of overtime pay and weren’t able to use sick days. One worker, Ernestina Sandoval, 35, who’s worked for three years at a McDonald’s, said her wage has only climbed from $8 to $9.60.
“If I saw [the owner] here, I’d turn my back on him, just like he’s turned his back on us,” Sandoval told HuffPost. “More goes into his pocket than ours. Still, he expects us to sacrifice.”
Until now, the Fight for 15 campaign has focused primarily on industries where SEIU has been organizing workers -- fast food in particular, as well as child care and home care. But on Tuesday, workers affiliated with other unions were taking part in the Fight for 15 demonstrations.
One of them, Letasha Irby, works at a factory in Selma, Alabama, that produces car seats and headrests for Hyundai cars. It’s just the sort of manufacturing job that Americans historically associate with solid, middle-class wages. Yet Irby says she earns only $12 per hour after a decade of service at her plant.
Irby said that on Tuesday she made plans to drive to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, after her shift to join a Fight for 15 protest. Irby is a supporter of the United Auto Workers, who have been trying to organize her plant in Selma and have so far not succeeded.
“I have a whole lot in common with them,” Irby, a 37-year-old Alabama native and mother of two, said of fast-food workers. “Whether it’s fast food, retail, child care … we’re all being underpaid for our services.”
Another worker, Angela Simler, said she would be helping to host a Fight for 15 barbecue outside her place of employment, a T-Mobile call center in Wichita, Kansas. Simler supports a campaign by the Communications Workers of America to unionize her T-Mobile facility. She said she earns $12.43 per hour. As the mother of a 5-year-old and a 7-year-old, she said her wages don’t cut it, and every month presents wrenching decisions over which bills to pay and which to set aside. T-Mobile did not respond to a request for comment.
“Whether it’s fast food, Walmart, child care, T-Mobile, all these people are paid too little to support their families,” said Simler, 33. “The wages have remained stagnant for too long.”
Berta Chacon took part in a protest in New York City on Tuesday. Chacon is not a fast-food worker -- she’s employed at a beauty salon in the city. But she, too, said she faces the same financial struggles as fast-food workers.
“Our salaries are very low,” Chacon said in Spanish. “We are fighting for $15 an hour in order to survive in this city.”
Willa Frej contributed reporting.