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'Hopefully It Makes History': Fight for $15 Closes In on Mighty Win for US Workers
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=53432"><span class="small">Dominic Rushe, Guardian UK</span></a>   
Saturday, 13 February 2021 09:19

Rushe writes: "Fear was the overwhelming emotion Alvin Major felt when, on a chilly November morning in 2012, he went on strike at the Brooklyn KFC where he worked."

'The Fight for $15 movement now stands perilously close to winning one of the biggest worker-led rights victories in decades.' (photo: Kira Page/CoCo)
'The Fight for $15 movement now stands perilously close to winning one of the biggest worker-led rights victories in decades.' (photo: Kira Page/CoCo)

'Hopefully It Makes History': Fight for $15 Closes In on Mighty Win for US Workers

By Dominic Rushe, Guardian UK

13 February 21

Fast-food workers will walk out on Tuesday, hoping to push through a minimum-wage raise to benefit tens of millions

ear was the overwhelming emotion Alvin Major felt when, on a chilly November morning in 2012, he went on strike at the Brooklyn KFC where he worked.

“Everybody was scared,” said Major. He may have been fearful, but what Major didn’t know was that he was about to make American history – an early leader in a labor movement that some historians now see as the most successful in the US in 50 years.

Major was paid just $7.25 an hour as a cook at KFC, but the consequences of losing his job were dire, as his family was already struggling to make the next month’s rent. “Everybody was scared about going back to work,” he said. “Nobody visualized what this movement would come to.”

The New York strike by hundreds of majority Black and brown New York fast-food workers was, at the time, the largest in US history – but it would be dwarfed by what was to come. Two years later, strikes had spread across America, and fast-food workers in 33 countries across six continents had joined a growing global movement for better pay and stronger rights on the job.

In eight years, what became the Fight for $15 movement has grown into an international organization that has successfully fought for a rise in minimum wage in states across the US, redefined the political agenda in the US, and acted as a springboard for other movements, including Black Lives Matter. It now stands perilously close to winning one of the biggest worker-led rights victories in decades.

This Tuesday, fast-food workers will walk out again, hoping to push through a change that will affect tens of millions of American workers.

For Major, now 55, it all began in a hall in Brooklyn, where union and community activists had convened a meeting of fast-food workers to see what pressure they could bring on an industry notorious for its low wages and poor conditions, and a state that had shown those workers little interest.

With a platform to speak, the workers talked about “how you had to be on food stamps, get rent assistance, all these kinds of things, and we’re working for these companies that are making billions”, said Major.

At one point, a worker showed the burns on his arm he had suffered at work. In a show of solidarity, workers across the room others rolled up their sleeves to show their scars too. Even when injured on the job, workers said, they were too scared to take time off.

This was not how Major imagined America to be when he moved to the US from Guyana in 2000. “In our family, with 14 kids, my dad’s wife never worked a day. My dad used to work, he took care of us, we had a roof over our head, we went to school, we had meals every day, he had his own transportation.”

In America, “the greatest, most powerful and richest country in the history of the world”, he found “[that] you have to work, your wife has to work, when your kids reach an age they have to work – and still you could barely make it”.

Industry lobbying allied to Republican and – until relatively recently – Democratic opposition has locked the US’s minimum wage at $7.25 since the last raise in 2009. Now a raise to $15 looks set to be included in Joe Biden’s $1.9tn Covid relief package – although it will still face fierce opposition.

Even Biden, who campaigned on the raise, has expressed doubt about whether it can pass. But more progressive Democrats including longtime champion Senator Bernie Sanders are determined to push it through, and it remains in the House Covid relief bill.

The stakes are huge. The Congressional Budget Office said this week that 27 million Americans would be affected by the increase, and that 900,000 would be lifted out of poverty at a time when low-wage workers – and especially people of color – have suffered most during the pandemic. The CBO also said the increase would lead to 1.4m job losses and increase the federal budget deficit by $54bn over the next 10 years.

Other economists have disputed the CBO’s job-loss predictions – the Economic Policy Institute called them “wrong, and inappropriately inflated”. The long-running debate about the real cost of raising the minimum age will no doubt continue. What is certain is that Biden will face enormous political blowback if his campaign promise to raise the minimum wage falls so early in his presidency – a promise that during his campaign he argued was central to his plans to address racial inequality.

That backlash will also cross party lines – at least outside Washington. The US may be as politically divided as it has been since the civil war, but polling shows the majority of Americans support increasing the minimum wage no matter their chosen party. In November 60% of voters approved a ballot initiative to increase the minimum wage to $15 by 2026 even as they voted to re-elect Donald Trump.

More people voted for that ballot initiative than voted for either presidential candidate in the state. With Florida, seven states plus the District of Columbia have now pledged to increase their minimum wage to $15 or higher, according to the National Employment Law Project (Nelp) and a record 74, cities, counties and states will raise their minimum wages in 2021.

The movement, and this widespread support, has changed the political landscape, pushing Democratic politicians, including Biden, Hillary Clinton and the New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, to back a $15 minimum wage, against their earlier qualms.

Cuomo called a $13 minimum wage a “non-starter” in February 2015. By July, he was racing California to get it into law.

In the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries, Clinton went from supporting a raise to $12 an hour to $15 as Sanders made ground on the issue. Even Saturday Night Live parodied the pair arguing about who was most for a $15 higher wage.

Big companies including Amazon, Target and Disney have all moved to $15, or pledged to do so. One of Biden’s first executive orders called for federal contractors to pay employees a $15 minimum wage. The federal holdout would be the movement’s biggest win to date, but there is little arguing that they have made significant progress without it – not least for Alvin Major, who now has a union job earning over $17 an hour working at JFK airport and who says he is no longer worried about his bills.

For Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), this is “the David and Goliath story of our time”. She puts the public support down to the “pervasiveness of underpaid, low-wage work”.

“Every family in America knows somebody that’s trying to make ends meet through a minimum-wage job. And the pandemic has revealed that essential work in a way that many people hadn’t noticed before, and they now understand how grocery store clerks, nursing home workers, janitors, airport workers, security officers, delivery drivers [and] fast-food workers are all people trying to do the very best job they can, and provide for their families.”

The SEIU has been a longtime funder and supporter of Fight For $15 and for Henry, the first woman to lead the SEIU, the fight for a higher minimum wage is just the beginning of a greater push for workers’ rights – not least the right to join unions, in a service sector where women and people of color make up a disproportionate number of workers.

“Eighty per cent of our economy is driven by consumer spending. Service and care jobs are the dominant sectors in the US economy, and we have to create the ability of those workers to join together in unions in this century, just like auto, rubber and steel were the foundation in the last century,” she said.

“If the US Congress can’t see what the American people are demanding, in terms of ‘Respect us, protect us, pay us’, then they’re going to have a political price to pay in 2022,” she added. “Our nation’s leaders need to get this done. Congress has used its rules to pass trillions of dollars in tax cuts for billionaires and massive corporations, so now it’s time for our nation’s leaders to give tens of millions of essential workers a raise.”

Backing Henry will be a younger generation of activists who cut their teeth in the Fight for $15 movement and have used it as a springboard into a political debate that is now centered around racial and economic justice. One of those leaders is Rasheen Aldridge, one of the first to take action when the Fight for $15 spread to St Louis, who was elected to Missouri state assembly last November.

Aldridge was working at a Jimmy John’s restaurant in 2013 when he was approached by a community organizer asking him about his pay and conditions. Aldridge had recently been humiliated by a manager who took pictures of him and a co-worker holding signs they were forced to make, saying they had made sandwiches incorrectly and had been 15 seconds late with a drive-through order. “It was so dehumanizing and just a complete embarrassment,” said Aldridge.

The organizer talked about the strikes in New York, Chicago and elsewhere, and suggested the same could happen in conservative Missouri.

“I thought he was crazy,” said Aldridge. But he also thought: “I have to do something. The worst thing that can happen is what? I get fired. And, it’s unfortunate, but I can find another job, another low-wage job, because there’s just so many of them unfortunately that exist in our country and our city.”

By 2014, Aldridge was a leader in the local minimum wage movement and building a network of contacts. Some of them were working in a nearby McDonald’s in Ferguson that was next to the Ferguson Market and Liquor store where Michael Brown, an 18-year-old who had graduated from high school eight days earlier, was shot dead by the police after leaving the store with an allegedly un-bought package of cigarillos.

Aldridge heard the police cars rushing to the scene. The shooting led to months of unrest and, coming after the high-profile killing of other Black people, was a turning point for the Black Lives Matter movement. “I remember I was in high school and I was wearing a hoodie and said, ‘I’m Trayvon,’” said Aldridge, referencing the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old shot dead by a neighborhood watch guard in Sanford, Florida.

“I think after Ferguson, it really took off in a different way. I think the way we resisted in Ferguson was like no other,” said Aldridge. Aldridge became an early BLM organizer in Ferguson. “If it wasn’t for the Fight for $15, though, I’m not sure if I would have went out to Ferguson as quick as I did and would have been out there as long as I did.”

For the freshman representative, Fight for $15 and BLM are the same fight.

“You can’t really talk racial injustice without talking economic injustice,” he said. “You can’t forget that those same black workers still live in the same community that is oppressed, that is over-policed. Those workers were the same workers that also went to the streets of Ferguson, have protested, because they feel like Mike Brown could have been them, regardless if they was working at McDonald’s or if they was working at a healthcare facility,” said Aldridge. “It’s all connected.”

“Hopefully President Biden really follows through and does it, and makes it possible for everyone all across the state, all across this country, to make a livable wage. To not have so much burden on their back, especially in the midst of a pandemic.”

For labor historian Erik Loomis, a history professor at the University of Rhode Island and author of A History of America in Ten Strikes, the Fight for $15 is one of the most significant victories for workers in 50 years. Although he has caveats.

“It has been a huge success in conjunction with other issues in reshaping narratives around economic equality in America,” he said. From Occupy Wall Street to the Fight for $15 to the #MeToo movement to BLM, Loomis sees a building movement for greater equality. “For the first time in a half-century we are beginning to move in the right direction on this, in a way that, forget about Republicans, did not exist not only under Obama but under Clinton or Carter,” said Loomis. “This is the farthest left economic platform than anything you have seen since the 60s.”

But, as he points out, the $15-an-hour wage Major and others were fighting for in 2012 is worth less than it was back then due to inflation, and will be worth even less in 2025, when a lot of states aim to hit that level. Nor has the campaign managed to establish unions in many fast-food outlets – at least not yet. “The answer is you just keep pressuring,” said Loomis. “In other words, don’t be satisfied with $15. It is time for 20.”

Many workers caught up in the movement are exhausted. While their hard-fought successes have made a big difference, many have been hit hard by the pandemic. Now they are worried that some have made gains, others will be left behind.

Back in 2010, Adriana Alvarez was earning $8.50 an hour at McDonald’s in Chicago. The city voted to increase its minimum wage to $15 an hour by July this year and Alvarez is now on $15.15.

Like many restaurant workers, she has seen her hours cut during the pandemic. But she is hopeful about the future. Before Covid-19, when her wages went up, “I was able to fill up the fridge a little more,” she said. She took her son to Winter Wonderfest, a gigantic annual event where Chicagoans can temporarily forget the city’s bitterly cold winter and go ice skating and take carnival rides. “It was something I had never been to. He had a blast. He’s scared of heights. He said, mummy, I have to try it. I have to get rid of my fear.”

But the journey to her – somewhat – better life has been hard for Alvarez. Before the Fight for $15, she said managers regularly asked workers to work off the clock to finish jobs they hadn’t completed on their shift for no pay. There was more shouting, more hostility. That has stopped now. “They know we can show up with 50 people in a store,” she laughed.

Along the way, she has met senators, she has a picture with Sanders, been on a call with Biden, welcomed the pope to the US and met workers from different industries, from teachers to airport and healthcare workers, who are also fighting for a better deal. She too has been surprised that the fight has been so successful. When people first started telling her they wanted $15 an hour, she said she told them they were “crazy.”

“Management just has a way of knocking you down, making you feel useless, you are not worth $15,” she said.

Now, hopefully, she said “finally these politicians are doing what they should be doing. Last time it [the minimum wage] was raised was 2009. It’s about time. Everything else has been going up. People have to work two or three jobs just to get by.”

Does she feel like part of history?

“Hopefully it makes history,” said Alvarez. “But I don’t think I’m part of history. I’m tired, I’m tired of being mistreated, of being underpaid and overworked. We want that $15 and a union. I guess you don’t think about the whole history part until after it’s been done.” your social media marketing partner