In Show of Force, Fight for 15 Plots Its Political Path

The Fight for 15’s first-ever national convention convened in Richmond, Virginia, this past weekend attracted diverse groups of low-wage workers from across the country in a stunning demonstration of the movement’s continued strength and ambition.

Since fast-food workers in New York City first walked off the job in 2012 demanding $15 an hour and a union, which many people viewed as a delusional pipedream, the movement has surged forward in an unprecedented effort to unite low-wage workers across industries. The workers have forced elected officials to pass minimum wage hikes in some of the country’s biggest cities and states, including California and New York. It’s a strategy that has so far given nearly 20 million workers bigger paychecks.

Moreover, the movement has expanded: It’s no longer just about the fast-food industry; it’s about the immorality of poverty wages and unfair treatment across the labor market. It’s no longer just about economic justice and worker rights either; it’s about emphasizing the critical intersection of those fights with the fight for racial justice.

While fast-food workers remain at the center of the movement, the convention also brought together thousands of people from across the country to highlight the related struggles of airport workers, home-care and child-care workers, adjunct professors, janitors, security officers, and other low-wage workers who have all come together under the Fight for 15 banner. That the gathering took place in the former capital of the Confederacy accentuated the fact that the vast majority of these low-wage workers are black and that many of poverty-wage jobs that the Fight for 15 rails against are in the South.

Meanwhile, with less than 100 days to go before Election Day, there was an undeniable sense that the Fight for 15 is about to get political in a very big way. While the Service Employees International Union has bankrolled this ambitious worker organizing project (to the tune of tens of millions of dollars and counting) with hopes that it will one day pay dividends by enrolling thousands of new dues-paying union members, the group is also hoping the Fight for 15 will help to transform the nation’s 64 million low-wage workers into a formidable, cohesive voting bloc. 

In her convention keynote address, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry told the gathering that “centuries of racism ingrained in the structure of our society and 40 years of corporate attacks on working families fighting for a decent life have left America without a strong middle class, but the workers of the Fight for $15 are starting to turn the tide.” She added, “This year, underpaid Americans will show elected leaders in every state in America that they are a voting bloc that cannot be ignored and will not be denied.”

Workers at the convention pledged to hold protests at all the presidential and vice-presidential debates (as they did during the presidential primaries) and to pressure Senate candidates and other candidates in down-ballot races to support higher pay.

Meanwhile, on the sweltering second day of the event, with a heat index surpassing 110 degrees, more than 1,000 Fight for 15 workers hit the streets to march along Richmond’s Monument Avenue, a thoroughfare lined with towering statues of Confederate leaders. The demonstration ended in front of a statue of Robert. E. Lee.  There, Reverend William Barber III of the clergy-led Moral Revival Movement declared, “It took us 400 years from slavery to the present to reach $7.25, but we can’t wait another 400 years. We have to stand together and fight together now for $15 and union rights.”

Along with Barber, leaders of the Fight for 15 resolved to take their fight to the state houses that have been hostile to workers’ demands for a living wage. The protests will kick off with a national day of action on September 12 that will feature protests against policies that hurt working families of color. The protests will likely draw attention to the majority-white legislatures in Alabama and Missouri that passed measured banning cities in the respective states from passing minimum wage laws. The moves in Alabama and Missouri came after Birmingham, St. Louis, and Kansas City—all cities with large, working poor black communities—passed local minimum wage hikes.

The Fight for 15 has also embraced the Black Lives Matter and immigrant rights movements, an approach that has become the modus operandi for the progressive left. The leaders hope that this coordinated strategy turns the fight into an autonomous social movement.

However, there are major challenges for creating a lasting power-center for low-wage workers. For one, the Fight for 15 remains tethered to the SEIU, which funds its operations. While the union insists that all campaigning strategies come from the fair wage movement’s leaders, there is no denying that SEIU steers the effort. The union’s ultimate goal is recruiting new members. But many corporations rely on franchisee and subcontractor business models to keep an arms-length distance from workers. That situation makes it significantly more difficult to form a union.  A clear path to unionization in the fast-food industry is likely still years away, and while Henry and other SEIU leaders maintain that they are committed to long-term funding for the Fight for 15, the union’s steep financial commitment means that the fair-wage movement leaders have to march in lockstep with the union’s political agenda.

Moreover, some of Fight for 15 organizers are upset with how they’ve been treated by the union. On the first night of the convention, several organizers marched up to the convention stage during Mary Kay Henry’s speech to demand that the union recognize them as SEIU employees and allow them to set up their own union. The fair-wage organizers claim that they themselves often make less than $15 an hour and that SEIU outsources the work of field organizers to local Fight for 15 committees. Those organizers in turn cannot join SEIU’s staff union, the Union of Union Representatives.

The demonstration lasted about 15 minutes and grew heated as members of the worker-led Fight for 15 organizing committee yelled at the field organizers for disrupting Henry’s speech. “Are you serious? Are you going to do this right now? Do you know what it is like to get paid $500 every two weeks?” one woman on the stage shouted. “You guys get paid enough. You have a chance to get a union. I don’t.” Another worker grabbed an organizer’s sign and tore it up.

After the episode, SEIU leaders reportedly told two of the organizers who led the demonstration that they would not be allowed to attend the second day of the convention and would be expected to cover their own hotel costs.

The union “supports the ability of all workers across our economy to join together in unions and have a voice at work to improve their lives and the lives of their families and communities, including organizers in the Fight for $15,” said an SEIU spokeswoman in a statement provided to The American Prospect. “Many Fight for $15 organizers are already unionized and have executed collective bargaining agreements. Some of the regional fast food unions whose staff are not yet organized have reached out to interested unions to offer a fast and fair process to determine whether organizers wish to be represented by a union. The SEIU fully supports that approach.”

Most union leaders thought that low-wage workers in the fast-food industry could never be organized, so the work that Fight for 15 organizers do on a daily basis is critical to the survival of the movement. Long hours and low pay leads to high turnover among organizers, which only hurts the workers who are trying to rally others to their cause. As the field organizers point out, this SEIU hypocrisy can only damage the integrity and weaken the goals of the Fight for 15 movement.

Meanwhile, the American union movement will find out in coming weeks whether the Fight for 15 can broaden its appeal beyond workers rights and economic justice to include racial justice—and whether it can expand its wage campaign into sustainable political force.

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