The protests by tens of thousands of low-wage workers, students and activists in more than 200 U.S. cities Wednesday is the most striking effort to date in a 21/2-year-old labor-backed movement that is testing the ability of unions to succeed in an economy populated by easily replaceable service sector workers.
Labor has invested tens of millions of dollars in a campaign for a $15-an-hour minimum wage that goes beyond traditional workplace organizing, taking on a cause that has captured broad public support. But the movement is up against a hostile business sector sheltered by a decades-old federal labor law that makes it difficult for workers to directly confront the wealthy corporations that dominate the fast-food and hospitality industries.
For political activists looking to the 2016 presidential campaign and beyond, the wage fight is coming at a potentially pivotal moment, the first concrete, large-scale challenge in decades to an economic system they view as skewed toward the wealthy.
“There is a huge upswelling of anger around jobs in this economy that are low-wage jobs,” said Jonathan Westin, director of New York Communities for Change, a grass-roots organizing group that has played a key role in both the Occupy Wall Street movement and the current fast-food workers’ campaign. “This economy we’re living in now doesn’t work for people.”
The protests began with morning rallies that attracted crowds in the hundreds, and in some cases the thousands, at McDonald’s franchises in Atlanta; Chicago; Kansas City, Mo.; Los Angeles; New York; and Raleigh, N.C., along with other locations.
A noon rally in front of a McDonald’s restaurant in Manhattan attracted hundreds of protesters, many of them carrying signs that read “Why Poverty?” and “We See Greed.” They included fast-food workers, laundry workers, carwash employees and sympathetic bystanders.
“America, period, is unequal,” said Chasten Florence, 26, a construction worker from Queens. “Once we accept that, we can change that.”
McDonald’s said in a statement: “We respect people’s right to peacefully protest, and our restaurants remain open every day with the focus on providing an exceptional experience for our customers.”
The campaign, staffed in part by organizers from the Service Employees International Union, orchestrated the country’s first fast-food industry strike in November 2012, when 200 New York City workers walked off their jobs. The periodic protests expanded to six other cities in the spring of 2013, 60 cities in August of that year, 150 cities in May 2014, and 190 in December.
The protests have coincided with an extraordinary shift in the political consensus on the minimum wage. In the past two years, Seattle has moved to increase its minimum wage to $15 an hour, from $9.32, over the next few years. Oakland, Calif., established a new minimum wage of $12.25, while Chicago approved an increase to $13, from $8.25, over the next four years. Alaska and Arkansas passed minimum wage increases by referendum in 2014.
In 2013, President Barack Obama endorsed raising the federal minimum wage to $9, from $7.25 an hour, then increased that to $10.10 by the fall of that year. Democrats in the Senate are now working on a proposal to raise the national minimum wage to $12 by 2020.
“The labor movement has been stuck,” said Janice R. Fine, an associate professor of Labor Studies at Rutgers University. “They deserve a lot of credit in deciding that, in a situation this bleak, you needed ‘climate change’ ” – that is, a change in how the public views low-wage work – “before you’d actually get an opportunity to organize again.”
Partly in response to the political shift as well as competitive pressure from tighter labor markets, several major employers of low-wage workers have moved to raised their base pay in recent months. Wal-Mart, Target and McDonald’s have all announced plans to increase their minimum wage to or near $10, although for McDonald’s it would apply only to the roughly 10 percent of its workers employed directly by the company, not by its franchisees.
But business groups argue that a substantially higher increase would force employers to reduce hiring, accelerate automation and even threaten the basic economic model of some industries.
For Mary Kay Henry, the president of SEIU, the investment in the Fight for $15 campaign was initially controversial among her colleagues, many of whom wondered why the union should spend millions of dollars on a campaign that did not immediately net the organization dues-paying members. But it was the result of a calculation that the 20th-century model of organizing workers was rapidly becoming obsolete for those in a growing sector where employers considered it essentially costless to replace them.
“We can no longer change our lives, and our kids’ lives, without the support of a broader movement of workers,” Henry said.
The origins of the Fight for $15 campaign date to early 2012, when organizers from New York Communities for Change, which had built support for Occupy Wall Street activists among more established progressive activists and labor organizers, began canvassing low-income New Yorkers, many of them employed in the fast-food industry.
At the same time, public opinion was shifting. According to the General Social Survey, regarded by researchers as the gold standard in public opinion data, the share of Americans who agreed that “inequality continues to exist because it benefits the rich and powerful” spiked by more than 10 points from 2010 to 2012, to over 60 percent.
“People know Wal-Mart and McDonald’s are doing pretty well, people at top,” said Leslie McCall, a professor of sociology at Northwestern University, who has closely analyzed the opinion data on inequality. “It was like: ‘Wait a minute. We’re into the recovery, the unemployment rate is going down. But most people aren’t doing well.’”
Even politically moderate voters appear to believe that it is the responsibility of corporations to mitigate the problem. In her own preliminary surveys, McCall found that, when asked to choose who should be most responsible for reducing inequality – the poor, the rich, the government, major companies, or that it did not need to be reduced – a plurality of Republican respondents, about 37 percent, chose “major companies.”
The Fight for $15 campaign hopes to harness these sentiments in ways that Occupy Wall Street never quite succeeded in doing. But the odds are still long on whether fast-food workers can formally organize in significant numbers and push employers to raise wages to their target. Because most are employed by thousands of independent franchisees, rather than corporations like McDonald’s, the coordination challenge is enormous.
For this reason, the minimum wage protests remain only a small piece of a broader strategy intent on dragging McDonald’s to the bargaining table. The SEIU and other labor groups have tried to spur a tax-avoidance investigation against McDonald’s in Europe. An SEIU-affiliated investment fund has campaigned against insider corporate directors in McDonald’s Japan.
Most prominently, the groups have helped to bring a complaint, currently being litigated before a National Labor Relations Board judge, challenging the franchise model that allows McDonald’s to disclaim “joint employer” status for most of the workers at its restaurants.
“To the extent we worry about this, that’s the worry here, the policy change brewing in the background,” said Glenn Spencer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “It would change the terms of the franchise model, make it not viable.”
Spencer said the model extended well beyond the fast-food industry – to hotels, rental cars, auto maintenance and even tax preparation services – and described the protests as “the PR wing of this attempt to get policy changed.”