Fight for $15 is the most effective workers movement of this century. Now let's aim higher.
Workers now expect more – as in more than double the federal minimum wage, which last went up in 2009. Next up, a big push for more union members.
Sounds more like a “wage shortage.”
Workers are waking up to the reality that America’s labor force has more negotiating power now than it has had in years, if not generations. And some, if not most, of the credit has to go to Fight for $15 – the most transformative labor movement of the 21st century.
We see this success in the way workers aren’t rushing back to low-paying jobs more than a year and a quarter after COVID-19 put our economy into a medical coma. Instead, they’re considering new professions in a way they didn’t dare to during the Great Recession a decade ago.
Republicans argue that overly generous support of unemployed Americans is making them too picky. That’s why 22 GOP-led states have pulled the plug on those benefits, hoping to force recipients back into the job market. But don’t expect this cruelty to work, especially when in-person school days and child care services are still spotty – and working for dismal wages could mean risking your life, and your family’s lives, during a pandemic.
Shifting ground for employers
Thanks to Fight for $15, workers have been taught to expect more. By “more,” I mean more than double the federal minimum wage, which last went up in 2009. Landlords won’t let you pay rents that were set in 2009, so why should you accept a fraction of what your time is worth in 2021?
Yes, it took us almost a decade filled with record profits for corporations and a once-and-a-century health crisis to get us to this point. But it’s time this simple yet infectious movement, and the workers who fueled it, get the credit and the wages they deserve for shifting the ground under employers’ feet.
In 2012, after the Occupy movement spotlighted the crisis of income inequality and then flamed out, activists from Service Employees International Union and New York Communities for Change came up with the idea of mobilizing the nearly 4 million Americans who serve us Whoppers, Big Macs and Crunchwrap Supremes.
The movement’s two demands: a union and a $15 minimum wage. "They shrewdly recognized that a hugely ambitious figure like $15 would inspire – and excite – many fast-food workers,” labor historian Steven Greenhouse wrote his book "Beaten Down, Worked Up."
The following year, 2013, marked the first time President Barack Obama mentioned the minimum wage in a State of the Union address (though he only proposed a raise to $9 an hour). Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., called for a $15 minimum wage in 2015. His opponent for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton, soon followed suit, with some conditions. Joe Biden took on the $15 pledge in 2020, and has already raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour for federal contractors.
Fight for $15 is now a global effort and claims success in winning wage increases for 22 million people across the United States – including 10 million “on their way” to $15 an hour. Delaware this month became the latest state in that category. And on Friday, Southwest Airlines announced that in order "to attract and retain the best candidates for open positions,” its new minimum pay will be $15 an hour. Wonder where it got that number?
Perhaps the most ringing indicator of movement’s success is that the nation’s three largest retailers – Amazon, Target and Walmart – all now employ the $15 benchmark in some fashion. Amazon and Target start all employees at $15, and Walmart claims to be paying almost a third of its 1.5-million-person workforce at least $15.
But the retail success story also points to the failure of Fight for $15’s other demand – a union. Labor recently suffered a devastating loss trying to organize an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, and has made almost no inroads in organizing Target, Walmart or any of America’s fast-food chains. But expecting Fight for $15 to single-handedly restore the balance between labor and capital in America is a bit much to ask.
Set high 2030 wage and union goals
McDonald’s workers in Denmark earn nearly $22 an hour and get six weeks of paid vacation, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said in a viral tweet. This is true. Denmark does not have a minimum wage, but it does have a powerful labor movement and "sectoral bargaining" that requires contracts to be negotiated across an entire business sector.
In America, where only 6.3% private sector employees are in a union, we have the opposite of sectoral bargaining. "Secondary" or “solidarity” strikes are illegal. There have not been any new labor rights, or even significant reforms, on the federal level since 1947. And, not coincidentally, the decline of labor membership has been accompanied by an increase in income inequality.
Still, unions are as popular now as they’ve been any time since the late 1960s. And the clarity of Fight for $15 is helping millions of workers recognize the value of their toil. But to get to anything that even resembles Denmark, we’re going to need a lot more power, and that requires a lot more union members.
My suggestion for how to build on the rousing success of Fight for $15? An even more audacious demand that’s actually two demands in one: A “30 by 30” campaign calling for a $30 minimum wage and 30% of America’s private sector to be unionized by 2030.
Yes, it sounds impossible now. But we’ve already seen some of the impossible become possible. The lesson of Fight for $15 is to be clear and aim higher. And in America, who can argue with success?
Jason Sattler, a writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and host of "The GOTMFV Show" podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @LOLGOP