The Fight for 15’s one-day strike on April 15 – tax day in the US – provides a welcome alternate perspective to the myopic media coverage of presidential hopefuls. It underlines the gulf between Republican rhetoric and the realities for most Americans, and creates an awkward challenge for Democratic leaders.
Not only did the strike involve more workers than ever before, it spread to wider and unexpected sections of the low-paid, such as 50 Brinks security guards in Chicago who spontaneously stopped work. In all, 60,000 workers joined the strike in over 230 cities. Fast-food workers, carwash workers, homecare aides, childcare providers, student and college campus workers, adjunct professors, airport workers and others were represented in the protests.
The campaign coincides with a sea-change in attitudes to growing inequality and the minimum wage: Seattle and Sea-Tac in Washington and San Francisco have raised their minimum to $15 an hour, and it will soon be on the ballot in both Los Angeles and the District of Columbia. The New York Times reported that one protestor in Seattle, who makes more than minimum wage, came out because “the disparity of wealth has reached alarming proportions and the salaries of business owners and executives are way out of proportion.”
Most Americans now place responsibility for low wages at the door of highly-profitable corporations, not on their underpaid workers. According to the same Times article, Leslie McCall, a sociology professor who closely analyzed opinion data on the topic, said: “People know Walmart and McDonald’s are doing pretty well … We’re into the recovery, the unemployment rate is going down. But most people aren’t doing well.” McCall found that even Republican voters believe the problem is caused by major corporations. “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’.”
Early morning rallies at McDonald’s franchises in Atlanta, Chicago, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Raleigh N.C., and other towns kicked off the day. In Chicago, at least 3,000 people marched to a McDonald’s in the downtown Loop area demanding “Stop Fooling Around, $15 and a union.”
The largest protests took place in New York City where the Fight for 15 strikers were joined by racial justice activists and union members. At 6:00 a.m. around a thousand people rallied outside a McDonald’s in Brooklyn and at noon crowds of protesters carried signs that read “Why Poverty?” and “We See Greed” to a McDonald’s in Manhattan. Shouts of “We can’t breathe on $7.25” preceded a four-minute “die-in” to protest police shootings of unarmed people of color.
Activist Karl Komodzi told the crowd: “Black people are subject to police violence in their neighborhoods and economic violence in their workplaces. Fight for $15 and Black Lives Matter are about more than raising the minimum wage, about more than retraining some police not to kill us. This is a movement to chip away at the things that take away our dignity and our humanity.”
Meanwhile, an estimated 10,000 building workers rallied at the site in Manhattan where a major construction corporation is using only non-union workers to build one of the tallest residential buildings in the world. The union president, Gary LaBarbera, told the rally: “We know that the workers who are working on this project are only receiving twelve, thirteen dollars an hour. We believe that whether you work at McDonald’s or you work in a car wash, there’s really no difference between a low wage there and a low wage here.” The construction workers were able to overcome police barricades to block traffic for a short time, amid thunderous cheers, before joining other protesters at Columbus Circle for a march to Times Square.
New York Times journalist Steven Greenhouse told Democracy Now: “In this protest yesterday, what was new is [organizers] started working very closely with civil rights groups around the country, with Black Lives Matter. And labor unions, in general, are very involved … I went to Atlanta a few weeks ago to do a story for the Times about how they were very deliberately trying to combine this movement of the fast-food workers, the Fight for $15 movement, with the civil rights movement to show that it’s not just … trying to raise pay a few dollars an hour, but it’s an economic justice and social justice movement. … a lot of the language they’re using or rhetoric they’re using really comes out of the civil rights movement … ‘I am a man,’ ‘We want dignity,’ ‘$7.25 isn’t enough to support our families.’ … You know, now when I go interview a lot of these workers, they’re happy to give me their names. And usually when you interview workers, they’re very scared to.”
But the movement is not without its critics. Indypendent co-founder Arun Gupta claims it is not a “working-class struggle,” pointing out that the SEIU, which has largely staffed and bankrolled the Fight for 15, organizes in a top-down manner that excludes fast-food workers themselves from decision-making. The one-day strikes, he says, are mere spectacles aimed at the media and public opinion rather than building organization and militancy; it is “more of a legal and public relations campaign … than an organizing campaign.” The linkages with the Black Lives Matter movement, argues Gupta, “remain underdeveloped because of the top-down nature of Fight for 15.” The missing ingredient is the organized left: “It’s anarchists who made Occupy Wall Street happen, socialists who have revitalized many teachers unions, and socialists and the left that have turned $15 an hour into reality.”
While it is true that the left played a large role in the legislative victories in Seattle and San Francisco, it can’t take advantage of the space opened by the Fight for 15 without a clear perspective on the class forces involved. Gupta’s article is too one-sided to be helpful: he assumes that the political effect of the mobilization of the low-paid must be limited by the union’s goal of achieving a contract with McDonald’s, when it has already had an impact far greater than the organizers expected, and he devalues their efforts to combine economic and social justice issues. Moreover, Gupta doesn’t address the role of the Democratic party, which most workers still look to for political leadership. According to the New York Times, “Within the next several days, Senator Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate committee that deals with labor issues, plans to introduce a bill to increase the minimum wage, in steps, from its current level of $7.25 to $12 by 2020. … The party is determined to elevate the issue in next year’s congressional and presidential elections.” This poses complications for Obama, who has not taken a position on the Murray plan, and for Hillary Clinton’s electoral bid.
Republicans, of course, are attempting to defuse the issue by asserting that job losses would follow any increase in the minimum wage. Their argument is reminiscent of nineteenth-century economists who claimed that profits were only made in the last hour of a twelve-hour day. But juxtaposed to their support for tax cuts for the rich, Republican politicians’ opposition to minimum wage increases isolates them from even their own voters as the low-wage economy continues to grow.
While they have found it electorally expedient to coopt the low-paid movement, Democratic leaders are not only reluctant to jail corrupt financiers but also to prosecute police who have killed unarmed black men. In Baltimore, for example, where both the Democratic mayor and police commissioner are black, residents expressed outrage not only at the six officers who chased down 27-year-old Freddie Gray before he died from a severe injury to his spine, but also at their political representatives for withholding key facts about the case. Video shot by a bystander shows Gray screaming in apparent agony as police drag him to a van.
What is driving politics in America today is the corrupting effect of the exponential growth of the wealth of the one percent and the social effects of the imposition of a low-wage economy on the other 99. But the resistance to low pay and the courage of individuals who video acts of police violence, like the shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina, signifies a change in the political climate that is not reflected in the campaign rhetoric. At the same time, it is a continuation of the change in consciousness begun with the Occupy movement. Even though dispersed, its impact continues to reverberate throughout America.