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A decade later, the Fight for $15’s wins are shaping the economy

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
FILE – Activists appeal for a $15 minimum wage near the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the federal minimum wage in 2021 was worth 34% less than in 1968, when its purchasing power peaked. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

On a chilly November morning in 2012, chants and cheers erupted in Midtown Manhattan and echoed across New York City and the nation as fast food cooks and cashiers walked off the job with a bold demand: $15 an hour and a union.

The striking workers chanted: “We can’t survive on $7.25!” 

That day — Nov. 29, 2012 — marked the largest wave of worker actions the fast food industry had ever seen; some 200 Black and brown cooks and cashiers walked off their jobs and sent a message to global corporations like McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell that they would not accept low pay, erratic scheduling and mistreatment on the job.

For one of those striking workers, Alvin Major, that late November strike was the culmination of years of frustration working 80-hour weeks at KFC with no overtime. Alvin worked those long days in order to support his wife and four kids, even as the shifts that stretched until midnight and started again early the next morning meant that he rarely got to see his family. 

When Alvin first met with fellow fast food workers from across the city in the fall of 2012 and saw the burn marks on their arms looked just like the ones on his — injuries they had sustained working all day around hot oil and scalding metal cooking equipment, he knew it was time for something to change. 

And when he learned that for all the hours his job had kept him away from his family, KFC had been illegally cheating him out of overtime pay, he knew it was time to strike and demand $15 an hour and a union. 

But in public and behind closed doors, pundits, politicians and corporate executives wrote these workers off. They laughed at workers’ demands for $15 an hour and argued fast food workers would never successfully organize. They thought workers would eventually back down and accept the status quo of poverty wages and disrespect on the job.

They could not have been more wrong. Ten years after that first strike in New York City, fast food workers are stronger and more united than ever. Their Fight for $15 and a Union movement spread like wildfire, from Chicago to Kansas City to Seattle, winning $150 billion in raises for over 26 million workers. Tens of millions of workers are on their way to a $15 minimum wage or higher. And workers’ demands have forced companies like AmazonStarbucks and Target to raise their minimum wages to $15 an hour and beyond. 

I have spent my career as an organizer and labor leader and have never seen a movement like the Fight for $15. The courageous cooks and cashiers in New York City united behind a bold demand, born out of a vision of racial and economic justice that the rest of the world at first failed to grasp. They saw that by coming together and acting collectively, even in an industry that had long denied them a voice, workers could unite across race, step into their power and begin to untangle interlocking systems that have held back their communities for generations. 

The challenge fast food workers faced on that November morning a decade ago this week was enormous. Fast food corporations had long decided their only obligation was making money for their shareholders, not looking after their workers. In 2019, companies like McDonald’s spent more than $1.5 billion on glitzy advertising campaigns aimed at Black and brown communities while paying workers of color poverty wages. McDonald’s in particular led the way in using the franchise system, which fueled the industry’s enormous growth, to shield itself from accountability for low pay and horrific working conditions in stores across the country. 

As president of the 2 million-member Service Employees International Union, I knew that in order for fast food workers’ vision of $15 an hour and a union to become a reality, we needed to even the playing field. That’s why SEIU made an early investment in fast food workers’ organizing efforts — even in the face of those who believed organizing the industry was impossible. 

And while there is still much work to be done, it’s, without doubt, the best return on investment we’ve ever realized: billions of dollars in raises for all kinds of workers in the service industry and beyond via state and local minimum wage increases, companies voluntarily boosting pay and workers negotiating increases in collective bargaining. 

Just as important as the raises is how workers have won them. They won them by joining together and taking bold action — by acting like a union and believing they are one even though their employers often opposed their demands for better working conditions. They reinvigorated the strike as a tactic for making it impossible for employers to ignore workers’ demands, inspiring the bold actions of teachers, health care workers and more over the last 10 years. 

The bravery and tenacity of fast food cooks and cashiers over the last decade have inspired other workers in the service industry and expanded the realm of what workers in fast food and beyond believe is possible. Ten years after that first strike, unions are more popular than they’ve been in generations and workers from Starbucks to Amazon to Apple are taking on some of the largest and wealthiest corporations in the world — and winning!

Amid a system that continues to be rigged against working people, fast food workers are innovating new ways to win a voice on the job. In September, fast food workers notched an unprecedented victory in California with the passage of AB 257, a landmark law giving half a million fast food workers a voice in improving pay, training, health and safety industry across the state.

Across the South, a region where systemic racism is a factor that has kept wages low and made it virtually impossible for workers at big corporations to join together in a union, workers are building a union on their own terms. The Union of Southern Service Workers is uniting workers across fast food, service, retail and care industries to take on the structural, racial and economic inequality that is a legacy of slavery and racist Jim Crow laws. 

From coast to coast, workers like Alvin Major have fully stepped into their own power, and there is no going back. A decade after he risked it all to walk off the job, today he makes $17 an hour as an airport worker at JFK Airport. His story is echoed in the millions of workers who have joined together to win a better future for their families and carry on a movement that has forged a new world.

Mary Kay Henry is president of the Service Employees International Union.

Tags $15 minimum wage Fight for 15 Minimum wage in the United States Politics of the United States workers rights

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