Black Lives & the Fight for $15

Labor and "official" civil rights leaders are letting the movement down, say Gabriel Pierre and Mari P-A

Rank and file response

Around the United States in towns small and large, workers are organizing to gain a living wage. To achieve their goal for a fifteen dollar an hour minimum wage workers are organizing protests and strikes, shutting the businesses down and raising public awareness of the poverty wages in which workers live. The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 ($2.13 for workers who rely on tips); hardly what you could call a living wage. Getting your head above the federal poverty line can be an impossible task even while juggling multiple jobs. 26% of workers make less than $10.55/hour and 3.8 million workers make $7.25 or less an hour.1 Two weeks ago in around 180 cities thousands of fast food workers went on strike for $15 and a union. On Black Friday, workers and their allies affiliated with OUR Walmart turned out for the biggest strike at the company yet. The “virus” is even spreading to gas stations and convenience stores. Flying pickets and even the first sit-down2 strike in Walmart’s history: definitely not something we would have expected to see just a few years ago.

It would be a mistake to downplay the impact these actions have had so far. Already, the low-wage workers have made headway in raising consciousness about poverty wages and the people who work for them. There’s a growing awareness that the minimum wage (or close to it) simply isn’t enough to live on, especially with the jobs’ haphazard scheduling and precarious nature. The pitiful social safety net provided by the government isn’t enough to bridge the gap, full-time work is practically a pipe dream, and “at-will” employment combined with aggressive management tactics mean that workers are afforded very little input or even basic respect on the shop floor. While the corporate media and “middle class” sentiment scoff at the idea of paying a living wage – don’t you know these people deserve to be poor, because they have shitty jobs? – they’ve already had some success in making $15 sound less unrealistic than it once did.

Poverty wage workers are disproportionately people of color, and consciousness of that fact has meant enthusiastic participation from groups like Show Me $15 (Missouri’s Fight for $15 affiliate) around #BlackLivesMatter. They understand that police violence is tied not just to race but also to class, with the odds of police killings going up the more economically distressed a given area is. Working people from geographically disparate areas are demonstrating that the battle against poverty and the battle against our tragically misnamed criminal justice system aren’t just two worthy causes – they’re the same cause, with the same common enemy.

Unfortunately, the labor movement’s leadership in general has yet to take the same principled position. Yes, many individual trade unionists and some locals, including from Fight for $15’s sponsor (the Service Employees International Union) have come on to the streets. Any trade unionist or union local acting in solidarity with the movement against police violence should be applauded. But the labor leadership - who, like the word implies, are supposed to lead – have lagged behind the more proactive elements of the rank-and-file. SEIU President Mary Kay Henry released a half-hearted statement3 that was apparently written specifically to avoid offending anyone; as a consequence it says basically nothing of substance. Ditto AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka’s hollow reaction to the Ferguson verdict4 – “a lot of people believe that the criminal justice system is still biased against people of color” isn’t exactly a revelation, brother. The initial response5 to Mike Brown’s death from the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) leadership, which is the main backer of OUR Walmart and of which Mike Brown’s mother is a member, was even worse.

Truth be told, the labor bureaucracy isn’t any more interested in mobilizing its millions-strong membership around a program to end police violence than it is in going all-out to organize the low wage workforce. It’s not so much that the top labor leadership is made of bad or dishonest people (although there are some!), it’s the bureaucracy’s role in capitalist society that causes them to hem and haw like this. They don’t go “all-out” in fighting racism or organizing retail / fast food workers for the same reason they don’t end labor’s subordination to the Democratic Party: they don’t acknowledge the class struggle, the plain truth that our interests (the majority) and the capitalists’ interests (the “1%”) are diametrically opposed. The labor tops’ lifestyles are closer to the bosses than to the workers they represent, and their actions reflect this.

But if we want to successfully push back state-sponsored racism, labor support is crucial. Since we don’t have a workers party in this country (yet), the trade unions are the only mass expression of the organized working class – warts and all. Labor-black connections at the grassroots level are the first step toward turning the emerging unity into something lasting, organic and generalized.

Workers will also need to organize independently of the bureaucracy in the low-wage industries. The UFCW’s current strategy in Walmart is based on generating bad publicity for the company in order to extract concessions. But, on the official OUR Walmart site, they meekly claim that they don’t even have unionization as the end goal! Whatever gains might be won by embarrassing the Walton family (and there is a low ceiling to this tactic already), how are they supposed to defend those gains without a bona fide union? The UFCW leadership has already shown, through its conduct in the 2004 California supermarket strikes6, that it’s unwilling to rock the boat, even though mass struggle is what built the labor movement in the first place (and in conditions even more repressive than what we have today.) Timidity is waging a half-hearted fight for $15 rather than a living wage and a mass public works program to end unemployment and underemployment; timidity is writing petitions to the Department of Justice instead of addressing the role played by the police as an institution of state (and therefore corporate) power.

The same goes for Mary Kay Henry and the rest of the SEIU tops – and, for that matter, the “official” civil rights leadership, up to and including that serial opportunist and traitor Al Sharpton7. What we desperately need now is for the emerging rank-and-file militancy to solidify and show the labor bureaucrats and civil rights shysters how it’s done.


  2. Twenty-eight workers took part in the sit-down in Los Angeles, protesting employer retaliation against a fellow worker and OUR Walmart organizer. Though they didn’t shut down the store, the fact that it happened at all is a sign of things to come.
  7. The Reverend has a long, sorry history of sidelining the very people he claims to represent:

(From The Red Vine.)


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