Thursday, September 4th saw the largest fast food workers’ concerted action in U.S. history, with workers in 150 cities walking off the job – around 400 of whom were arrested for civil disobedience, mainly blocking traffic. The public support received by the strikers, with demonstrations bolstered by passers-by supporting their cause, gives lie to the claim peddled by the corporate media (when they deign to mention low-wage worker organizing campaigns at all!) that these low wage workers are lazy or greedy, that there is no popular support for a $15/hour minimum wage, et cetera.
In fact, no lazy worker would ever become part of a unionization drive, since collective organization inevitably requires a lot of time and dedicated effort in the face of stiff resistance by employers determined to maintain their profit margins at any cost. Bosses have retaliated with both legal and illegal tactics since the movement for $15 and a union began in earnest in 2012: firings, schedule cuts, court rulings and the like. As for greed, we need only look at the pay raked in by corporate tops ($20.5 million in 2013 to the CEO of YUM! Brands, for example)1 and compare it to the miserly $7.25 minimum wage to know where the real greed lies. Communists support a living wage for all workers. While $15 would still not deliver this for everyone who works for poverty wages, it would be a huge step forward if won through struggle – and struggle is the only way it will happen, since there are certainly no Democratic politicians willing to go to bat and fight to the end on the movement’s behalf.
A case in point: Massachusetts’ Democratic-controlled legislature passed in June a bill to raise the state minimum wage to $11/hour by 2017. Setting aside how this is still plainly a poverty wage and a sop to big business, the bill itself is filled with more holes than swiss cheese – the raise is not indexed to inflation, the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers continues, and unemployment benefits are now further restricted than they were. President Obama and various state level Democratic politicians all have similar initiatives that they trudge out when the movement is visible, only to tuck away when they’re no longer subject of the news du jour.
15 Now!, the coalition set up by Socialist Alternative after SA member Kshama Sawant won a seat in the Seattle City Council last winter, has played an important role so far in the fight for 15, with local groups established in large metropolitan areas where labor is traditionally active as well as some smaller locales like Mobile, Alabama and even a small group in Missoula, Montana. Going forward, a few key questions confront the movement.
First, can the coalition live up to its name? 15 Now! Seattle backtracked from its referendum strategy which if successful would have instituted a $15 minimum wage almost immediately in favor of a city council resolution watered down to “$14 and some change over the next several years.” Kshama Sawant voted in favor of this resolution, and Socialist Alternative presented the move as a resounding victory. Strategic shifts are of course sometimes necessary, and the workers of Seattle definitely scored a win thanks to 15 Now-lead organizing, but there is a certain level of dishonesty in presenting an overnight concessionary turn as an unabashed triumph.
The second question: is the movement for a living wage being lead by the low-wage workers themselves? The answer isn’t a simple one, but at the moment it leans toward ‘no.’ The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), currently the leading force in the fight for $15 by a good margin (15 Now! being a distant second), is run by a bureaucratic upper layer the same as any other modern labor union. The labor bureaucracy has distinct and often opposing interests to the rank-and-file.
Where the bureaucracy is oriented toward a clientelist, managerial outlook where low wage workers are used as bargaining chips in the halls of power, the workers themselves have an inherent interest in rank-and-file control of the movement. This is the only way to make sure the fight for $15 has a consistent, mass-struggle based tactical repertoire and an independent class character. A movement lead by the working poor is much more likely to fight to the end not only for $15 but also for related demands – jobs for all, health care and the like – that will make the dream of a living wage a reality. Despite its flaws, 15 Now! is in a strong position to push for this rank-and-file perspective in the movement as a whole.