Oregon Zoo Workers Bargain for $15


The food service workers at the Oregon Zoo just raised the bar for the labor movement, organized and unorganized alike. The newly organized zoo workers recently joined the Portland Laborers Union Local 483, and for their first union contract they are insisting on $15 an hour. They currently make $9.10, Oregon’s minimum wage.

The $15 proposal might have seemed “crazy” a year ago. But what was impossible is quickly becoming possible. As the “Fight for $15” seeped into the public consciousness, zoo workers asked themselves “why not here?”

Zoo worker Anne McDowell explains:

“Our union representative initially proposed the idea and everyone loved it. When we talked to the rest of the zoo employees people were 100 percent in favor of the idea.”

Do the workers actually expect to get to $15 at the bargaining table? It all depends. At the very least a $15 bargaining proposal is a bold step, signaling to management that the workers are not going to settle for nickels and dimes.

Equally important is that the zoo workers know that their union is committed to putting up a fight for good wages. Whether or not $15 is winnable at the bargaining table ultimately depends on how hard zoo workers are willing to fight, and how invested the community is in helping them win.

Portland’s recently formed $15 Now group is excited about the zoo workers recent announcement. Volunteer Justin Kerston from $15 Now Portland says:

“The zoo is one of Portland’s busiest tourist destinations. The move by the zoo workers to seek $15 as a base minimum wage is a huge step for the fight for $15 in Portland.”

It’s huge because it gives the $15 Now group a cause to rally around, a way to educate the public about the issue, and an example to inspire other unions and community groups to commit to organizing around the “Fight for $15.”

Even if the zoo workers ultimately settle for $13, $12, or less, any sizable raise above $9.10 would be credited, in part, to the power of the $15 demand. Raising workers expectations and confidence is the first step towards increasing power at the bargaining table. The zoo workers are demonstrating how the $15 demand has the potential to change the typical bargaining strategy of unions.

Up until now unions representing low wage workers faced chronic decline, having convinced themselves that it’s impossible to bargain for higher wages;  they accepted as fact that the ongoing corporate attacks against unions were simply too powerful. Unions responded by making meager demands, in the hope that they could avoid the corporate death-blow — a strategy that unintentionally invited further aggression.

Consequently, the wages of many union workers sank to new lows, to the point where many of these unions find it impossible to inspire unorganized workers to join — why pay dues to a union if your wages aren’t going to rise? This downward, circular dynamic has now evolved into a death spiral for the broader labor movement.

As a substitute for higher wages, many unions tried to inspire workers to join unions by offering “job protection” and other rights at the workplace, which are, of course, important. But it doesn’t light a fire like $15 does, and unless a fire is lit a workplace is damn hard to organize and a movement impossible to sustain. People join unions for dignity perhaps above all else, and for the majority of workers dignity is best expressed in the paycheck.

So will other unions learn from Portland’s example? The zoo workers themselves owe partial credit to the unions in Seattle and San Francisco that have worked — to varying degrees — on pushing the $15 movement through citywide initiatives, the most immediate way to help the largest number of working people.

But using $15 to organize new workers or leverage power at the bargaining table is something new. The zoo workers’ act complements the $15 ballot initiative approach, the two tactics re-enforcing each other, hopefully towards the re-invigoration of the national labor movement.

Such a new approach is desperately needed for low wage service sector unions. A case in point is the union of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). The UFCW has been desperately trying to organize Walmart workers for years, the biggest employer in the United States.

Of course, Walmart is difficult to organize because of its vast corporate resources. But it’s possible that by demanding $15 the UFCW would be able to offer the workers the needed inspiration to join a union — and inspiration is the base ingredient of all organizing. It goes without saying that the multi-billionaire Walton family can afford to pay their employees $15.

At bottom the union movement needs to expand to survive, while working in cooperation with community groups towards winning over the broader population toward a new workers’ movement. Nothing short of a massive movement can change the anti-worker trajectory of the country.

A key strategy of the ongoing corporate assault of the 1% has been to create artificial barriers between union and non-union workers, a trend that many narrow-minded labor leaders deserve equal blame for. This disconnect between union and non-union has isolated and weakened the labor movement. Breaking out of the barriers of isolation is the most immediate step for the labor movement, and the most direct route currently available is $15!

Shamus Cooke is a social service worker, trade unionist, and writer for Workers Action (www.workerscompass.org). He can be reached at shamuscooke@gmail.com 

Shamus Cooke is a social service worker, trade unionist, and writer for Workers Action (www.workerscompass.org). He can be reached at shamuscooke@gmail.com

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