FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Oregon Zoo Workers Bargain for $15

by

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

Weekend Edition
April 29-31, 2016
Andrew Levine
What is the Democratic Party Good For? Absolutely Nothing
Roberto J. González – David Price
Anthropologists Marshalling History: the American Anthropological Association’s Vote on the Academic Boycott of Israeli Institutions
Robert Jacobs
Hanford, Not Fukushima, is the Big Radiological Threat to the West Coast
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
US Presidential Election: Beyond Lesser Evilism
Dave Lindorff
The Push to Make Sanders the Green Party’s Candidate
Ian Fairlie
Chernobyl’s Ongoing Toll: 40,000 More Cancer Deaths?
Pete Dolack
Verizon Sticks it to its Workers Because $45 Billion isn’t Enough
Richard Falk
If Obama Visits Hiroshima
Margaret Kimberley
Dishonoring Harriet Tubman
Deepak Tripathi
The United States, Britain and the European Union
Peter Linebaugh
Marymount, Haymarket, Marikana: a Brief Note Towards ‘Completing’ May Day
Eva Golinger
My Country, My Love: a Conversation with Gerardo and Adriana of the Cuban Five
Moshe Adler
May Day: a Trade Agreement to Unite Third World and American Workers
Vijay Prashad
Political Violence in Honduras
Paul Krane
Where Gun Control Ought to Start: Disarming the Police
David Anderson
Al Jazeera America: Goodbye to All That Jazz
Rob Hager
Platform Perversity: More From the Campaign That Can’t Strategize
Pat Williams
FDR in Montana
Dave Marsh
Every Day I Read the Book (the Best Music Books of the Last Year)
David Rosen
Job Satisfaction Under Perpetual Stagnation
John Feffer
Big Oil isn’t Going Down Without a Fight
Murray Dobbin
The Canadian / Saudi Arms Deal: More Than Meets the Eye?
Gary Engler
The Devil Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Is Washington Preparing for War Against Russia?
Manuel E. Yepe
The Big Lies and the Small Lies
Robert Fantina
Vice Presidents, Candidates and History
Mel Gurtov
Sanctions and Defiance in North Korea
Howard Lisnoff
Still the Litmus Test of Worth
Dean Baker
Big Business and the Overtime Rule: Irrational Complaints
Ulrich Heyden
Crimea as a Paradise for High-Class Tourism?
Ramzy Baroud
Did the Arabs Betray Palestine? – A Schism between the Ruling Classes and the Wider Society
Halyna Mokrushyna
The War on Ukrainian Scientists
Joseph Natoli
Who’s the Better Neoliberal?
Ron Jacobs
The Battle at Big Brown: Joe Allen’s The Package King
Wahid Azal
Class Struggle and Westoxication in Pahlavi Iran: a Review of the Iranian Series ‘Shahrzad’
David Crisp
After All These Years, Newspapers Still Needed
Graham Peebles
Hungry and Frightened: Famine in Ethiopia 2016
Robert Koehler
Opening the Closed Political Culture
Missy Comley Beattie
Waves of Nostalgia
Thomas Knapp
The Problem with Donald Trump’s Version of “America First”
Georgina Downs
Hillsborough and Beyond: Establishment Cover Ups, Lies & Corruption
Jeffrey St. Clair
Groove on the Tracks: the Magic Left Hand of Red Garland
Ben Debney
Kush Zombies: QELD’s Hat Tip to Old School Hip Hop
Charles R. Larson
Moby Dick on Steroids?
David Yearsley
Miles Davis: Ace of Baseness
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail