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The Fight for $15 Shakes Awake the U.S. Labor Movement

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Something big is happening. The union-led victories for a $15 minimum wage in Seattle and San Francisco have reverberated throughout the labor movement, spawning copycat campaigns across the country. Most notably the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is nationally demanding $15 for its home care workers and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) is demanding $15 for Walmart workers as a strategy to finally unionize the mega-corporation. Other unions with low wage members are demanding and winning $15 at the bargaining table.

Only a year ago a $15 minimum wage was denounced as “crazy.” But Seattle and San Francisco proved it was possible, and now $15 has seized the imagination of people across the country, pushing them into action.

By fighting for and winning a $15 minimum wage across the country, labor unions can win better contracts for low-wage workers, organize new members, raise the status of unions and defend against anti-union attacks such as the Harris vs. Quinn Supreme Court decision. After winning $15, unions will be empowered enough to put forth new demands that can bring even more people into the labor movement.

In San Francisco it was SEIU Local 1021 that led the victorious campaign for a $15 minimum wage, building a comprehensive community and labor coalition within the San Francisco labor movement. The Vice President of politics for SEIU 1021, Alysabeth Alexander, recently spoke at a public event in Portland, Oregon.

According to Alexander, there are several key lessons to take from their fight for $15 in San Francisco.

1) Build Strong Coalitions.

Unions and workers’ organizations are powerful when they act collectively, and forming an unbreakable union coalition was the backbone of the $15 campaign in San Francisco. Once united, the labor movement found its voice and realized its power.

In response to an off-the-cuff statement by SF Mayor Ed Lee that a $15 hour minimum wage was worth “considering,” SEIU 1021 went into action. When Mayor Lee was having a meeting with business leaders to discuss the city’s growing wealth disparities, SEIU 1021 staged a protest outside for a $15 minimum wage.

Just days later progressive unions and community labor organizations came together to discuss the real possibilities of passing such a wage increase. In order to create leverage and make the minimum wage fight real, SEIU 1021 filed for a ballot measure for a straight $15 minimum wage and the coalition began to collect signatures. While gathering signatures, the coalition was faced with real decisions of how to balance the demand for $15 with the possibility that the Mayor could put a lower minimum wage measure on the ballot with the support of the business community and city-funded non-profits, thereby creating the potential of all-out war.

According to Alysabeth Alexander:

“There were a lot of balls in the air — the same coalition that was pushing the minimum wage increase was also fighting to close loopholes to our health care ordinance, and pass a ‘retail workers bill of rights’ and ‘fair scheduling’ law. Overall, we created leverage through having an aggressive pro-worker agenda, focusing on positive media and in-depth features of low-wage workers, and by having full discussions within the coalition. We didn’t agree every step of the way, but we kept talking and listening to each other. This made us a strong coalition and built an incredible amount of trust between all the groups involved.”

The Mayor tried several tactics to pressure the unions to drop their $15 demand, going so far as putting forward a “last and final offer,” to which the unions responded “that’s a non-starter.” The balance of power had tipped towards the coalition, which felt empowered to act boldly.

2) Control the process.

According to Alysabeth Alexander, the politicians and business interests in San Francisco were eager to get involved to “work together” with the unions to draft minimum wage legislation, with the likely intention of injecting dozens of loopholes, and extending the phase-in time for implementation.

This is the key reason why the $15 legislation in San Francisco is superior to Seattle’s victory: in Seattle the politicians maneuvered to get a seat at the table in drafting the legislation, while in San Francisco the coalition wrote a strong ballot initiative where they were willing to make only a few concessions. San Francisco’s union-led coalition bargained from a position of strength, essentially imposing their will on politicians.

This example can be copied in cities and states that have a ballot initiative process, where unions can immediately bring a $15 minimum wage to the voters.

3) Control the narrative.

Too often labor and community groups fall victim to the business-friendly media or corporate-friendly politicians, whose communications skills and talking points prioritize the needs of corporations while putting unions on the media defensive.

SEIU 1021 changed this dynamic by taking the initiative, grounding all of their talking points on the premise of “no one deserves poverty wages.” They used this point as a foundation and added workers’ stories about trying to live on minimum wage. They took complete control of the conversation, and politicians were never able to recapture it, since “no one deserves poverty wages” is irrefutable.

Conclusions:

By building a strong coalition of labor and community groups and boldly putting forth a demand for a $15 minimum wage, the unions in San Francisco and Oakland lifted up tens of thousands of workers, and consequently uplifted the status and power of unions in the Bay Area.

Once the coalition acted as a united, independent force, the Mayor and other politicians saw the writing on the wall; it would have been political suicide to publicly oppose the extremely popular $15 ballot initiative, which a stunning 77 percent of San Franciscans voted in favor of.

The $15 minimum wage is a demand that has been gift-wrapped to the national labor movement. Fighting for and winning $15 strengthens the status of unions in the community and consequently helps shield against anti-union attacks. The demand is $15 and unions and community groups needn’t settle for anything less.

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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