The unstoppable fight for $15: Low-wage workers won’t take no for an answer

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From the early scattered strikes against Burger King and McDonald’s, the movement for $15 an hour has blossomed, logging many small but growing victories in cities and states across the U.S. Equally thrilling, it is inspiring legions of workers trapped in poverty to demand even more.

In April, strikes and actions targeted 236 cities across the U.S., and involved tens of thousands of workers from a wide range of occupations, including fast food, home care, airlines, security and education.

From the start of this upswell, bosses have used misinformation and fear-mongering to cool the street heat they are feeling. Undaunted, low-wage workers are digging in their heels, and stepping around or over those who want to dilute or postpone their demands for higher pay and a better life.

A movement with legs. Firing things up is the impossibility of paying bills and rent on today’s poverty wages. Roughly 35 million workers earn less than $12 an hour. Almost 90 percent of those are at least 20 years old. More than 25 percent are parents. Tipped workers are guaranteed only $2.31 an hour, unchanged since 1991.

Years of stagnant wages, widening income inequality, and deepening poverty have created a dam of profound frustration, and it is bursting. One victory inspires hope and sparks another fight.

In 2013, the city of SeaTac, Wash. voted in the first $15 an hour in the U.S. Though immediately challenged by big business and politicians answering to them, workers surrounding SeaTac airport get the new wage. Workers at the airport are still fighting for the city’s minimum and organizing unions to help win it.

As of January 2015, 29 states now have a minimum wage above the federal level of $7.25 an hour. These higher minimums are overwhelmingly the product of grass-roots activism and voter initiatives. A growing list of cities have passed laws to boost pay above $10 an hour, such as San Francisco, San Jose, and Seattle. Emeryville, a suburb of California, just decided to reach $16 an hour by 2019.

Some big employers are also moving under pressure. At the University of Washington, graduate students represented by United Auto Workers Local 4121 prepared to strike this spring, and won $12.50 an hour as a result. Earlier, administrators had said the college was exempt from Seattle’s $15 an hour phase-in. Now they are backing off and UAW 4121 declared, “We expect and will continue to fight.” Walmart, notorious for forcing “associates” onto food stamps, implemented a wage of $9 an hour in April.

McDonald’s will raise its pay a dollar an hour in July 2015, but only for 90,000 workers. Franchises, 90 percent of their restaurants, won’t be included.

There isn’t an ounce of enlightenment or generosity in the actions of these bosses. They are kicking and screaming every inch of the way in being forced to part with their mega profits. While playing the public relations game of “taking a first step,” they simultaneously limit worker hours to avoid paying health benefits.

Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress are pushing a pathetic proposal for $12 an hour — by 2020, while Republican counterparts balk.

Fighting for bread and roses. Phasing in wage boosts over several years is better than what exists now. Yet workers know that moving out of poverty requires so much more.

The millions of people struggling on less than $15 need full wage relief now, plus benefits, sick and family leave, and unions.

Years of dealing with a Scrooge of an economic system has taught the U.S. working class that such gains won’t be won without a sustained mobilization. The potential for that, as those with the least to lose rise up and reinvigorate labor, is what has bosses worried.

In late April, a group of women fast food workers and supporters in Los Angeles started a 15 day hunger strike for living wages. Anggie Godoy, a 19-year-old cashier at McDonald’s and one of the strikers, captured the spirit that gives this upsurge so much promise: “We will do whatever it takes.”

Dennis Sanders can be reached at

Also see other labor-related stories in this issue:

• Labor Weather Report

• Closing the gender pay gap: what will it take?

• “Right to work” legislation threatens all unions

• Adjunct professors: academia’s overstressed, underpaid labor force

• Soapbox: I was a pieceworker for Google

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