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The Fight for $15: A History

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This is a good history of how the Fight for $15 started, how SEIU has promoted it, and the impact it has had on American political life.

The groundwork for the movement was laid in 2011, when the Occupy movement started drawing unprecedented attention to the growing chasm between haves and have-nots. Around the same time, the Service Employees International Union launched a campaign called Fight for a Fair Economy.

The SEIU, which represents 2 million health care, janitorial, and other service workers, formed a coalition of 15 labor and community groups to reach out to low-wage workers and address concerns such as job creation and foreclosures, then running rampant through working-class communities.

Advocacy groups around the country were also stepping up efforts to help struggling residents. One of them, New York Communities for Change, started surveying low-income residents about affordable housing and other issues. Many of the most destitute — and vocal — people they met worked in fast food.

These cooks and cashiers were not teenagers working part time for extra cash, but parents struggling to feed their children. Some had worked in fast food for years, while living in public housing and relying on food stamps.

“It was a really a flashbulb to us,” said Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change.

But the size and scope of the fast-food industry — employing close to 3 million people, according to the US Census — was beyond NYCC’s abilities, Westin said, and he sought help from SEIU, a frequent partner.

That initial fall 2012 meeting attracted about 40 workers. Twice that many showed up to the next one. This time, the conversation revolved around forming a union and how much money it would take to survive, said Kendall Fells, an SEIU organizer.

The fast-food workers decided $10 an hour wasn’t enough, and $20 an hour didn’t seem possible. So they settled on $15.

At the third meeting, they set a strike date: Nov. 29, 2012. And early that Thursday morning, a week after Thanksgiving, 200 fast-food workers took to the streets of New York City. Many of them walked off their jobs, risking being fired and losing what little income they had.

“The individual courage of these few hundred workers making a bodacious demand galvanized the next stage of the national conversation about inequality,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the SEIU.

Demonstrations soon spread to Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee, and beyond. A year later, a one-day strike calling for $15 and a fast-food workers’ union took place in more than 100 cities, including Boston.

Darius Cephas got involved in early 2013, when an organizer walked through the door of the McDonald’s in Dorchester where Cephas was working. Cephas, 24, had been working since he was a teenager to help support his younger sisters and mother, who had a stroke when he was 18. On his McDonald’s wages, he said, he sometimes couldn’t afford to eat.

Cephas quickly became a leader in the movement, using his days off to recruit Boston workers to join the cause and traveling to Europe and Brazil on the SEIU’s dime to spread the word to workers and elected officials.

Cephas still makes low wages — at McDonald’s and at a Dollar Tree discount store in Hyde Park. But he now has something he previously had little of — a voice, and respect. “I’m actually going to be a part of history,” he said. “My name’s going to be remembered.”

There’s more. But a couple of points here. First, this probably doesn’t happen without the support of SEIU. There is a labor journalist world that hates SEIU with enormous passion–they see SEIU as worse than no union at all. Sometimes they have good points, but usually, like this terrible Arun Gupta article which claims that *GASP* SEIU is behind the Fight for $15 and interviews a bunch of anonymous organizers about this fact and how it is a “problem,” they let their internal hatreds get in the way of understanding how change happens. In fact, SEIU was and is absolutely critical to this in terms of using its significant organizational advantages, particularly its experienced organizers and money, to promote this movement.

Note also how being involved in such a movement can empower people in ways they never could have imagined, like Darius Cephas. This is the story of organizing–people who never felt they have a voice in fact can develop a very powerful voice. This is a wonderful thing.

Finally, I love that the $15 demand was basically just splitting the difference between $10 and $20. And that’s fine. Creating a rhetorically powerful demand is more important in creating change than all the economists’ studies of what a proper minimum wage should be in 2016. Those studies can sometimes be used to support said demands, or not. But the catalyst to change is a catchy slogan and people willing to work for that slogan more than anything academics or think tanks will ever do.

Lot to chew on in this history. Be a lot more to chew on as it continues to develop.

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