In These Times: The Fight for $15 Is Raising Wages. Now It’s Time for Step 2: Unions.

Ian Pajer-Rogers |

Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association/Flickr

From In These Times:

by David Moberg

It’s a safe bet that most working people would like a pay raise. They are also often reluctant to ask for one, let alone demand a doubling of their hourly rates. 

Low-wage Americans—the 42 percent of workers making less than $15 an hour—know all too well that they don’t just want more; they need more simply to survive at the lowliest version of the American standard of living. Increasingly, they are pressing their demands more forcefully, possibly inventing a new form of unionism as they persevere, organizers suggest.

This week, as the White House entertains a discussion of “worker voice,” there is new evidence from public opinion polls, legislative proposals, public testimony and activity from Congress to city halls that the fight to empower and properly pay the workers in low-wage service jobs continues to grow.

And increasingly, these workers say, they want and need a union. They also want—and say they are willing to register and to vote for—political candidates who will fight for their needs.

From the beginning, the Fight for $15 has included a demand for the right to form a union without intimidation, but the demand for $15 an hour pay stole the limelight. Now some workers who have been active in the Fight for $15 movement realize they already have an organization, even if it’s not the standard model union.

The National Employment Law Project, a pro-worker advocacy and research group, recently commissioned a survey of low-wage workers that showed strong support for both thrusts of the Fight for $15, including increased interest in registering and voting if their wage and union rights were clearly supported by at least one presidential candidate. 

NELP executive director Chris Owens was impressed by the survey’s findings that half of low-wage workers had heard of the Fight for $15 and that workers were more willing to engage in politics with the right candidate message. “What I feel that’s really different,” she said, “is the heightened awareness that unions could make a difference, and there is also heightened awareness when people see workers like themselves put themselves on the line, take risks for higher wages and a union, there will be more interest in forming unions.”

Sixty-nine percent of low-wage workers favor raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and the same fraction thinks it should be easier for them to form a union, while 72 percent approve of unions in general. That’s a higher approval than among the general public, despite an increase in generic approval of unions revealed in an August Gallup poll to 58 percent, up 5 points from last year. Black workers (87 percent approval) showed the strongest support for unions, followed by young workers (82 percent), then Latinos (79 percent), but strikingly 77 percent of low-wage workers in the South, long considered a region hard to organize, favored unions.

Fight for $15 national organizing director Kendall Fells is impressed not only with the strong interest in a union but also with workers’ sense that they already have a union. “If you’d asked me three years ago before the first strike, I would have been surprised [at the current level of support for a union], but it’s been clear that they already see it [Fight for $15] as their organization and call it a union. Low-wage workers now see belonging to an organization is the way to defend themselves on the job.”

“I would say these workers are already in a union,” he continued. “What will be needed is a mechanism to fund it, once we get McDonald’s to talk, and I think that will happen soon.” McDonald’s is under pressure from workers and governments around the world, he noted, and “they’re going to have to come to the table” to solve their problems. Fells believes that McDonald’s will ultimately see the value of workers being organized as it struggles to dig out of its difficulties.

This is a new form of “21st century unionism,” unlike the unions of the 20th century organized at workplaces from auto plants and steel mills to nursing homes, Fells says. “The tangible difference is the size of the organization, and the scale of the movement. The scale is so broad and varied. Then there is the difference of workers being in the streets, willing to risk their jobs to get what they need, and the gelling of progressive movements around the low-wage workers.”

Read the full article from In These Times.