The American Prospect: How New York's "Fight for $15" Launched a Nationwide Movement

Ian Pajer-Rogers |

SEIU Local 99/Flickr

From The American Prospect:

by Wendi C. Thomas and Frederick McKissack, Jr.

Brooklyn car-wash worker Angel Rebolledo and Bronx fast-food employee Flavia Cabral work in jobs and neighborhoods that are miles apart, but they have remarkably similar stories to tell.

Rebolledo, a 55-year-old Mexican immigrant, was earning $600 a week to work 90 hours at the Vegas Auto Spa car wash in 2013 when he realized that he could not make ends meet and had to take a stand.

Rebolledo was getting constant nosebleeds from the harsh acids used to wash the grime off the vehicles. Along with his fellow “car washeros,” as they became known, Rebolledo joined a grassroots campaign that pushed for legislation to regulate the troubled car-wash industry. In June, the carwasheros celebrated the passage of New York’s first Car Wash Accountability Act, which among other provisions protects car-wash workers from wage theft.

Across town in the Bronx, 53-year-old Dominican immigrant Flavia Cabral had also reached a breaking point. Juggling two minimum-wage jobs, one at a fast-food restaurant and the other at a shipping company, Cabral was more worried about sustaining her family on $8.75 an hour than she was about her painful deep-fryer and oven burns. Like the carwasheros, Cabral and her fellow fast-food workers organized to take a stand. The upshot was that in September, Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo approved a proposal by the state’s labor commissioner to raise fast-food workers’ pay to $15 an hour.

The stories of Rebolledo and Cabral speak volumes about what it takes to translate worker protests into concrete policy action. The efforts of the carwasheros and the fast-food workers didn’t succeed in a vacuum. They built on a strong infrastructure of community organizations in New York that had the capacity to translate worker protest into power. This movement had its roots in the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter protests, which raised public awareness about economic and racial injustice.

Historically, successful worker movements have relied on two things: employees who have reached their breaking point and are willing to take risks, and community organizers with the power and resources to stand behind workers on the front lines.

That’s what happened in Memphis in 1968, when 1,300 black sanitation workers, fed up with low wages, long hours, discrimination, and dangerous working conditions, walked off the job for more than two months. The deaths of two workers crushed by a malfunctioning garbage truck had been the flash point that led to the legendary strike. The workers were supported by unions and civil-rights advocates, most notably Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in Memphis days before he was set to join a march in support of the workers.

Rebolledo, Cabral, and their fellow New York workers have been fighting for the same things the sanitation workers were seeking almost 50 years ago, including a better future for their children and an end to on-the-job discrimination. The New York workers were backed by unions, workers, clergy, and politicians. Their joint efforts launched the campaign known as Fight for $15, as well as similar campaigns around the country to help America’s families earn a decent wage.

The successes of the carwasheros and the fast-food workers culminated a gritty three-year effort that brought together dissimilar allies. The carwasheros make up a workforce of only 5,000 laborers, mostly Spanish-speaking immigrants. By contrast, the city’s fast-food industry relies on a behemoth force of 63,000 low-wage workers.

But both groups employed many of the same tactics, working on parallel tracks as they organized, rallied, and protested their way to becoming political forces. And both leveraged a progressive infrastructure special to New York, a left-leaning state that is home to the country’s largest city.

Both sets of workers faced big hurdles. The car-wash workers had to organize mainly undocumented groups of immigrants who did not speak English and were politically disenfranchised. They worked for individually-owned car washes, setting up fragmented battles between one set of workers and an owner. Often, the workers faced retaliation from owners who threatened to fire them or call immigration authorities, said Maria Gonzalez, who worked to organize the carwasheros with the grassroots group, New York Communities for Change.

The fast-food workers, for their part, faced opposition from such powerful business groups as the National Restaurant Association, which filed a court appeal in December to challenge the wage increase, and by the Business Council of New York State, which feared the economic impact on the restaurants. These groups aligned politically with state Republican legislators, who came out in force against the increase.

It made for a rough-and-tumble campaign, even in a state that was fertile ground for a low-wage worker movement.

Organizing and union stalwarts, including the Service Employees International Union; the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union; and such grassroots groups as Make the Road New York and New York Communities for Change, helped the workers assemble and expand their ranks. Organizers coached the workers on how to approach and voice their concerns to lawmakers. Even places of worship offered emotional, physical, and financial support, such as the Kolot Chayeinu synagogue in the Park Slope community, which raised $10,000 for the car washers.

The carwasheros and fast-food workers also launched their effort at a politically opportune moment. Cuomo was eager to win back progressives who had criticized and distanced themselves from his administration. In less than a year, he went from calling $13-an-hour wage hike a “nonstarter” to backing a $15-per-hour minimum wage.

The combination of fed-up workers, motivated organizers, and political opportunity created a perfect storm.

Read the full article from The American Prospect.