Photo: Scott Olson

Fight for $15 marks a new era of workers’ struggle in the US

  • May 1, 2015

Capitalism & Crisis

The struggle for fair pay is establishing itself as a successor to failed trade union strategies and a key node in the emerging social justice movement.

The demonstrations across the United States on April 15 revealed the significance of the Fight for $15, and have already been dubbed “the largest protest by low-wage workers in US history.” Tens of thousands of people in 230 cities marching, chanting, broadcasting their voices over loudspeaker so that the “Masters of the Universe” could hear them — demanding fair pay for all.

Consider the scene at the University of Illinois in Chicago: thousands of black, white and brown faces cheering together — retail workers, graduate students, professionals, unions organizations for the homeless, interested individuals, schoolchildren, the middle-aged, the elderly: a panoply of humanity shouting in unison against poverty wages, union-busting, racism, police brutality, corporate oligarchy — the status quo.

Even in its early stages, Fight for $15 already finds itself at the forefront of a new social justice movement. As it intersects with the Black Lives Matter and feminist movements, community organizing and workers’ struggles the world over, Fight for $15 exemplifies an innovative new form of social movement unionism — the desperately needed successor to the old failed AFL-CIO strategies of narrow collective bargaining, ossified bureaucratism, and concessionary negotiations with union-busting employers.

It’s time we took the fight to the streets, to resurrect and fuse the spirits of the 1930s and the 1960s. The Fight for $15 is rapidly emerging as a key node of this revolutionary 21st century fusion — what we can expect will become a massive international movement of movements for economic and social justice.

In less than three years, the Fight for $15 has grown from a single strike in New York City to what we saw on April 15, which included demonstrations in Italy and New Zealand. Seattle and San Francisco have passed $15 minimum wage laws, Chicago will have a $13 minimum wage by 2019, and other cities and states are considering similar laws.

More and more politicians are coming out in support of minimum wage hikes, which, on less dramatic scales, have been passed recently in several states and cities. Social movements take years to build, but this one is already picking up steam.

As it continues to gain visibility, moreover, the pressure it brings to bear on politicians will deepen and broaden. When issues like a higher minimum wage, anti-racism, workplace safety, immigrants’ rights and social welfare are seen to overlap and are pressed forward, together, on multiple fronts — as happened, for instance, in the 1930s, when the wide range of social movements pushed American politics to the left on dozens of issues — real political change can result.

Ultimately, systemic alternatives can emerge, whether interstitially or squarely in the mainstream. As important as the Fight for $15 is, therefore, it may be only the beginning of something truly momentous.

We’ve already seen other glimmers of the possible, some of which flared up only briefly and then sputtered into semi-darkness after months or a couple years. Occupy Wall Street is the best example. It had enormous influence at the level of public discourse, thrusting the issue of income inequality into the spotlight, but after being savagely repressed by the political establishment and its police goons, it rapidly petered out.

The Fight for $15, by contrast, while lacking Occupy’s creative anarchist spontaneity, is much more organizationally robust, oriented towards the long haul and towards specific legislative goals that can serve as stepping stones toward ever more ambitious goals. The movement is building networks and coalitions, politicizing working people, raising awareness, and pushing public opinion to the left. As the American mainstream becomes sensitized to the demand for higher wages and enforcement of workers’ rights, it is more likely to support anti-racist policies, prison reform, action against police brutality, anti-war agendas, and other left-wing goals that all overlap.

These fights are not likely to suffer the fate of Occupy Wall Street, largely because they don’t depend on a single specific tactic that is vulnerable to police action. They will build strength year by year, aided by the momentum of the Fight for $15.

It is significant, incidentally, that a large cross-section of American business — including two out of three small business owners — supports a higher minimum wage, because it makes good economic sense. When radical ideas like these start being adopted by large sections of the ruling class — even if only in a defensive move — it is clear that the momentum is on the side of change.

In short, there is cause for optimism on multiple fronts. Of course there is little doubt that society, in the long term, is in for catastrophic social and environmental disruptions — but in the midst of these tragedies, there will still be accumulating successes, thanks to the work of activists like those who have made possible the Fight for $15. The more of us join them, the more victories the left will be able to claim in the years and decades ahead.

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