[Marxism] In Test for Unions and Politicians, a Nationwide Protest on Pay

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Apr 16 08:11:11 MDT 2015

NY Times, Apr. 16 2015
In Test for Unions and Politicians, a Nationwide Protest on Pay

The protest by tens of thousands of low-wage workers, students and 
activists in more than 200 American cities on Wednesday is the most 
striking effort to date in a two-and-a-half-year-old labor-backed 
movement that is testing the ability of unions to succeed in an economy 
populated by easily replaceable service sector workers.

Labor has invested tens of millions of dollars in a campaign for a 
$15-an-hour minimum wage that goes beyond traditional workplace 
organizing, taking on a cause that has captured broad public support. 
But the movement is up against a hostile business sector sheltered by a 
decades-old federal labor law that makes it difficult for workers to 
directly confront the wealthy corporations that dominate the fast-food 
and hospitality industries.

Denise Rush, a home health-care worker in Durham, N.C., often works 
seven days a week, but still relies on food stamps and Medicaid for her 
children.Working, but Needing Public Assistance AnywayAPRIL 12, 2015
For political activists looking to the 2016 presidential campaign and 
beyond, the wage fight is coming at a potentially pivotal moment, the 
first concrete, large-scale challenge in decades to an economic system 
they view as skewed toward the wealthy.

“There is a huge upswelling of anger around jobs in this economy that 
are low-wage jobs,” said Jonathan Westin, director of New York 
Communities for Change, a grass-roots organizing group that has played a 
key role in both the Occupy Wall Street movement and the current 
fast-food workers’ campaign. “This economy we’re living in now doesn’t 
work for people.”

The protests began with morning rallies that attracted crowds in the 
hundreds at McDonald’s franchises in Atlanta; Brooklyn; Chicago; Kansas 
City, Mo.; Los Angeles; and Raleigh, N.C., along with other locations.

A noon rally in front of a McDonald’s restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper 
West Side attracted throngs of protesters, many of them carrying signs 
that read “Why Poverty?” and “We See Greed.” They included fast-food 
workers, laundry workers, carwash employees and sympathetic bystanders.

“America, period, is unequal,” said Chasten Florence, 26, a construction 
worker from Jamaica, Queens. “Once we accept that, we can change that."

McDonald’s said in a statement: “We respect people’s right to peacefully 
protest, and our restaurants remain open every day with the focus on 
providing an exceptional experience for our customers,”

The campaign, staffed in part by organizers from the Service Employees 
International Union, orchestrated the country’s first-ever fast-food 
industry strike in November 2012, when 200 New York City workers walked 
off their jobs. The periodic protests expanded to six other cities in 
the spring of 2013, 60 cities in August of that year, 150 cities in May 
2014, and 190 last December.

The protests have coincided with an extraordinary shift in the political 
consensus on the minimum wage. In the last two years, Seattle has moved 
to gradually increase its minimum wage to $15 an hour, from $9.32. 
Oakland, Calif., established a new minimum wage of $12.25, while Chicago 
approved an increase to $13, from $8.25, over the next four years. 
Alaska and Arkansas passed minimum wage increases by referendum in 2014.

In 2013, President Obama endorsed raising the federal minimum wage to 
$9, from $7.25 an hour, then increased that to $10.10 by the fall of 
that year. Democrats in the Senate are now working on a proposal to 
raise the national minimum wage to $12 by 2020.

“The labor movement has been stuck,” said Janice R. Fine, an associate 
professor of Labor Studies at Rutgers University. “They deserve a lot of 
credit in deciding that, in a situation this bleak, you needed ‘climate 
change’ ”— that is, a change in how the public views low-wage work — 
“before you’d actually get an opportunity to organize again.”

Partly in response to the political shift as well as competitive 
pressure from tighter labor markets, several major employers of low-wage 
workers have moved to raised their base pay in recent months. Walmart, 
Target and McDonald’s have all announced plans to increase their minimum 
wage to or near $10, though for McDonald’s it would apply only to the 
roughly 10 percent of its workers employed directly by the company, not 
by its franchisees.

But business groups argue that a substantially higher increase would 
force employers to reduce hiring, accelerate automation and even 
threaten the basic economic model of some industries.

For Mary Kay Henry, the president of S.E.I.U., the investment in the 
Fight for $15 campaign was initially controversial among her colleagues, 
many of whom wondered why the union should spend millions of dollars on 
a campaign that did not immediately net it dues-paying members.

But it was the result of a calculation that the 20th-century model of 
organizing workers was rapidly becoming obsolete for those in a growing 
sector where employers considered it essentially costless to replace 
them. “We can no longer change our lives, and our kids’ lives, without 
the support of a broader movement of workers,” Ms. Henry said.

The origins of the Fight for $15 campaign date back to early 2012, when 
organizers from New York Communities for Change, which had built support 
for Occupy Wall Street activists among more established progressive 
activists and labor organizers, began canvassing low-income New Yorkers, 
many of them employed in the fast-food industry.

At the same time, public opinion was shifting. According to the General 
Social Survey, regarded by researchers as the gold standard in public 
opinion data, the share of Americans who agreed that “inequality 
continues to exist because it benefits the rich and powerful” spiked by 
more than 10 points from 2010 to 2012, to over 60 percent.

“People know Walmart and McDonald’s are doing pretty well, people at 
top,” said Leslie McCall, a professor of sociology at Northwestern 
University, who has closely analyzed the opinion data on inequality. “It 
was like: ‘Wait a minute. We’re into the recovery, the unemployment rate 
is going down. But most people aren’t doing well.’ ”

Even politically moderate voters appear to believe that it is the 
responsibility of corporations to mitigate the problem. In her own 
preliminary surveys, Professor McCall found that, when asked to choose 
who should be most responsible for reducing inequality — the poor, the 
rich, the government, major companies, or that it did not need to be 
reduced — a plurality of Republican respondents, about 37 percent, chose 
“major companies.”

The Fight for $15 campaign hopes to harness these sentiments in ways 
that Occupy Wall Street never quite succeeded in doing. In Seattle, 
Steve Gelb, who makes above minimum wage at a work force training 
outfit, said he supported the protests because “the disparity of wealth 
has reached alarming proportions and the salaries of business owners and 
executives are way out of proportion.”

But the odds are still long on whether fast-food workers can formally 
organize in significant numbers, and push employers to raise wages to 
their target. Because most are employed by thousands of independent 
franchisees, rather than corporations like McDonald’s, the coordination 
challenge is enormous.

For this reason, the minimum wage protests remain only a small piece of 
a broader strategy intent on dragging McDonald’s to the bargaining 
table. The S.E.I.U. and other labor groups have tried to spur a 
tax-avoidance investigation against McDonald’s in Europe. An 
S.E.I.U.-affiliated investment fund has campaigned against insider 
corporate directors in McDonald’s Japan.

Most prominently, the groups have helped to bring a complaint, currently 
being litigated before a National Labor Relations Board judge, 
challenging the franchise model that allows McDonald’s to disclaim 
“joint employer” status for most of the workers at its restaurants.

“To the extent we worry about this, that’s the worry here, the policy 
change brewing in the background,” said Glenn Spencer of the U.S. 
Chamber of Commerce. “It would change the terms of the franchise model, 
make it not viable.”

Mr. Spencer said the model extended well beyond the fast-food industry — 
to hotels, rental cars, auto maintenance and even tax preparation 
services — and described the protests as “the P.R. wing of this attempt 
to get policy changed.”

C. J. Hughes contributed reporting from New York, Ronnie Cohen from San 
Francisco and Julie Weed from Seattle.

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