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“We Are a Movement Now”

(Some Background on the Low-Wage Workers Strikes and Protests of Sept. 4 in More Than 150 U.S. Cities)

[The interview below was published in French by a revolutionary socialist organization in France. See the link to “Anti-Capitalisme et Revolution.” The person interviewed, Ann Montague, is a member of the steering committee of Oregon 15 Now. See also the following report from the 15 Now Oregon web site.]

How did your union come to organize fast food workers?

I have been a rank and file member of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) for 30 years, and have also been active in the socialist and LGBT movements since the 1970s. SEIU is the union that provided staff and financial support to the fast-food workers who have been organizing demonstrations, actions, and strikes demanding a living wage of $15 an hour. SEIU has around 2.2 million members, most of them in the United States with some workers in Canada and Puerto Rico. There are over a million workers in healthcare including nurses, laboratory technicians, nursing home workers, and home care workers. There are another million workers in public services in state and local governments and school employees like bus drivers and child care providers. They also include 225,000 workers in property services who work as security and janitors in commercial and residential office buildings. Fifty-six percent of our workers are women, and 40 percent Black and Latino/Latina. SEIU represents more immigrant workers than any other union in the United States.

When the SEIU leaders announced to the membership that they had decided to assist in organizing fast-food strikes in New York City in 2012, I was as surprised as anyone. In the 1980s there were sporadic strikes by state government workers, and in the 1990s SEIU organized the janitors working for small cleaning companies in the Justice For Janitors campaign. The tactics of the janitors were unorthodox and included mass civil disobedience with the closing of freeways in Los Angeles and blocking bridges into Washington, D.C. But from 1998 to 2010 under the presidency of Andy Stern we went through a horrible period of vicious fights with other unions. In addition the top union leaders were purging some elected leaders they saw as disloyal on fake charges. Some of those who were put in charge were later convicted of corruption. There also were contracts negotiated behind closed doors and deals made with the bosses. By 2010 the union bureaucracy was divided. Some complained about Stern’s authoritarian leadership style, and in the middle of his term he was forced to resign. Saying they were looking for a consensus builder, they voted for Mary Kay Henry. She promised to rebuild relationships with other unions and clean up the corruption. The bureaucracy chose her to lead SEIU.

In 2012 she brought forward to her Executive Board the controversial proposal to put staff and resources into organizing fast-food workers. Not to bring them in as members but to raise wages of the entire sector. One wing of the bureaucracy was against it, and while she prevailed, it was believed that if it wasn’t successful and all that money had been spent on workers who are not even members of SEIU, she would not be reelected. Her argument was that if they could raise wages in an entire labor sector, it would impact all wages.

How did this movement start?

In 2012 a group called New York Communities For Change was working on the issue of affordable housing in New York City. They soon realized that the fast-food workers they talked to could not even afford low-cost apartments. They were sleeping in homeless shelters and on the floors of friends’ apartments. As a result SEIU started organizing meetings over the low pay of fast-food workers. The workers soon decided they wanted $15 an hour and a union and they were willing to strike. The first strike was in New York in November 2012 when 200 workers walked off the job, and their numbers have continued to grow. In May of this year there were strikes in 150 cities and 33 countries. The seventh strike happened on September 4, and it was even larger, including more cities in the south and southwest. There was civil disobedience, and in eight cities homecare workers marched with fast food workers demanding $15 an hour.

What are the main demands?

For now, there are only two demands. They are: $15 an hour and the right to a union without intimidation or retaliation. In the United States there is a Federal Minimum Wage that applies to all fifty states. Some states have higher minimum wages. Currently the Federal Minimum Wage is $7.25. In Martin Luther King’s speech at the March On Washington in 1963 he called for a $2.00 minimum wage. Adjusted for inflation today, the $2.00 that King called for would now be $15.27. In general $15 is considered to be a “living wage,” while anything below that is a “poverty wage.”

What is the government’s response?

The main government response has been silence. We are entering elections in November. Politicians know that the people support raising the minimum wage and therefore do not openly oppose an increase. President Obama finally came out with a proposal to raise the Federal Minimum Wage to $10.10. This was to undercut the strikes and demonstrations. However, that did not stop the momentum of this movement. The labor organizations that are the most obedient servants of the Democratic Party are trying to get workers to support a statewide minimum wage of $11, but they are not having much success. The argument they cannot overcome is that anything less than $15 is a “poverty wage.” While the Democrats are experts at derailing social movements, so far they have not stopped the “Fight for $15.”

How about retaliation?

There has not been a lot of retaliation, so far. Federal law permits “concerted activity” by workers. This means that workers are allowed to join together to complain to employers about working conditions, and to discuss forming a union, and it is a violation of federal law for employers to retaliate against such workers. The fast-food strikes are not traditional strikes where workers leave their job and picket their workplace to try to prevent other workers or customers from entering the place of business. These workers leave work for one day, as a kind of symbolic protest, and are joined by community members and others who support them in demonstrations and rallies throughout the cities. Generally the protests do not involve all the workers in one restaurant but workers from many different fast-food restaurants joining together. Also there is what is called a “walk back.” The following day when they go back to work they are never alone. Union staff members or other supporters go back into the restaurant with them the next day. Generally, the response by the other workers is applause, thanks, and congratulations. I have heard that in a few places they have had their work hours cut or are “written up” for some small infraction. But often a higher-up manager has intervened. It seems the bosses understand that they will spark more protests and possibly next time more workers will join the strike activity. As these actions spread from big cities to smaller cities there may be some problems. This month Tucson, Arizona, had its first fast-food strike, and there are reports that there was some retaliation when the strikers returned to work. The capitalist rulers in Arizona have created a highly anti-union climate in that state, and the Tucson metro area is only about one million, relatively small compared to many other U.S. cities. However, supporters of the strikers have taken steps to pressure the bosses to end harassment of these workers, and SEIU will take legal action based on the right to “concerted activity.”

In some cities we saw union members join the Ferguson protests. What are the links between the two movements?

Historically there is a strong link between the civil rights movement and unions. Martin Luther King worked closely with many unions whose members were predominantly Black. In fact he was in Memphis to show his solidarity with striking sanitation workers who were members of AFCSME, a large public sector union, when he was assassinated. A. Philip Randolph was a leader in both the Black civil rights movement and the labor movement. He organized and led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first predominantly Black labor union. While there is a strong history of racism in many unions, there are also public sector unions that have a legacy of human rights and social justice. The American union tradition of solidarity and the motto of “an injury to one is an injury to all” are still strong in some unions. But more important is the fact that the victims of police brutality and their families are also union members. Members of SEIU 1199 in New York City were active in demonstrations against the police policy of “Stop And Frisk.” In the Black community most young men have been harassed, stopped, and searched by the police without cause.

Ferguson is in Missouri, which is a strong union state. There were big fast-food strikes in Kansas City and St. Louis. Both cities also have large Black communities. In Kansas City workers walked out at 60 restaurants. Most of the strikers were Black or Latina. In Ferguson there were contingents of a group called “Show Me $15,” whose members were active in the demonstrations. Shermale Humphries was one member who said she used to work at the McDonald’s across the street from where Mike Brown was killed. “This [protesting] is something I had to do,” she said. “I’m African American, and this could be anyone I know. I just can’t let it go on any longer.” She credited her experience organizing fast-food strikes as helping her organize in Ferguson. Also Michael Brown’s mother is a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). The head of her union issued a statement expressing solidarity with Michael’s mother in calling for an investigation and justice.

The issue of intersecting movements for economic justice was addressed by SEIU’s President Mary Kay Henry on a news program, “Democracy Now!” Among the strong points she made was this: “There is an incredible intersection of the immigrant rights movement and the fast-food worker’s movement. We understand it is necessary to grow a powerful movement so 11 million people can join in the fullness of our economy. And we are not going to stop our movement building on immigrant justice or economic justice until we win.”

What is the general meaning of this movement for the rebirth of the labor movement?

I am not sure I can answer that yet. I can say that this is the most important working class struggle in the United States today, and its national scope is like nothing I have witnessed. For there to be a rebirth of the labor movement there needs to be a break from the Democratic Party. As you probably know, we have no working class party in this country. We have two capitalist parties, and as long as the union bureaucrats are at the beck and call of the Democratic Party the word “rebirth” just seems too strong. This month a striker was quoted saying, “We are a movement now!” This was significant. There will be a point when the ruling class will say, “Enough is enough.” They will try to co-opt or divide or buy off this movement. If the movement is big enough and strong enough, it will fight back and the struggle will expand.

What occurred in Seattle was significant. An open socialist candidate named Kshama Sawant, who is a member of Socialist Alternative, ran for Seattle City Council. She is also a member of the American Federation Of Teachers (AFT). She won the election by centering her campaign on the demand for a $15 minimum wage for all workers. She used her campaign to organize the Fight For $15 in Seattle, and she directly took on the Democratic Party. As a result of her campaign, and the majority sentiment it built in support of “15 Now,” the Seattle city government felt compelled to vote unanimously in May to introduce a $15 minimum wage linked to inflation over the next few years, meaning that 100,000 workers will be lifted out of poverty. One of the important things that happened right after her election was the formation of “15 Now,” which has become a national movement with chapters across the country. While SEIU is currently supporting $15 an hour, there have been times when the leaders went in and negotiated less than $15. But with another organization of community activists, low-wage workers, and people from other unions too, the pressure for $15 can increase and the movement will become larger and stronger.

Where do you think the movement will go from here?

The change in the Fight For $15 actions on September 4 was important. Not only did the strikes expand to new cities, but they also expanded to new workers who are under attack. In Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Seattle, homecare workers joined with fast-food workers and united in the demand for $15 minimum wage. These workers’ union rights had just been attacked two months before by the United States Supreme Court. They are 90% women and 40% Black and Latina. In addition to expanding to a new layer of oppressed workers, the demonstrations themselves were more militant. They included civil disobedience and more strikes in the south. In Charleston, South Carolina, a bystander was watching as fast-food workers were engaged in a sit-in in the middle of the street. He commented, “This is just not something you see in Charleston.”

We need to be in the streets supporting our brothers and sisters. We want the numbers to increase, the issues and demands to increase, and all workers who are victims of austerity to join together. One of our comrades who is most experienced in the labor movement said it best, “Our goal is to advance the interests of our class.” I can say it no better.

[The following recent report from the 15 Now Oregon website gives some significant indications of the direction the movement is taking.]

15 Now Oregon Shows Growing Strength, Announces 2015 Legislation for a $15 Minimum Wage in Oregon

September 26, 2014

After recently delivering over 5,000 signatures in support of a $15 minimum wage at an economic fairness town hall meeting hosted by Oregon Senate Majority Leader Diane Rosenbaum and Representative Rob Nosse, the fight for a $15 minimum wage in Oregon continued to show its growing strength this week with the holding of the first statewide 15 Now Oregon general meeting.

Held at SEIU Local 503’s union hall and organized by 15 Now PDX, dozens of people attended the meeting including members from LiUNA 483, SEIU Locals 503 and 49, Oregon State Association of Letter Carriers, Oregon Education Association, Portland Association of Teachers, Rural Organizing Project, Health Care for All Oregon, the Democratic Socialists of America, Socialist Alternative, and International Socialist Organization. People came from all over Oregon to attended the meeting including from places such as Beaverton, Oregon City, Salem, Medford, and Ashland, and of course Portland. There are also new 15 Now chapters in The Dalles and Eugene that did not have representatives at the meeting. Low-wage professionals represented included various low-wage food service and homecare workers, who gave testimony about their stories and experiences with low-paid work.

There was a welcome surprise at the meeting as it was announced that minimum wage bills for the 2015 state legislative session have been submitted to the state’s Legislative Counsel from both the Oregon State House and the Oregon Senate. The bills submitted include bills to raise Oregon’s minimum wage to $15/hr, and to repeal Oregon’s minimum wage preemption law that prevents cities from raising the minimum wage above the level set by the state. If the $15/hr minimum wage bill passes, Oregon will be the first whole state to enact a $15 living wage, which will make Oregon the national leader on the minimum wage question.