Minimum Wage Protests Spread Across American Cities — And Reach Out to Trump Voters

Police arrested dozens of protesters in Los Angeles and other cities across the US on Tuesday.
Police arrested dozens of protesters in Los Angeles and other cities across the US on Tuesday.

The “Fight for $15” campaign has won a number of victories over the past few years, with organizers saying their efforts have improved the lives of millions of low-wage workers by raising the minimum wage in California, New York and a host of cities like Seattle.

Now, four years into their campaign, the movement is looking to expand its efforts beyond the urban working poor, where much of the grass-roots organizing began. Among their new targets: working-class Americans frustrated by a 21st century economy with a shrinking number of middle-class jobs their parents once held.

Many of these workers voted for Donald Trump.

According to Scott Courtney, vice president of the Service Employees International Union and chief architects of the Fight for $15 campaign, “a whole bunch of us out there are not doing well. In red states, blue states; black, brown, white — people are hurting,” he said. “Sixty-four million of them don’t make $15 per hour.”

As part of the campaign, tens of thousands of workers turned out in dozens of cities today to demand a $15 wage, improved working conditions and the right to unionize. Airport workers, including baggage handlers, cabin cleaners and wheelchair attendants were a dominant force in the protests, disrupting business as usual and reminding Americans how important their work is by walking off the job at some of the nation’s busiest airports (most notably at Chicago’s O’Hare International).

Organizers of the Fight for $15 emphasized the importance of the airport workers, whose jobs used to pay a living wage decades ago. In recent years the jobs brought financial hardship due to outsourcing to nonunion contractors — a dynamic that was central to Mr. Trump’s election.

In other cases, blue-collar factory workers lost high-paying union jobs and were left with lower-paying jobs at nonunion factories or online fulfillment centers.

“We’re shining a light on a part of the economy that used to be living-wage work,” said Mary Kay Henry, the president of the Service Employees International Union, which helps fund the Fight for $15 campaign. “They’re joining with fast-food workers, child care, home care, which have never been living wage work.”

Organizers noted that the Fight for $15 campaign would now need to become more disruptive to move onto a new round of victories. The campaign was already planning Tuesday’s protests prior to the election, but voicing their demands was more important than ever following Mr. Trump’s victory.

In Chicago, hundreds of demonstrators from labor unions and churches rallied around O’Hare where they chanted, sang, beat drums and played on trumpets.

In L.A., several thousand workers staged a protest around noon on a major airport access street, including Ashley Adams, 25, who had been arrested earlier at a rally outside McDonald’s on accusations of stopping traffic and disturbing the peace. “We really need to fight for this,” said Ms. Adams, who makes about $8 an hour at a pizza restaurant. “I want to see my baby grow up being able to afford basic things and survive.”

And across the country, protest groups made up of Uber drivers, cooks, cashiers and hospital workers, converged outside fast-food restaurants and public spaces. In Lower Manhattan, workers were arrested at a sit-in, along with Francisco Moya, a state Assembly member.

Some of the largest numbers of arrests occurred in Detroit where over 40 protesters were arrested outside a McDonald’s, according to WDIV, a local TV station. Reporters also claimed dozens of arrests in Cambridge, Mass.

The Trump administration is quite likely to presents challenges to the Fight for $15 movement. In recent years, the Service Workers and other unions helped revise labor laws as they relate to employers like contractors or franchisees under the umbrella of larger, more profitable companies.

Thanks to a 2015 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board, workers under a contractor or franchisee who unionize are more likely to gain a bargaining position with the larger parent companies — a key development since the parent companies have traditionally cut ties with contractors or franchisees when the workers form a union.

Under Mr. Trump and his developing administration, this “joint employer doctrine” will very likely be undone, making it almost impossible for fast-food workers to bargain through traditional channels.

Yet others have hopes that the Fight for $15 is very much set up for the Trump era, since it has never relied much on any Washington power structures to support it.

Many of the campaigns central victories occurred in cities and states (passing new minimum wage laws) and in relation to individual employers (who were persuaded to raise wages voluntarily).

Allstate recently announced it would increase its entry-level pay for all employees in the United States to at least $15 per hour. Facebook, which used some contract workers earning less than $15 per hour, also boosted them over that level. Even service sector giants like McDonald’s and Walmart have raised the lowest wages by modest amounts in the last two years.

Some labor experts say that a key strategy of the Fight for $15 campaign is to invert the conventional labor model. Instead of first organizing workers into a traditional union and then bargaining for higher wages, the campaign has effectively bargained for wages first — through protests and public relations offensives targeted at voters, politicians, and corporations — in the hope of building new worker organizations following those successes.

Janice Fine, a scholar of labor studies, notes that one possible driving principle for the organizations mobilized by the Fight for $15 could be enforcement of minimum wage laws, along with other laws impacting paid leave and scheduling.

None of these innovations need endorsement from officials in Washington or the blessing of federal labor law.

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Emery Reddy