It’s been nearly a decade since fast food workers descended on the streets of New York and held their first rally in Time Square to demand $15 and a union. This initial action, which only included a few hundred protesters, was the spark that set off a brushfire, not only transforming the debate around the minimum wage but also contributing to one of the largest labor upsurges we've seen in a generation. Thanks to the hard work of activists and organizers over the last decade, more than forty percent of workers have seen a pay increase. Now, we may finally be on the verge of passing a $15 minimum wage nationally. 

In this special series, we look back at the Fight for $15, how far it has come in the last ten years and what is still needed to deliver a fair wage to all workers, especially Black and brown workers. To better understand the progress we’ve made, we explore the history of some of the earliest fast food worker organizing campaigns and what lessons we can take from them today. We dig into how radical movements like Occupy seeded the ground that unions and their allies were able to harvest to transform our political imagination of what is possible, delivering on bold and concrete demands that have put real money in the pockets of working people. And, as we make progress towards a national $15 minimum wage, we examine how organizers have been able to “electoralize” the issue — forcing candidates to come out in favor of and fight for higher wages — and how ballot initiatives and legislative campaigns have raised the floor for millions of workers, even as labor law that favors the bosses has made it all but impossible for these workers to organize unions and win basic benefits. 

The demand for a fair and liveable wage has always been a racial justice issue. At the 1963 March on Washington, organizers called for a $2 minimum wage, a demand that if adjusted for inflation would be well over $15 today. Those who oppose the Fight for $15 today usually also want to make it more difficult for Black and brown people to vote. They know it’s about more than just wages; it's about power and dignity. That’s no small part of the reason why the second half of the original demand — $15 and a union — still remains out of reach for too many.  

How did a demand that once seemed so ambitious become a basic, even common sense idea in mainstream politics? It wasn’t by accident and it wasn’t overnight. Organizers and workers led actions and protests that captured public attention, and then used that attention to put pressure on candidates and elected officials to support higher wages. The organizers behind the Fight for $15 understood that the movement needed to build demands that went beyond a single workplace, in part because some of the earliest workers they were trying to organize — fast food workers — operate under a franchise model that makes it all but impossible to actually win a union campaign on a large scale. Strategic workplace actions, including strikes and walkouts, ballot initiatives, and legislative campaigns helped build momentum to produce a movement for a $15 wage, with each victory softening the path for the next.

Over the next two weeks, we’ll be publishing a number of articles and interviews that help us understand how we got here and the lessons we can take from the past decade of organizing. 

The effort to organize fast food workers did not begin with the Fight for $15 and has deep roots in the fight for economic and racial justice. Vanessa Tait, in her essential book, Poor Workers’ Unions — recently republished by Haymarket Books — tells the story of some of the early campaigns against a “McJobs Economy.” Organizers were taking on an industry built around franchises that allowed bosses to centralize the profits, and make it all but impossible to organize the workers, a challenge all too familiar today.

Keith Kelleher, the former president of SEIU HCIMK, was one of the organizers behind these early fast food organizing drives. He writes about his experience as a young organizer in Detroit in the 1980s who lost one of his first campaigns, the lessons it taught him, and how those lessons later helped inform some of the strategy behind today’s Fight for $15. 

Madeline Talbott, a former organizer with ACORN and Action Now, shares the origins of the Fight for $15 in Chicago, how community and labor groups worked together to launch the efforts, and the challenges they later confronted moving from a minimum wage campaign to a union-building one. 

David Rolf, who helped lead the first successful fights for a $15 minimum wage in SeaTac and Seattle, and who literally wrote the book on the Fight for $15, reflects back on the progress we’ve made and asks us to think about the new and innovative strategies we can employ to win the next big fight — and fix our country’s broken labor laws. 

Yannet Lathorp of the National Employment Law Project provides an invaluable overview of the Fight for $15, which has raised the wages of approximately 25 million workers and put $142 billion into their pockets.

While millions of workers have seen their wages go up in recent years as a result of the Fight for $15 campaigns, tipped workers have been largely excluded from these gains. The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 since 2009, but for tipped workers, primarily Black and brown women, it’s $2.13, with workers dependent on customers to make up the difference. Diana Ramirez of the National Women’s Law Center writes about the racist history of the sub-minimum wage and why we need to see the One Fair Wage campaign as a matter of gender and racial justice. Nikki Cole, a labor organizer and the former National Policy Campaign Director for One Fair Wage, shares how tipped workers have been working to build power to win a minimum wage that covers all people, especially Black and brown women. 

Finally, we consider the recent victory in Florida, where a broad and diverse coalition of business, community, immigrant, labor, and progressive organizations came together to pass Amendment Two, which will boost wages for 2.5 million people, or over a quarter of the workforce, and will lift 1.3 million households out of poverty, according to the Florida Policy Institute. The ballot initiative beat out both candidates at the polls, garnering 1,094,708 more votes than Biden, and 723,022 more than Trump. As one organizer for the campaign put it, “Floridians came together across race, background, and political party to vote for $15, which isn't just about minimum wage; it's about a vision of a Florida where people can make ends meet, raise their families and live with dignity.” 

We spoke with Kofi Hunt, the Political Director for the campaign, about how they built on previous organizing efforts in the state to pull together a coalition around the ballot initiative and what lessons leftists and progressives need to wrestle with after Florida. Adriana Rivera of the Florida Immigrant Coalition writes about FIC’s effective digital and communications techniques to get out the vote, as well as some of the challenges they ran up against. And Sammy Conde, a Starbucks worker and member organizer, talked with us about the role of workers on the campaign, how they helped build a network of activists and supporters, and how they shifted their organizing strategy once the pandemic hit.

The Fight for $15 has been a success, albeit an incomplete one. It has helped put real money back in the pockets of working families, especially Black and brown families, and lifted workers out of poverty. At the same time, the movement has helped drive home the point that even a $15 minimum wage isn’t enough at this point, and that, despite advances, our wage and labor systems remain broken and continue to exclude some of the most vulnerable workers. Even if all workers won a $15 minimum wage tomorrow, many would still be living on the edge, without other basic protections, like paid sick days, family leave, or a fair schedule. What the Fight for $15 points to is the need to take risks with bold demands that can transform the relations of power so working people are not just fighting for scraps but winning a world that affords everyone a decent standard of living and dignity. 



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