Thursday, May 15, marked the transition of the fast food wage movement from a national issue to a global one.
Protests were held in 33 countries on five continents, including 150 U.S. cities. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has been primarily responsible for domestic action, while the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF) organized Thursday’s global demonstration. May 15 was chosen symbolically for the push to increase hourly wages to $15 per hour.
This type of coordination is new for America’s unions, which have been slow to accept and adapt to the inevitability of globalization. As union membership declined in the ’80s and ’90s, many unions neglected growth through organizing and focused instead on keeping the remaining “skilled” jobs. Meanwhile, workers in the expanding service sector were largely ignored. SEIU and Unite HERE were two of the few unions that recognized and addressed the trends.
The labor movement must be broad and inclusive. The labor movement cannot be confined within bargaining units defined by government agencies or limited to workplaces where a majority of employees votes “Yes” in the face of a ruthless campaign by their employer to deny them representation. The labor movement consists of all workers who want to take collective action to improve wages, hours and working conditions.
It charged the AFL-CIO to find ways to “benefit members outside collective bargaining by educating them about their workplace rights… and [encourage] concerted action to redress workplace problems and by other lawful means.”
SEIU’s assistance to fast food workers is a manifestation of that commitment. For fast food workers, collective bargaining will probably not be the end result, but a greater number of workers could benefit.
National unions are no longer the most effective tool to counter global corporations. To match their corporate foils, unions are having to develop a network of relationships to try to right the ship. Global unions, like IUF for service workers and IndustriALL for manufacturing workers, consolidate the power of diverse national unions. That cooperation was on evidence in Thursday’s demonstrations.
When fast food workers advocate for a $15 wage, what they are fighting for is the ability to thrive by holding a single job. This is what is meant by a “living wage.” For most, it can’t be achieved with less. They must work a second or even a third job to make ends meet. Critics who dismiss low wage workers as kids working their first jobs should learn that over a third of all American workers currently make less than $15 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Fast food work is at the bottom of the pile.
Polling shows an increase in the minimum wage is gaining popularity nationwide. Congressional gridlock has forced the debate to the states and municipalities, where a patchwork of wage laws has developed.
Perhaps it took the shared economic pain of the Great Recession to allow the message of a living wage to be heard by a majority of Americans. From a marketing standpoint, a push for social and economic justice has broader appeal than the preservation of labor unions. Labor is finally starting to understand, again operating under its old mantra of “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
In Alaska, protests about wages have been primarily restricted to a ballot initiative. That initiative would increase the minimum wage to $9.75 by January 1, 2016, then tie it to the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The initiative has strong support in Alaska according to polling.
Last month, at the eleventh hour, the Alaska House Majority introduced HB 384, a bill nearly identical to the initiative. Under state law, any legislation that is substantially similar to a pending initiative trumps the initiative. In 2003, after trumping another Alaska wage initiative, the legislature stripped out an inflation provision. The fear among many Alaska workers was that the legislature would repeat that behavior.
HB 384 was introduced after the member filing deadline and therefore had to be filed through the Rules Committee. Prior to the filing of the bill, the majority expressed no interest in the minimum wage at all. After the bill passed the House by a single vote, majority members insisted at a dramatic Press Availability that the bill was merely a response to the desire of Alaskans for an increase. Speaker Mike Chenault (R-Nikiski) said the bill was filed so late in the session because of interaction with the Senate.
The bill gained no traction in the Senate, which was dealing with the budget and an omnibus education bill and running up against the 90-day legislative deadline. The initiative, originally scheduled for a vote in August along with the referendum on Gov. Sean Parnell’s corporate tax cut, SB 21, will now be on the general election ballot in November.
The fast food movement is part of a broader conversation about economic inequality that regained prominence with Occupy Wall Street. Since those protests, it is a rare day that does not find a news story about wages or workers’ rights. Alaskans have joined that conversation by getting the minimum wage on the ballot, and in November, they will have their say.