Over the past year, millions of workers have earned a raise as a result of the growing boldness of workers and organizers across the country. The success of the Fight for 15 and similar movements is no accident. Rather, it is the product of years of experimentation, perseverance, and creativity—and today, organizers may have finally hit on a powerful formula for helping workers take back some measure of power.
This success stems first and foremost from a basic reality: The economy in its current state is just not working for Americans. Nearly a decade after the 2008 recession, millions of families around the country have yet to be even touched by the recovery. Wages have stayed flat even as worker productivity has soared. Too many are stuck in jobs that don’t pay the bills, working hard and failing to even stay afloat.
Moreover, it has become increasingly clear that their suffering is by design, not a product of simple economics. The bad behavior of major corporations has been a driving force. Walmart and McDonald’s have come under fire for paying workers wages that force them onto public assistance to cover their basic needs. Pharmacy chains like Walgreens “promote” workers to salaried positions that require more hours without the chance at overtime pay. And countless businesses, from pizza chains to car washes, rob workers of an honest day’s pay through different forms of wage theft.
This atmosphere is ripe for the emergence of policies that give workers the pay they deserve. Getting these policies in place, however, requires a fight.
For years, community and labor organizations around the country supported workers by helping them organize themselves, going store by store, employer by employer. More recently, though, organizations such as Make the Road New York, Working Washington, New York Communities for Change, and others have begun to target entire industries—and, in turn, the economy as a whole. Pinning the blame on bad practices that are common to all companies—rather than one individual employer—allowed them to make the case that the problem demanded a widespread response.
Moreover, the demands have grown bigger, escalating from modest increases in the minimum wage to $8.75 to a more ambitious $10.10 and then all the way to $15. And while minimum-wage fights were traditionally separate from those for paid sick days, many organizers realized linking the two made for a far more powerful and galvanizing campaigns. The more ambitious our demands became, the more effective we have become, demonstrating the political salience of transformative demands.
Finally, more money for robust field campaigns was a critical part of the solution. Unions like the Service Employees International Union made a strategic decision to invest big in campaigns that would lift up the needs of all workers—including those who weren’t part of their union, a fundamentally new approach to organizing. As momentum grew, other unions and foundations have joined the cause, recognizing that helping working women and men to stand up for themselves and their families helps the whole economy. This funding has enabled organizations to launch bigger, more ambitious campaigns and to have the firepower needed to win them.
The results have been nothing short of extraordinary. Just a few years ago, when fast-food workers first went on strike in New York City, a $15 wage was unimaginable. This year, it became a reality in two of the largest states in the country—New York and California—affecting nearly nine million workers. Nearly 30 states have taken action to lift their minimum wage above the federal threshold of $7.25—and almost ten have done so for tipped workers. Ten states and more than a dozen cities have passed paid sick days for workers.
In the coming year, more than a dozen states and cities ranging from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania will be seeking a raise for their residents, reaching as high as $15 in many places. And, with half the country concentrated in America’s top 35 metro areas, the impact of these local laws has been disproportionate.
Today, organizers around the country are setting their sights on bigger goals, applying the lessons learned from the push for higher wages. We will be working to improve access to affordable housing, enact fair scheduling reforms that protect workers from unpredictable hours, and reduce the parasitic power and tax avoidance of hedge funds and other major corporations.
Yet individual victories are not enough. To truly convert this energy into lasting change, we will need a unified, nationwide movement that situates economic justice as just one part of a broader agenda of opportunity. And we will need this movement to be rooted in resilient, democratic people’s organizations on the front lines, all across the country.
This weekend, the Center for Popular Democracy is convening a People’s Convention that will bring together thousands of organizers from community groups across the country. The weekend will provide an opportunity to share lessons learned, to strategize together and to harness the energy of the past year into a powerful organized movement for progressive change through the next decade.
By providing the space for community leaders and organizers to begin working as one, we will begin to shift the balance of power back to working families and ensure the voices calling out for a future with dignity and justice will not fade out.
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