by Bill Onasch
Gathering for Fifteen and a Union
Fast Food is the fastest growing industry in American economic “recovery.” Most of its workers are scheduled for less than forty hours a week. The big majority are at or near the minimum wage. Virtually none have benefits such as health insurance, vacations, sick pay, or pensions. Most are so poor they are eligible for public assistance such as Food Stamps and Medicaid–and are encouraged by their employers to use these programs to subsidize the labor costs of highly profitable corporations. These issues led Fast Food workers across the USA to periodically strike and demonstrate over the past two years–and they sent delegates to a gathering in suburban Chicago this past weekend to plan the next phase of their fight.
An AP story opened,
“Comparing their campaign to the civil rights movement, fast food workers from across the country voted Saturday to escalate their efforts for $15-an-hour pay and union membership to include nonviolent civil disobedience. More than 1,300 workers gathered in a convention center in [Chicago suburb] Villa Park to discuss the future of a campaign that has spread to dozens of cities in less than two years. Wearing T-shirts that said ‘Fight for $15′ and ‘We Are Worth More,’ the workers cheered loudly and said they would win if they stuck together.”
Latoya Caldwell, a mother of four from Kansas City, was there. She has to work six days a week at Wendy’s to get in forty hours at 7.50 per. She can’t pay all of her bills on time out of her weekly check. That’s why she’s already been on short strikes three times.
Another worker interviewed by AP was Cherri Delisline, a 27-year-old single mother from Charleston, South Carolina, who already has worked a decade at McDonald’s–and earns 7.35 an hour, ten cents over the current Federal minimum wage. This sister had some definite ideas,
“I personally think we need to get more workers involved and shut these businesses down until they listen to us. To have a livable wage, it’s going to need to be $15 an hour. We make the owners enough money that they have houses and cars and their kids are taken care of. Why don’t (they) make sure I can be able to do the same for my kids and my family?”
Sister Delisline basically answered her own question. The bosses don’t have to do anything for a lone complainer–there’s plenty of desperate workers in line even for her low wage, no benefits job. But when all the workers organize for action–and get strong solidarity backing from working class consumers in the community–it’s a different story. Fifteen and a Union can become a reality. Among the Whatever It Takes tactics discussed in Chicago in addition to civil disobedience were more stay-away strikes of longer duration–and even sit-down occupations of their workplaces.
Readers familiar with American labor history will recognize these are “old school,” reminders of not only the mass civil rights movement of the 1950-60s that broke down racial segregation in stores, eating places, and public transportation but also the 1934 turning point strikes discussed in the last WIR, as well as the Flint sit-downs that paved the way for the first UAW national contract with General Motors. But these successes were so long ago abandoned by the mainstream union and civil rights movements that they now appear to be the Next Big Thing to the generations powering Fifteen and a Union Now.
In some areas the IWW has carried out impressive campaigns among workers at Starbucks and Jimmy John’s. The Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Workers recently won a representation election at a Subway in Bloomsbury, New Jersey and is fighting for a first contract. But SEIU, often collaborating with local Worker Centers and groups such as Jobs with Justice, is the main backer of the inspiring Fast Food strikes and demonstrations represented in Chicago.
This is a welcome departure from the strategy of the previous Andy Stern regime in that union. In his book A Country That Works, Stern dismissively wrote “class struggle mentality is a vestige of an earlier era.” Stern concentrated on convincing corporate management at the highest level that agreeing to recognize SEIU for at least a portion of their national workforce would bring “value added” for both sides. Such private sector deals he cut mostly fell apart; none did much for the wages and conditions of these “organized” workers.
When Stern decided to retire, offering his services to the Obama administration, he expected his designated replacement would be easily confirmed to carry on his new strategy. Much to the shock of many, Mary Kay Henry was instead elected the new SEIU president. She has been somewhat more open to “vestiges of an earlier era.” In keynote remarks to the conference Henry got loud approval when she said,
“A selfish few at the top are using their power to hold down wages, no matter how much that hurts families and communities across the country.”
An important companion to the Fast Food struggle is the movement promoting a fifteen dollar minimum wage that would, by law, lift unorganized, as well as many unionized workers, out of the ranks of the working poor. There have, of course, been important local victories on this front in SeaTac and Seattle, Washington where a hundred thousand low wage workers are now on track to 15–in many cases nearly doubling their income. 15 Now formations are popping up across the country.
These two parallel but complementary movements are the leading edge of efforts to regroup the working class for serious struggle around what I have called the trident approach–fronts in the workplace, community, and, in the case of the minimum wage, the political arena. Victories will not only bring sorely needed gains for the working poor. The solidarity they are arousing in unions and the community will lead to advances for all. They deserve our support.
A Public Disgrace
My friend Adam in the Twin Ports, a Steelworkers rep for janitors at a large Duluth hospital, sent me some background on a story posted on our companion Labor Advocate blog. He wrote,
“Yesterday [Saturday] we held a march and rally in support of the 27 custodians and grounds keepers whose jobs are being threatened with outsourcing by the University of Wisconsin-Superior. The UWS administration says this is to cut costs because of their budget crisis, but at the same time they’re making this proposal the top administrators gave themselves 12% raises. Each individual administrator’s wage increase is equal to the annual salary of one and a half janitors. It truly is an outrage, and it’s believed that the real reason they’re proposing this is because the state-wide UW system is looking to launch a wave of outsourcing, and they’re using UW-Superior (the smallest school in the UW system) as a trial run. We had about 175 people participate in our protest…”
East Side Freedom Library
Perhaps believing he was doing penance for the ruthless exploitation of workers that made him one of the richest men in history, Andrew Carnegie donated public libraries housed in beautiful buildings to towns across his adopted country. One was on the East Side of St Paul. It no longer fits in to the plans and budget of the St Paul Library system but they wanted it to be preserved for a similar purpose. As Peter Rachleff was looking for new projects since leaving the history department at Macalester College after three decades or so of service, the concept of the East Side Freedom Library was born.
The East Side has long been at least a first stop for immigrants. In Carnegie’s day they mainly came from Europe. Today most come from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Understanding the past and present challenges of immigrant workers is important to the future of our class as a whole. That’s right up Peter’s alley as both a scholar and active supporter of present day immigrant rights struggles. He and Beth Cleary negotiated a fifteen year lease of the building.
The ESFL website explains,
“The ESFL’s mission is to preserve and promote knowledge about the East Side – its history, residents and institutions – through educational collections and programs. The library will house non-circulating research collections that appeal to interested general learners as well as scholars, with innovative databases and finding aids that make using the collections fun and vital. Story is a major theme of the ESFL, and the telling and gathering of stories, through formal interviews, workshops, and small-scale public performances, will allow local residents and interested publics to learn more about the work and residential histories of the East Side.”
But before these plans can be implemented, Peter and Beth have to make good on lease commitments. The city Library set only a token rent but require major structural repair and renovation, including a new roof and much stone and brick work. We’re talking big bucks here– beyond the pocket depth of a couple of retired academics. They’ve applied for a St Paul STAR grant but this requires matching funds. To at least meet the match, there’s a Raise the Roof to Open the Doors fund drive.
Peter has devoted a lot over the years to raising material support for various worker struggles. He deserves assistance on this worthy effort. I urge you to check out this unique project and, if you can afford it, pitch in to help pull it off.
That’s all for this week.
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