Heartened by growing support for their cause and recent pay hikes by large corporate employers, America’s low-wage workers will continue their fight for higher pay Wednesday with protests, rallies and one-day walkouts scheduled in more than 200 cities.
The actions are expected to attract thousands of participants in what organizers are calling the “most widespread mobilization ever by U.S. workers seeking higher pay.”
Fast food cooks and cashiers are expected to strike in 230 cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City, Mo., and Raleigh, N.C.
The growing effort to boost the wages and bargaining clout of workers in non-union establishments took off in November 2012, when 200 fast food employees in New York City left their jobs in protest, calling for $15 hourly wages and the right to unionize.
Since then, strong financial support from the Service Employees International Union has helped the “Fight for 15” movement expand to home care workers, retail employees, child care workers, airport service workers and even adjunct college professors seeking $15,000 per course.
International protesters, in solidarity with their U.S. counterparts, will march in more than 100 cities in 35 countries, organizers say. That includes a one-day walkout by fast food workers in New Zealand and by restaurant, hotel and tourism workers in Italy.
Experts say the growth, organization and sweep of the “Fight for 15” movement is unique.
“In my lifetime, it’s relatively unprecedented,” said Harry Holzer, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University who’s an expert on the low-wage labor market.
Following the loss of more than 8 million jobs in the Great Recession, the Occupy Wall Street movement helped channel the public’s growing anger at perceived corporate greed in the financial services sector.
Fight for 15 is an extension of that movement, seeking financial and social justice for perceived economic inequalities, said Sylvia Allegretto, an economist at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California, Berkeley.
“Low-wage workers really paid the price for the Great Recession brought to you by the wizards of Wall Street who are now booming,” Allegretto said. “CEO pay is back to being hundreds of times more than what the typical worker makes. Corporate profits are doing very well. And these workers are saying ‘Wait a minute. What about us?’ ”
Critics warn that raising wages for low-skilled workers might lead employers to eliminate positions or cut hours for the very people the higher pay is designed to help.
The Employment Policies Institute, a research organization, on Tuesday launched a new website, “The Faces of $15,” that highlights businesses that had to raise prices, change policies or close because of $15 hourly wages.
Laura Rollins, a part-time McDonald’s restaurant worker in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said her pay would rise $1 an hour – to $9.45 – in July, when a newly announced pay increase for company employees kicks in.
After walking off the job in a similar wage protest last year, Rollins, 63, said she’d continue to fight for $15 an hour, in spite of the recent raise.
“We’re going to win this, because McDonald’s is going to sooner or later realize that we’re not playing,” Rollins said. “We are real and we are serious and we are the people. And our voices have got to be heard.”
In a statement, McDonald’s spokeswoman Lisa McComb said the company’s $1 hourly raise was “an important and meaningful first step as we continue to look at opportunities that will make a difference for employees.”
As for the walkouts planned for Wednesday, McComb added: “We respect people’s right to peacefully protest, and our restaurants remain open every day with the focus on providing an exceptional experience for our customers.”
From 2003 to 2013, inflation-adjusted wages for the bottom 70 percent of U.S. workers either were flat or declined, according to the labor institute at Cal Berkeley.
While there’s been movement lately – such as recent pay hikes by McDonald’s and other large employers such as Target, Wal-Mart and the discount retailer TJX – the pay of most low-wage workers still lags far behind inflation.
The push for $15 an hour, however, has helped spur public action to address the problem. San Francisco, Seattle and SeaTac, Wash., have adopted $15 an hour minimum wages. Similar campaigns are underway in the cities of Los Angeles, Washington and New York.
A new report by the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy organization, found that 42 percent of U.S. workers earn less than $15 an hour. And six occupations with median hourly wages of less than $15 are among the 10 slated to add the most jobs in coming years. They are retail salespeople, food preparation and service workers, freight and stock workers, janitors, nursing assistants and home care workers.
“If we want an economy that is balanced and shares prosperity fairly, we must raise wages in these sectors so that they can serve as cornerstones to rebuilding our nation’s disappearing middle class,” said Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project.
Shalove Lawrence of Atlanta has been a personal care worker for more than 15 years. She just got a 24-cent hourly raise – to $7.49 – after more than six years with the same company.
In caring for older, disabled and chronically ill patients, Lawrence, who’s 39, typically works seven straight days from 2 to 10 p.m., followed by a week off. In her spare time, she does housekeeping and other odd jobs to make ends meet, leaving little time to spend with her 10-year-old daughter, Tylar.
“I have people that I take care of, maybe go take them to the store or go and clean their house. Little stuff that’ll help me to be able to pay my bills,” Lawrence said. “But I shouldn’t have to go and do that. . . I can’t even do special things with my daughter. She’s 10 now. She should be able to enjoy her mom on times when I don’t have to work, and we can’t even do that.”
Because of her low pay, Lawrence qualifies for food stamps, which have become a lifeline for many low-wage workers.
A new report by the labor institute at Cal Berkeley found that 10.3 million families that have at least one family member who works receive food stamps through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
However, Michael Saltsman, research director at the Employment Policies Institute, said anecdotal evidence suggested businesses were increasing prices and that some were even closing in San Francisco and Oakland, where the minimum wage was recently increased.
One Bay Area restaurant eliminated tipping when it instituted the pay increase, which Saltsman said would leave employees earning less than they did before the raise.
He said public policy should instead look for ways to help low-wage workers without putting minimum-wage, entry-level jobs at risk.
“That’s the most important thing: making sure those job pathways continue to exist,” Saltsman said.
As the demand for higher wages continues, Holzer, of Georgetown University, said he didn’t think the movement would find success in lifting pay for all the sectors it represented.
The tightening job market, which is partly responsible for the recent wave of corporate pay increases, will continue to nudge wages higher for low-paid workers, Holzer said.
“But they’re not going to have a lot of really quick successes beyond a lot of these $1 or $2 raises, I don’t think,” Holzer said.
Efforts to unionize aren’t likely to succeed, either, because of the difficulty involved and the fact that private-sector unionism has been declining for more than 60 years.
“I don’t see that turning around,” Holzer said.
What might develop, however, is a robust social movement of low-wage workers across various industries that could become a political force that lobbies for various issues.
“Once they’ve figured out how to organize workers in a movement, though not necessarily a union, they have to think about what they’re going to do with that organizational skill,” Holzer said. “What’s their plan B?”