Last week, I attended a local Fight for $15 rally with some fellow Wobblies and other union organizers and supporters. Echoes of rally cries demanding, “$15 and a union,” filled the streets outside of a local McDonald’s as fast food and child services workers from the Tampa and Orlando, Florida area, mostly workers of color, took to the streets and blocked traffic in an unpermitted display of solidarity for the struggles of working peoples everywhere. Tying their movement together with the movements for Black Lives and immigrant justice, they made sure to remind protesters and onlookers alike that this is a fight for all workers, including black and immigrant workers.
Their goal was, as most of us are familiar with by now, a push for a state and/or federal increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour, which they feel would allow them something closer to a living wage. Their reasoning is simple: these corporations are getting rich by systematic theft of resources, government subsidies, corporate-friendly legislation, and wage theft while the workers they employ have to work multiple jobs and rely on state welfare programs and private charity to survive. The corporate bosses make their fortunes on the backs of poverty stricken employees who produce the company’s products and the employees want to be fairly compensated for such labor, which they do not feel is happening.
When workers are limited severely in terms of self-employment and cooperative employment by means of occupational licensing regimes, zoning laws, anti-homesteading laws, artificial increases in the costs of resources, corporate-friendly business regulations meant to stifle competition, and the numerous other barriers of entry into the market, they are sometimes all but forced to work for these types of corporations which systematically steal from them, overwork them, underpay them, and subject to them to physical, verbal, and sexual harassment, and unsafe working conditions. It is because of this that laborers found the need to organize a movement in the first place. Collective bargaining is a means of survival in the marketplace against corruption and collective bargaining for higher pay is just one way of fighting back against systematic corporate theft from workers.
Critics of minimum wage will point out however that a blanket wage floor prices increase unemployment and hurt small businesses. And while the first claim is still being widely debated by all sides with studies supporting multiple conclusions, it is hard to ignore the cost to small businesses. While it maybe minor in some cases, in others the difference in pay rate could mean the difference between staying in business at a comfortable functioning level or struggling to afford enough labor to survive. Higher minimum wage laws make it harder for individuals and groups of workers to start new businesses, cooperatives, worker’s collectives, and other alternative models to compete with the current dominant market players. The goal of the labor movement shouldn’t be so much to make working for corrupt corporations slightly more manageable but to create better workplaces entirely, to drive the corporations from the market, and to create an environment where workers are treated with respect and are given control over their own lives and work. To quote Cory Massimino from his paper Why I Fight Against $15, “What’s needed is more competition… Competition is what destroys artificial rents. And that’s exactly what a new, worker-owned and -managed firm would introduce.”
So how are workers to fight for both survival in the here-and-now and long term victory against the capitalist-dominated market? Is this a win or a loss for libertarian workers? When our reformist band-aid that offers relief, aid, and hope to so many poor and marginalized workers possibly also threatens their future prosperity and escape from such oppressions, what are our options? Massimino, in the same essay quoted above, makes the somewhat bold claim that, “An across the board, one-size-fits-all, imposed wage floor is not “compatible with anarchist principles” like [Kevin] Carson argues,” and that may indeed be the case but does that mean that a fight to raise wages in general is against anarchist principles?
Taking a historical lens on the issue, Carson reminds us in his essay Why I Fight for $15 that, “Back in the late 19th century, the American movement for an eight-hour day included people from a wide range of political ideologies. Some favored federal legislation to achieve their goal. But the movement also included numerous anarchist tendencies, including individualist anarchists affiliated with the New England Reform League. The nationwide general strike for an eight-hour day was seen by some as a call for a government-mandated limit to the working day, but it was also a pressure campaign on employers.”
If we are to stand in solidarity with the current workers’ movement, we must show that we understand their issues and demands for dealing with them and will fight alongside them and when we do find areas of disagreement, we should strive to find common ground or alternative solutions. Well for that we can look to alt labor organizations for guidance such as OUR Walmart, the Restaurant Opportunities Center, Domestic Workers United, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
Charles Johnson explains the significance and achievements of the C.I.W.’s approach:
Founded in 1993, C.I.W. organized local strikes and protests in Immokalee, helping workers recover stolen wages and demanding increased piece rates. After some successes and a lot of stonewalling, they outlined a daring new strategy… In 2001, C.I.W. introduced a contractual pass-through program for companies to voluntarily and directly pay the cost of wage increases. They chose Taco Bell for their first target, and launched a bold, eye-catching campaign using sympathy protests, hunger strikes, pickets, and street theater, amplified by online activist networks and social media. Finally they worked with student groups in a hardball campaign to boot Taco Bell franchises from lucrative dining-service contracts on college campuses. Taco Bell finally conceded after four years of boycotts and 25 schools cancelling contracts. C.I.W. then quickly mounted and won new campaigns targeting McDonald’s, Burger King, Whole Foods, Subway, and seven other restaurants, supermarkets, and dining-service companies.
The Fair Food Program has paid off with $11,000,000 in increased income for Florida tomato-pickers, after three decades of stagnant wages, and new policies to curb assault, sexual abuse and unsafe conditions in the fields… Groups like C.I.W., the Restaurant Opportunities Center, OUR Walmart, and the Domestic Workers United dispense with formal unionization, sidestepping both the privileges and constraints of NLRB labor law, and employ deliberately non-state mechanisms — workplace activism, outreach to consumers, shaming protests, and pressure campaigns — to mobilize workers, provide social support and pressure companies for better pay and conditions. Alt-labor approaches have proven especially successful for workers excluded from NLRB recognition, or in sectors (like low-wage service or restaurant work) where AFL-style collective bargaining has proven difficult or impossible.
Fast food is one such industry often ignored by most business unions and the workers are thus left to find other means. And while the Fight for $15 movement is already part of the alt labor movement, itself foregoing the NLRB or traditional business unions in favor of more non-statist tactics, they haven’t divorced themselves from fighting for statist solutions. However C.I.W.’s strategy has done nothing if not prove that a broad coalition movement can indeed fight for higher pay against multiple of our market’s most dominant corporations and win, they themselves having already won contracts from Ahold USA (Stop&Shop/Giant Food), Walmart, The Fresh Market, Aramark, Compass Group, Sodexo, Chipotle, Burger King, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Subway, Yum! Brands (Taco Bell), McDonald’s, and Bon Appétit.
If the Fight for $15 movement took the same approach and demanded a $15 per hour wage from these corporations themselves, instead of pandering to the state, they could pressure McDonald’s, Walmart, and our other biggest minimum wage employers into their demands through similar tactics to what they’re using now such as solidarity pickets and informational campaigns with the help of social justice and civil rights allies, strikes, direct action on the job, etc., with other businesses following suit and doing the same to both save their public image and to appease their workers. This would allow workers to make strides company-wide through direct action against the ones responsible for exploiting their labor, affecting all employees who work for them nationally and potentially internationally, instead of state-by-state with limited success and the help of reformist politicians. It would also allow workers to get what they demand from the corporations that are exploiting them without making it more difficult for workers to form their own ventures to outcompete hierarchical and exploitative workplaces, thus making them obsolete and ushering in a new era of libertarian worker control.
As Johnson reminds us, “Alt-labor successes should remind us that freed-market processes don’t just mean free rein for employers to do whatever they please; they also include unregulated, worker-driven competitive pressures, voluntary labor associations, social entrepreneurship, and freewheeling social activism, as part of hard-driving competitive bargaining.”