The Failures of Fight for $15

“The Fight for $15 started with just a few hundred fast food workers in New York City, striking for $15 an hour and union rights. Today, [they]’re an international movement in over 300 cities on six continents of fast-food workers, home health aides, child care teachers, airport workers, adjunct professors, retail employees – and underpaid workers everywhere.” This synopsis for the Fight for $15 movement comes from their About Me page on their official website. Since its inception, anarchists have debated the pros and cons of the movement and its goals.

Organized by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), New York Communities for Change, UnitedNY, and the Black Institute, their first strike ended up being the largest fast food strike in American history. Since then, they have continued to organize sectors of the workforce which have (until recently) been largely ignored. They have adopted “Alt-Labor” tactics such as alliances with other community organizations like Black Lives Matter, sit-ins, and solidarity strikes. With the call for “$15 and a union,” workers in these industries began to organize with their co-workers to collectively bargain for higher wages, better work conditions, and the right to unionize without retaliation. Of course, under the influence of statist labor in the form of the SEIU and other involved groups, much of the movement has become about legislative reform in the area of minimum wage laws.

This view is defended by some anarchists under the assumption that, even if it’s only a small reform, it can help people survive in a rigged capitalist market by giving them a living wage. But there’s only so much truth to that. Inflation would eventually make the gains of a higher minimum wage irrelevant, forcing workers into a cycle of continuously fighting for higher real wages. This game of cat-and-mouse would simply serve as a distraction from the labor movement’s true revolutionary potential, decreasing chances of potential employment for already marginalized people in the process. The industries involved in the Fight for $15 movement largely employ people of color. The companies in these industries often exploit their labor for profit and some can afford to pay them higher wages. However, what is true in some workplaces is not always necessarily consistent across the board.

Minimum wage laws have surprisingly racist origins. Their explicit aim was to decrease competition in the labor market, specifically for the benefit of white workers. In a market infested with bigotry, the only real competitive advantage black and brown folks had when applying for jobs was being paid less. When white workers realized they were losing job opportunities to these folks, they began fighting for minimum wage laws that reflected white pay standards. Many racist employers saw little advantage in hiring a person of color over a white person unless they could pay them less, so they didn’t hire them. According to one article:

“Our nation’s first minimum wage law, the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931, had racist motivation.

During its legislative debate, its congressional supporters made such statements as, “That contractor has cheap colored labor that he transports, and he puts them in cabins, and it is labor of that sort that is in competition with white labor throughout the country.”

During hearings, American Federation of Labor President William Green complained, “Colored labor is being sought to demoralize wage rates.””

The same remains true today with trans folks. They are already virtually unhireable in some less progressive areas. Taking away their right to accept lower paying jobs can jeopardize their survival or turn them towards more dangerous or illegal forms of work. When it comes to survival under capitalism, sometimes a low paying job is better than the alternative of no job at all, and minimum wage laws have the unintentional effect of limiting already marginalized people’s entry into the job market. Some unions have even seen the disadvantages of state-enforced minimum wage laws. In areas where Fight for $15 has made legislative gains, they have fought for their unions to be exempt from them in order to maintain workers’ jobs and give their members a competitive advantage! If some unions are asking for exemptions from minimum wage laws, the Fight for $15 movement’s call for a universal $15 minimum wage is clearly not something that all workers want.

In the tradition of the IWW and anarcho-syndicalism, I personally believe that workers know how to organize their particular workplaces better than anyone else. That means that while those in the Fight for $15 movement may see the need to push for a $15 wage for themselves and their co-workers, other workers in other workplaces may not want to collectively bargain for those particular demands. We need to respect these strategic differences if we wish to truly defend the rights of the working class to self-organize.

While the Fight for $15 movement has largely focused on achieving higher wages through the state, some workers have achieved their goals by bargaining directly with their employer. One example is the nursing home workers and hospital employees at UPMC (Pennsylvania’s largest private employer). This method is more consistent with the bottom-up approach traditionally favored by anarchists. But statists within Fight for $15 have criticized this approach and chosen to devote all efforts towards building the movement in areas where it seems most likely to make legislative gains.

This short-sighted approach means that the Fight for $15 movement has largely pulled out of red areas, including much of the South. Such tactics amount to abandoning working class people under the misguided assumption that Fight for $15 can organize better for workers than workers can organize for themselves. Apparently the call for “$15 and a union” isn’t serious unless it is a call for a state-enforced minimum wage. Moreover, the call for a union is seen as either secondary or only useful as a means of reaching the first goal. In reality, the existence of organized unions in these industries could potentially do much more to help those workers than a simple, short-term, state-sanctioned wage increase.

It’s time to stop pretending that the Fight for $15 movement hasn’t been corrupted by liberal reformism. It’s time to realize that Fight for $15 does not speak for all workers. It’s time to acknowledge that their narrow views on strategy only serve to abandon workers in areas where their strategy doesn’t work: despite the success of other strategies from movement participants.

We need to fight for workers’ right to unionize so that they can achieve higher wages through collectively bargaining with their employers. Finally, we need to take over organizing in areas where Fight for $15 has discontinued their efforts and reroute that energy into a new strategy to achieve $15 and a union for all employees. This time, let’s do it right.

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