The Fight for a Livable Wage

clip-jenkinsIn the spring of 2004, amid the thaw of a frigid New York City winter, a brave group of Starbucks baristas began organizing. Like most service-sector employees in the United States, they were faced with the daunting task of trying to live on less-than-livable wages. Inconsistent hours, inadequate or nonexistent health insurance, and less-than-dignified working conditions paled in comparison to their inability to obtain the most basic necessities. Apartment meetings, backroom discussions, and after-hours pep talks—all fueled by a collective angst—culminated in a sense of solidarity. On May 17, 2004, they officially announced their affiliation with the Industrial Workers of the World, an all-encompassing union with an impressive history of labor activity in the U.S. A petition for unionization followed suit. Their demands were simple: guaranteed hours with the option for full-time status, an end to understaffing, a healthier and safer workplace, and increased pay and raises.

Deploying what they refer to as “solidarity unionism,” as opposed to “business unionism,” the preamble to the IWW’s constitution echoes an old-school, militant, trade-union tone, boldly (and correctly) proclaiming, “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people.” It is not just a much-needed infusion of labor militancy that makes the IWW attractive, it is its grassroots approach to labor organizing, the IWW’s model represents accessibility and a sense of em- powerment for disconnected workers who find themselves on virtual islands—outside the potentially radical confines of a traditional shop floor.

After decades of a disastrous neoliberal agenda, the Starbucks Union captured a vibe and sparked a movement as 2007 saw the arrival of Brandworkers, “a non-profit organization bringing local food production workers together for good jobs and a sustainable food system.” Following a similar grassroots blueprint, the NYC- based organization was founded “by retail and food employees who identified a need for an organization dedicated to protecting and advancing their rights,” and stands on “a simple principle: that working people, themselves, equipped with powerful social change tools, were uniquely positioned to make positive change on the job and in society.” Their direct-action, “Focus on the Food Chain (FOFC)” initiative specifically targets “the rapid proliferation of sweatshops among the food processing factories and distribution warehouses that supply the City’s (NYC) grocery stores and restaurants” which “increasingly relies on the exploitation of recent immigrants of color, mostly from Latin America and China.”

wage-6In an unprecedented effort, FOFC “creates space for the immigrant workers of NYC’s industrial food sector to build unity with each other, gain proficiency in the use of powerful social change tools, and carry out member-led workplace justice campaigns to transform the industry.” Ultimately, “Focus members and their allies are using organizing, grassroots advocacy, and legal actions to build a food system that provides high-quality local food and good local jobs.” Groups like the Starbucks Workers Union and Brandworkers created the momentum that in 2010, six years after baristas came together in Manhattan, a band of sandwich makers in Minneapolis, Minnesota appear.

Thus, the next wave of grassroots, low-wage labor activity—this time stemming from the fast-food industry and, more specifically, the corporate brand of Jimmy John’s sandwiches took hold. Sporting T-shirts that read, “Wages So Low You’ll Freak”—a mockery of JJ’s corporate slogan, “Subs So Fast You’ll Freak”—JJ workers, also under the direction of the IWW, embarked on the first ever unionization drive for fast-food workers. Emily Przybylski, a bike delivery worker at the restaurant chain, captured the spirit of the moment: “A union in fast food is an idea whose time has come. There are millions of workers in this industry living in poverty with no consistent scheduling, no job security, and no respect. It’s time for change.” As Labor Day 2010 approached, JJ workers at one Minneapolis store filed for a union election and actions such as leafleting and picketing were coordinated at stores in 32 states, “from Clovis, California to Miami, Florida.”

The embryo created by baristas in NYC—and nurtured over the better part of a decade by the likes of the Brandworkers and Jimmy John’s workers in Minneapolis—came to a head in 2012. On Thursday, October 4, 2012, the spread of low-wage discontent struck the epicenter of corporate exploitation, as “more than 70 Los Angeles Wal-Mart workers from nine stores walked off the job.” These walkouts accompanied over “20 charges of unfair labor practices” filed with the National Labor Relations Board. A week later, Wal-Mart workers across 28 stores in 12 states, staged labor protests in the form of strikes and walkouts. The first workers’ strike in the company’s 50-year history spread to stores in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Dallas, Miami, Washington, DC, and Orlando. This movement, much like its predecessors, was largely formed out of grassroots organizing efforts that were over a year in the making. In June 2011, “OUR Walmart,” a workers advocacy organization supported by and coordinated with store associates from across the country, dispatched “nearly 100 Associates representing thousands of OUR Walmart members from across the United States to the Walmart Home Office in Bentonville, Arkansas, and presented a Declaration of Respect to Walmart executive management.” The Declaration included a list of requests:

  • Listen to us, the Associates
  • Have respect for the individual
  • Recognize freedom of association and freedom of speech
  • Fix the Open Door policy
  • Pay a minimum of $13/hour and make full-time jobs available for Associates who want them
  • Create dependable, predictable work schedules
  • Provide affordable healthcare
  • Provide every Associate with a policy manual, ensure equal enforcement of policy and no discrimination,
    and give every Associate equal opportunity to succeed and advance in his or her career
  • Provide wages and benefits that ensure that no Associate has to rely on government assistance

In November 2012, mere weeks after Wal-Mart workers took a stand, fast-food workers from McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, and KFC staged protests in various locations around New York City, “demanding $15 an hour in pay and the right to form a union.” A few months later, in the spring of 2013, fast food strikes gained momentum with numerous walkouts across the country. In April, NYC workers—backed by labor, community and religious groups—staged protests at more than five dozen restaurants. Over the course of the next month, similar actions were carried out in Pennsylvania and Chicago. In Chicago, the actions spread from the fast-food industry to retail, with low-wage workers from Macy’s, Sears, and Victoria’s Secret also participating. On Friday, May 10, “400 workers at more than 60 fast-food restaurants in the Detroit metro area walked off the job” in what may have been “the largest fast food strike in American history.”

wage-1The Detroit event was significantly effective as it “shut down multiple restaurants entirely, including multiple McDonald’s outlets, a Long John Silver’s, a Burger King, two Popeye’s restaurants, and a KFC.” One McDonald’s worker, Jay Robinson, told reporters that when he started at McDonald’s over two years ago, he was paid $7.40 an hour. Writes Aaron Petkov for, “Robinson has gotten raises since then—and now makes $7.48 an hour.” In his efforts to care for himself and a 2-year-old daughter, “It’s a day-to-day struggle,” he said. At another McDonald’s restaurant, “management attempted to avert a shutdown by bringing in replacement workers, but those replacement workers (in a moment of incredible solidarity) then promptly joined the strike.” This wave of low-wage labor militancy continued through the summer.

On Thursday, August 29, workers at numerous fast-food chains participated in coordinated strikes in nearly 60 cities nationwide. Citing poverty wages and the need for more rights in the workplace, “a dozen workers didn’t show up for their shift at a McDonald’s on 8 Mile Road (in Detroit), forcing the closure of the dining room.” In Raleigh, North Carolina, about 30 workers picketed outside a Little Caesars location. One employee, Julio Wilson, expressed the discontent of his peers, saying the $9-an-hour he was paid was not nearly enough to support himself and his 5-year-old daughter. “I know I’m risking my job, but it’s my right to fight for what I deserve,” Wilson said. “Nine dollars an hour is not enough to make ends meet nowadays.” In Indianapolis, “several employees walked off the job from a McDonald’s outlet at 16th and Meridian streets.” “Most people here have a family to support and most people here barely make enough to make ends meet’,” employee Dwight Murray said. “We’re here today because we feel like McDonald’s is a $6 billion entity and it’s feasible for them to pay $15 an hour.”

Propaganda and Union-Busting

Despite the obvious need for livable wages, there is much opposition. Union-busting has become a staple of employee orientations throughout the corporate landscape, with retail giants like Target and Wal-Mart regularly unleashing “aggressive anti-union push (es), and distributing pamphlets and other propaganda to employees.” Corporations like Target have become notorious for making employees watch dramatized “training videos” on the so-called “dangers” of unionization in an attempt to convince workers that higher wages, more benefits, and an overall sense of dignity at the workplace would somehow not be good for them. This concerted effort to maintain a grip on poverty wages has led to the formation of intricate networks of union-busting firms that employ corporate lawyers and “anti-union strategists” to offer “continuing education” for business owners and executives.

“At these seminars,” writes Kim Phillips-Fein, “lawyers and labor relations consultants from the nation’s top union-busting law firms come to speak to rapt, intimate groups of executives, advising them on how to beat union election drives, do end runs around the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), and decertify unions, all the while hawking their own firms’ services.” Of course, “union members are expressly banned.”

Starbucks’ corporate response to the organizing efforts made by those fateful NYC workers in 2004 was fierce. “Faced with the first serious effort in decades to unionize one of its stores, Starbucks launched what a former worker called ‘a scorched-earth campaign’ against pro-union employees,” reported Josh Harkinson. “The union busting has just been absolutely relentless,” says Daniel Gross, who was fired in 2006 due to his involvement in the initial organizing efforts at the Manhattan store where he worked.

wage-replaceThe Minneapolis Jimmy John’s workers were met with similar tactics, which included bizarre personal attacks from store owners and management through social media. On March 22, 2011, after lobbying for sick days from the restaurant chain, six workers—all of whom were “key figures” in the union organizing efforts—were fired for “defaming the brand and disloyalty to the company.”

Shortly thereafter, another “pro-union” employee was berated and humiliated on social media by owners and managers, some of whom went as far as posting the employee’s personal telephone number on a public Facebook page and asking people to text the employee to “let him know how they feel.” An assistant manager then posted disparaging personal comments about the pro-union employee, making fun of his appearance, and including a picture of the employee.

In addition to these reactive measures deployed by some companies, corporations like Wal-Mart have relied on proactive union-busting programs for years. In 2007, Washington-based Human Rights Watch released an extensive report accusing the retail giant of “routinely flouting its workers’ human rights through a sophisticated strategy of harassing union organizers, discriminating against long-term staff, and indoctrinating employees with misleading propaganda.” The report includes examples of “workers forced into unpaid overtime and an alleged strategy of squeezing out long-serving staff who are more costly than low-wage, temporary, younger workers,” highlights “elaborate tactics to stop staff from coming together to fight for better conditions” and even describes detailed measures, such as “focusing security cameras on areas where staff congregate and shifting around loyal workers in ‘unit packing’ tactics to ensure votes for union recognition are defeated.” The report also found that each store manager, as a part of their training, receives a “manager’s toolbox” manual which instructs them on “how to remain free in the event union organizers choose your facility as their next target,” and that managers are also given access to and instructed to call a ‘union hotline’ if they suspect staff are discussing unionization—an action that would deploy corporate specialists from the company’s headquarters to “address the situation.”

The reasons for such opposition are clear. Corporate profits remain at an all-time high because companies are able to pay poverty wages to their employees and rely on government welfare programs to cover the rest (ironically, while also enjoying historically low corporate tax rates). Additionally, the economic storm that has lingered over the heads of the American working class for the past five years has equaled a virtual paradise for corporate America. Three simple facts highlight this current economic landscape:

  • Corporate profit margins just hit another all-time high as companies are making more per dollar of sales than ever before
  • Wages as a percent of the economy just hit another all-time low as companies are paying employees less than they ever have as a share of GDP
  • Fewer Americans are working than at any time in the past three decades as companies don’t employ as many workers as they used to. As a result, the employment-to- population ratio has collapsed. Maintaining this environment has become a top priority for wealthy investors, corporations, and the politicians who are funded by both.

By gutting the middle class through the destruction of unions (as of 2011, only 11.9 percent of the American workforce was unionized—a 70-year low) over the past 3 decades, corporations have enjoyed a relatively clear path towards establishing these beneficial conditions of today

“If these guys are seen to succeed, it could really light a fire because the dissatisfaction is unquestionable,” labor historian Peter Rachleff explains. “The corporation knows that and they have a lot of resources [and] plenty of lawyers” to combat these working class movements.

Building Momentum

wage-2Despite a well-funded and highly- coordinated opposition, there have been many victories and positive developments along the way. The mere emergence of a new labor resistance—let alone the fact that it has developed from within the low-wage service-sector and from one of the most disenfranchised demographics of the working class—is very encouraging. While some have questioned the roots of the movement and the extent of the involvement of more traditional, hierarchical unions like the SEIU (Service Employees International), there is no denying the politicization and sense of empowerment that is being internalized by the involved workers. Considering the near-death of working class consciousness in the U.S., this development should not be underestimated. On December 28, 2008, NYC Star- bucks baristas were vindicated by National Labor Relations Board judge Mindy E. Landow, when she ruled that Starbucks had “illegally fired three workers and otherwise violated federal labor laws in seeking to beat back unionization efforts at several of its Manhattan cafes” and ordered Starbucks “to pledge to end what she said was discriminatory treatment toward workers who supported the union at four of its Manhattan shops: 200 Madison Avenue at 36th Street, 145 Second Avenue at 9th Street, 15 Union Square East and 116 East 57th Street.”

Two years later, the IWW Starbucks Workers Union, following a “determined campaign of grassroots actions in Starbucks stores and communities all over the country,” secured another victory when the company’s corporate office gave in to demands for workers to receive time-and- one-half pay for working on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. “We’re deeply moved to have been able in our modest way to increase respect for Dr. King’s legacy while ensuring that Starbucks employees who work on his holiday are fairly compensated,” said Anja Witek, a Starbucks barista and SWU member in Minnesota.

In February 2012, after a long battle with Jimmy John’s, a federal judge ruled the company illegally fired the 6 employees who had campaigned for sick time, and ordered the company to “reinstate the workers with back pay within 14 days.” In a spirited testimony, Erik Forman, one of the fired employees, remarked: “It has already been over a year since we were illegally fired for telling the truth. For all the hard work and dedication of the NLRB’s civil servants, employers like Jimmy John’s prefer to break the law and drag cases through the courts for years rather than let workers exercise their right to win fair pay, sick days, and respect through union organization.”

The latest low-wage workers strike, which took place on December 5, 2013 across “100 cities through the day,” signified, according to the Guardian, “a growing clamour for more action on income inequality.” In front of a Walgreen’s in downtown Chicago, nearly 200 protestors chanted, “We can’t survive on 85.… Walgreen’s, Walgreen’s, you can’t hide. We can see your greedy side.” In Washington, DC, dozens of workers carryied signs singing loudly, “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way, it’s no fun, to survive, on low low low low pay.” In New York City, about 100 protesters blew whistles and beat drums as they marched into a McDonald’s chanting, “We can’t survive on $7.25.” This collective outrage has empowered workers while placing the problem of income inequality back on the public agenda. Major media sources that had barely uttered a word about such inequality in recent decades have now begun to showcase it. The Catholic Church’s Pope Francis has also made waves during a near-month-long tirade exposing the flaws of capitalism, recently asking, “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market drops 2 points?”

Calls for a federal minimum wage increase have also gained steam with U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez writing on his blog, “To reward work, to grow the middle class and strengthen the economy, to give millions of Americans the respect they deserve—it’s time to raise the minimum wage.” Though, of course, the Democratic Party’s proposal to raise the current rate from $7.25 to $9.00—or even $10.10 in other proposed legislation—would hardly equal a significant change for tens of millions of working poor. The battle cry “Fight for $15” has stuck. Numerous small and localized labor organization like Detroit 15, a group of fast-food and retail workers from the Detroit area fighting “for fair wages and the right to form a union without interference” and Fast Food Forward—a movement of NYC fast-food workers coming together to “build community engagement, hold corporations and their CEOs accountable, and to raise wages so that all Americans can prosper”—have sprung up amid the movement-at-large, helping to form collaborative efforts with community and religious organizations which possess built-up social capital to be used, and to make the collective decision-making process more accessible to workers.

Socialist candidate Kshama Sawant, who made the “Fight for $15” cause a key part of her election campaign, made history by winning a seat on the Seattle City Council in November.  As Seattle Times columnist, Danny Westneat, reported: “You can’t look at the stagnant pay, declining benefits and third-world levels of income disparity in recent years and conclude this system is working. For Millennials as a group, it has been a disaster. Out of the wreckage, left-wing or socialist economic ideas, such as the ‘livable wage’ movement in which government would seek to mandate a form of economic security, are flowering.”

The Future

Considering how far removed we are from the age-old concept of workers “enjoying the fruits of their labor,” a seemingly minimal expectation of earning a livable wage for full-time work has become a revolutionary notion. But it shouldn’t be. This issue is not just a low-wage problem—it’s a working class problem. It’s a middle class problem. It’s a societal problem that destroys living standards for everyone outside of elite circles. And, while it is nowhere near the end-all, be-all of solutions to a toxic system, the premise of “a chain being only as strong as its weakest link” is certainly an improvement over the neoliberal “greed is good” mantra which has dominated monetary and governmental policy over the past 30 years. For low-wage workers, besides allowing the dignity of “earning a living,” a livable wage infuses more expendable income into the economy while allowing for the opportunity to live without a chronic reliance on public assistance.

“If you earn your money through wages (unlike many of the 1 percent, who earn through things like investments and a tax system biased in favor of capital gains over income) then a higher wage, minimum or otherwise, would mean that you’d spend the additional dollars, creating jobs for other workers,” explains market analyst Marshall Auerback. “You’d pay down your mortgages and car loans, getting yourself out of debt. You’d pay more taxes—on sales and property, mostly —thereby relieving the fiscal crises of states and localities. More teachers, police and firefighters would keep their jobs. America would get a virtuous cycle toward higher employment and, more importantly, the cycle would be based on a policy which creates higher incomes, not higher debt via credit expansion.” Furthermore, the establishment of livable wages eases the burden placed on the rest of the working class, which has contributed approximately $7 billion per year to fund public assistance programs that serve as a form of subsidization for Fortune 500s. That figure, from an October 2013 report by UC Berkeley’s Labor Center, includes four major social benefits programs that low-wage workers are forced to use in order to provide basic necessities for themselves and their families. Specifically, the amount is broken down to Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program ($3.9 billion), the Earned Income Tax Credit ($1.9 billion), food stamps ($1 billion), and Temporary Aid for Needy Families ($200,000), and doesn’t include other publicly funded programs like child care assistance, WIC, or Section 8 housing, among others.

Unemployed Graduates

wage4For those who see low-wage workers protesting for higher pay and think, “why don’t they just get a better job” or “why don’t they go to college, like I did, and earn a degree”—think again. In 2012, nearly 300,000 Americans with college degrees were working minimum wage jobs. Furthermore, nearly one-half of all recent college graduates with jobs are underemployed. “Of 41.7 million working college graduates in 2010, about 48 percent of the class of 2010 work jobs that require less than a bachelor’s degree, and 38 percent of those polled didn’t even need high school diplomas.” Even worse, 40 percent of recent college graduates are unemployed. In other words, the idea that earning a degree guarantees a livable wage is exactly that—an idea that no longer is based in reality.

For those who see low-wage workers striking for a livable wage and think, “what do they expect, they’re working at McDonald’s” or “these aren’t careers we’re talking about”—think again. The fact is, since the arrival of globalization, American manufacturing companies—the traditional suppliers of a livable wage—have jumped ship, moving their operations overseas to exploit impoverished workforces that are compelled to labor for next-to-nothing. Since this shift, America’s working class has become largely reliant on the service industry. In other words, low-wage, service sector jobs are now careers—not by choice, but by necessity.

The 2008 economic crisis and subsequent “recovery” only intensified this shift as “mid-wage occupations ($13.84 to $21.13 per hour) constituted 60 percent” of job losses during the 2008 recession, but only 22 percent of the job gains during the recovery. In contrast, “low-wage occupations ($7.69 to $13.83 per hour) constituted 21 percent” of job losses during the recession, while representing 58 percent of new jobs created during the aftermath. This is a staggering displacement that has seen once-livable employment virtually replaced by now-unlivable wages. As a result, the “characteristics of minimum wage workers” are changing, as 75 percent of them are now adults, many of whom have dependents to care for .

Race to the Bottom

The American working class has found itself in a breakneck “race to the bottom” during the corporatist era. However, recent developments stemming from “solidarity unionism,” low-wage worker revolts, and a backlash against neoliberal policies and the extreme income inequality which they have bred have shown that American workers are, in fact, beginning to “rise like lions after slumber.” If the thundering wave of low-wage labor militancy that has swept the country is any indication, the slumber is officially over. And if the “dramatic actions by and on behalf of workers” in places likes Seattle the past few months—including a “defeat of concessions at major grocery chains, Boeing workers’ big ‘no’ vote on concessions, a $15 minimum wage voted in for airport workers, and election of a socialist (a candidate who made a city-wide $15 minimum wage the centerpiece of her campaign) to city council”—represent a microcosm of things to come, the proverbial race to the bottom—whether it has struck bedrock or not—is over. Because of their emergence as a viable sector of embedded labor, courageous, low-wage workers in the service industry now represent the front lines of an ongoing class war. They represent, as Dave Frieboth notes, “a general uprising of young, displaced workers trapped in low-wage jobs”; people who “looked at the wage disparities and saw that, as a simple matter of fact, the system isn’t working.”

The further they can be kept down in terms of wages, benefits, and overall standards of living, the more effectively their lowly presence may be used as leverage to drive all working Americans’ standards down. Thus, their status affects the status of the working class as a whole. They are not only fighting for themselves—they are fighting for all of us. In this sense, “an injury to one” truly is “an injury to all.” Their fight is everyone’s fight.


Colin Jenkins is founder, editor, and Social Economics chair at the Hampton Institute.