Jacobin’s Trish Kahle has written a fascinating essay about Fight for 15 — the wave of one-day strikes we’ve been seeing across the country by fast food and retail workers, who are demanding a $15 an hour minimum wage and the right to form a union without retaliation. Part of what makes the piece so arresting is Kahle’s own story. Like so many young people today, she’s bright and highly educated (a graduate student, she says, at “one of the world’s elite research universities”). And yet thus far in her life, she’s been relegated to low-wage jobs — working as a veterinary technician, as a temp landscaper, as a Whole Foods clerk, and at no time, it seems, making much over minimum wage.
But what I found most intriguing, and I daresay, inspiring, about her essay is her description of how the one-day strikes work, and what participants are getting out of them. Clearly, these strikes haven’t led to successful union drives at McDonald’s or Whole Foods — yet. But there have been small victories. Take this, for example:
In my store, when I faced disciplinary action for violating the attendance policy we had been organizing against, I demanded union representation in my disciplinary meeting and my co-workers prepared to take action if they decided to try and fire me. Management backed off. The disciplinary meeting never even took place. When a Whole Foods worker from another location was suspended after striking (for an incident that had taken place two weeks before the strike without incurring discipline) we began organizing openly to defend her job, and she was reinstated with full back-pay.
The small taste of victories won through struggle has transformed how people perceive themselves and their power at work. It’s changed our relationships with co-workers, and solidified our confidence that much more is possible.
Those kinds of victories are important, and they show how these actions can cause worker power and solidarity to grow, even if workers haven’t, technically, formed a union. Employers are more likely to resolve workplace grievances when workers confront them collectively.
In Chicago, where Kahle lives, Fight for 15 is being financially supported by SEIU Local 73. Kahle notes that:
Rather than focusing on a single store, or a particular chain, the Fight for 15 has taken a more inclusive citywide approach, organizing all fast food and retail workers into a single union. Had the campaign been run shop-by-shop, it would have been to easy for the bosses to isolate us.
Kahle does admit that Fight for 15 has been controversial on the left, because of:
SEIU’s history of settling concessionary contracts, cutting deals with employers that short workers, and most recently, in the health care wars in California. Others are concerned the workers aren’t in control. Still others worry Fight for 15 isn’t a real organizing drive, but a PR campaign.
Kahle believes there’s some justice to those criticisms, but that to dismiss the value of the campaign because of them would be short-sighted. She says SEIU’s resources and bold leadership in the campaign have been essential. She admits that there is “a PR aspect” to the campaign, but argues that there is also real movement building. She also says “workers are being transformed into union leaders for the first time by participating in this movement” and that “[r]adicals are in a position to shape this movement by rebuilding the tradition of radical unionism.”
I’m supportive of Fight for 15, but also skeptical. I’m moved by the workers’ stories Trish Kahle tells in her piece, and tantalized by the sense of potential in the campaign. But I have my doubts about the efficacy of SEIU as an institution — well-meaning as it undoubtedly is — and especially about whether these kinds of “top-down” union organizing drives ever work. As economist Richard Freeman has persuasively argued, union formation, historically, has come the way Richard Hell said love did — in spurts. There’s little evidence that staff-driven efforts like Fight for 15 do very much to significantly increase union density, over the long run.
As Rich Yeselson observed earlier this year in this excellent essay, a revival of worker militancy is what will lead to significant growth in union strength. That’s how unions grew in the past. Yeselson wrote:
That is how massive union growth occurs—workers take matters into their own hands and then unions capture that energy like lightning in a bottle. The workers risk their jobs, and sometimes even their lives, to form a union. It has happened this way all over the world. The workers will signal—loudly—when they want to organize.
In short, union growth occurs when working-class activism overwhelms the quotidian strictures of civil society, forcing political and economic elites to accept unionization as the price of civil peace. During episodes of massive union growth, the workers don’t confine themselves to the careful strategies of union staff—they disregard them, and force the union to play catch up. Conflict spreads quickly from worksite to worksite.
I certainly don’t think Fight for 15 is doing any harm, and it may well do some good. At the very least, a new generation of labor activists needs to be trained, and perhaps some workers will become transformed into activists by these struggles. Who knows, maybe Fight for 15 will turn out to be the new dawn of a glorious renaissance for labor.
But I see no indications — yet — that we’re at that point where workers have become so militant that we are poised to see significant gains by labor. And should a new era of militancy be ushered in, I highly doubt that an establishment labor organization like SEIU will be leading the way. When the civil rights movement erupted during the 1950s and 1960s, it wasn’t the nation’s establishment civil rights organization, the NAACP, that led the burgeoning new movement. Instead, it was new groups like Martin Luther King’s SCLC and the student group SNCC that were at the forefront.
I suspect that a revival of American labor militancy, when it does come, will not take the form of an SEIU-led project. It will be its own thing, though establishment labor unions like SEIU or UNITE HERE may well provide invaluable assistance, as the NAACP did to the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. And who knows, maybe this Fight for 15 campaign will take off. History has proved again and again that change happens in unexpected ways, in unexpected places.