Fast-food workers in more than 190 cities across the nation took to the streets once again on Thursday with their call for $15 an hour and union rights. But no longer are they carrying the banner of change on their own. Walmart workers, home care workers, convenience and dollar store workers and now, for the first time, baggage handlers, skycaps, wheelchair attendants, and cabin cleaners have all joined together, calling for higher pay.
If this feels like something you’ve never seen before, it probably is: This week’s actions represent some of the most widespread labor protests since the first half of the 20th century.
Back then, the fight was for basic dignity in an era of robber baron capitalism. Starting in the early 20th century and reaching a peak in the 1930s and 1940s, industrial workers transformed the anything-goes American workplace through massive strikes that led to the 8-hour workday, the 40-hour workweek, the minimum wage, and the right to organize without threat and intimidation. Millions of workers formed unions and bargained strong contracts with decent wages, and the result was the most broadly-shared period of economic prosperity in our nation’s history.
What those at the center of the fight for $15 seek – the conversion of our low-wage service economy into a high-wage, good-jobs one – is no less momentous. Retail sales, home health, personal care, food preparation, and cleaning are among the largest, fastest-growing, and lowest-paid occupations in the American economy, featuring median wages as little as $8.81 an hour.
These and similar occupations represent a disproportionate share of the jobs created since the Great Recession; over 25% of all jobs in the U.S. are low-paying, a higher share than any other industrialized nation. While the modern-day corporate titans who control behemoths like Walmart (1.3 million U.S. employees) and McDonald’s (761,000 U.S. employees, including those through franchises) recreate the Gilded Age, the low pay, precarious hours, and poor benefits of their mostly non-union workforces are becoming America’s new normal – threatening our consumer-driven economy.
Already, this burgeoning worker movement has achieved remarkable success. In the two short years since their first strikes, fast-food workers have launched a national debate about inequality and low wages, ignited minimum wage campaigns that have or will raise pay for over 7 million workers in 17 states, and helped transform $15 an hour from a crazy idea to city law in SeaTac, Seattle, and San Francisco.
But there is still much to be done. Often lost in the discussion of the fast food protests is workers’ demand not only for a $15 wage but also for a union. With less than 7% of private sector workers covered by collective bargaining agreements, the idea that unions represent a solution to low wages, inequality, and economic stagnation can seem foreign. In fact, economic research – and the lived experience of most industrialized nations where wealth and income are distributed more equally – links greater collective bargaining coverage to lower inequality.
There is a simple reason for this: Unions – that is, organizations of workers who join together so that they have the strength to negotiate better wages and working conditions – have and always will be the most effective counterweight when capitalism runs amok. And with CEOs earning an all-time high of 331 times the salary of their workers (more than 1,000 times higher in fast food), with the top 1% of earners controlling as much as 37% of all wealth, with corporate profits as a share of GDP at record levels (while wages are at a 65-year low), and with even Wall Street bemoaning the stifling effects of high inequality and low pay on growth, who can argue that our economy is not in serious need of some checks and balances?
Time will tell whether this new era of labor activism will have the reach and staying power of previous ones. But with more and more groups of disaffected workers joining in protest with their peers in fast food – giving voice to the frustration of so many in all walks of life who are struggling – conditions are ripe for sweeping change. And this is perhaps the fast-food workers’ most important contribution: They have reminded us that a better world is, indeed, possible.
We need only join together and fight for it.
Arun Ivatury is a campaign strategist with the National Employment Law Project.