How Can the Fight for 15 Move From Winning Wage Increases to Winning a Union?

Max Zahn

Max Zahn Freelance Journalist

The ubiquity of Drake's "Hotline Bling" has endured for months, but the song still shocks when played at 6 AM by a full marching band. That precise spectacle swiveled groggy heads in midtown Manhattan recently, when fast food workers rallying outside McDonald's enjoyed a brassy rendition of Drake's hit. Many workers danced, while others exuberantly sang the anthem's pining chorus, “you used to call me on my cell phone.”

A nitpick political consultant, however, might've labeled Drake's woeful lament as “off-message.” Unlike the character Drake is rapping as in “Hotline Bling”, the Fight for $15 has never felt a warmer embrace. 

Just two weeks before the single-day strike, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo struck a deal with the legislature's Republicans that put the state on a path to a $15 per hour minimum wage. The momentous victory, replicated shortly thereafter in California, enshrined into law one of the movement's principal demands. 

"I'm proud to say we won $15 for workers, neighbors, and friends," said Rebecca Cornick, an employee at a Wendy's in Brooklyn since 2006. "No one should have to work in poverty."

Yet the movement's goals, even in New York, remain unfinished. 

"Since the campaign began, the workers have always had two demands," said Fight for $15 organizing director Kendall Fells. "It's $15 and a union, not $15 or a union." 

The prospect of the campaign's flagship city and state turning their attention to the unionizing effort raises a crucial question: Can the Fight for $15 translate the popularity of its minimum wage platform into an equally successful union push?

Unions have served as the financial and organizing backbone of the progressive movement for decades. Their institutional strength will prove crucial for sustaining insurgent energy generated by movements like the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, Black Lives Matter and the undocumented youth movement. The staying power of this progressive moment might, in turn, depend on whether Fight for $15 can make its union demand as successful as its wage hike. 

Fight for $15 itself receives the entirety of its funding from dues-paying members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Since the movement began in 2012, SEIU has spent approximately $70 million on the organizing, lobbying and public relations necessary to make the campaign effective on a national and international scale. Some SEIU locals, like New York’s home care workers’ 1199, will see their pay increase as a direct result of the hike. Yet many of the union's members will only benefit indirectly, if at all. For them, the movement's promise rests in the hope that fast food workers will one day join SEIU, strengthening the union's overall power. 

That said, workers within and without SEIU benefit from the political power engendered by the growing popularity of Fight for $15. 

"It harkens back to a strategy where labor fights for a politics for all working people and doesn't just focus on a particular slice of organized labor," says Bill Lipton, New York state director of the Working Families Party. "Not only does that create leverage for unions across the country, but it also changes the public's view of unions.” 

According to Gallup, he's right: the nationwide approval rating of unions has increased from 52 percent to 58 percent since Fight for $15 began. 

"The movement around the minimum wage is part of an effort at the renaissance of the labor movement," adds author and activist Bill Fletcher, Jr. "It's something that goes beyond trade unions as organizations." 

By eschewing myopic union politics, Fight for $15’s advocacy has benefited not only the movement’s members but also non-union workers and the broad labor left. Cresting alongside Bernie Sanders's galvanizing critique of wealth inequality, Fight for $15—and, by extension, SEIU—have helped foster a potential revival of union support in the United States. 

Despite prompting these changes in union perception, the movement’s primary impact has come in the realm of public policy. 

"I give SEIU credit for doing [Fight for $15] in the first place and sticking with it," said scholar Frances Fox Piven. "But it's not a unionizing campaign." So far, the campaign has won wage benefits for fast food workers by pushing municipal and state elected officials to pass friendly legislation in cities like Seattle and SeaTac, Washington, Emeryville, California, and (potentially) Baltimore. 

"They are deploying electoral power, not worker power," notes Piven. "Low-wage workers in the United States are searching for a source of worker power—power against their immediate opponent, the boss.” 

Labor Historian Nelson Lichtenstein says Fight for $15 reminds him of America's Progressive era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when union density stagnated yet movements for social inclusion and government intervention flourished. "In the Progressive era you had Teddy Roosevelt, a trust-fund buster," says Lichtenstein. "Bernie [Sanders] is a bank buster. Teddy wasn't saying we're going to use the unions to curb the power of U.S. Steel. He said we're going to break them up." 

Lichtenstein contrasts the Progressive era with the New Deal period that came afterward, when Franklin D. Roosevelt forwarded unions as the primary counterweight against the power of big business. "It was for those marginal to that bargaining regime that [Franklin Roosevelt] passed a minimum wage law," says Lichtenstein. 

But times have changed. Since 88.9% of American workers are non-union, laws mandating employee benefits—minimum wage, paid family and sick leave, affordable health insurance—have become paramount. Conversely, the inclusion of such provisions in collectively bargained contracts is largely a dinosaur gone extinct. That said, the unions that do remain have played a crucial role in winning broadly impactful policies like the Affordable Care Act. 

"There's a turn to liberalism and the raising of the social wage," said Lichtenstein. "But the dilemma is it's not helping the trade union movement institutionally." 

In other words, unions remain in decline even as they win. 

"You can win these victories but if you don't have organization, it all goes poof," said Fletcher.  

If the political winds shift, minimum wage laws could get repealed or reversed. Worse yet, the trend toward union decline forecasts an eventual decrease in political power for the country's progressive Left. It's no accident that the first state to win a $15 minimum wage, New York, is also the state with the highest rate of unionized workers. Additionally, issues like uneven or short-notice scheduling, worker safety, and employee harassment do not easily lend themselves to legislation. They concern employee control of the workplace dynamic—something trade unions can best address. 

Fast food workers, of course, realize this. They've made arguments along these lines from the beginning of Fight for $15. "It's very important to have a union that can protect our rights," says Rebecca Cornick, the Wendy's employee who went on single-day strike for the eighth time last Thursday. "The way we're treated is unfair. The union can mediate between us and the corporation." 

This belief rises from the workers all the way up to SEIU leadership, who vow full commitment to the unionizing effort. "We think there's overwhelming support from workers in every store," declared Mary Kay Henry, SEIU's president. "Way more than 50+1," she added in reference to the 50 percent of workers plus one who must support the union in order to get recognition from an employer.

Whether or not Henry is exaggerating the scale of worker support, there remains the herculean task of organizing half of the approximately 3.67 million fast food employees nationwide to sign cards in support of the union. After delivering those cards to the NLRB, the union would then have to retain the majority for a union election shortly thereafter. 

To get a sense of how remote the possibility of that organizing effort is, take a look at New York City, where Fight for $15 organized over 100 fast food workers to go on a single-day strike on April 14. According to New York's Department of Labor, there are 63,587 fast food workers in New York City, a little over half of whom would have to file a card with the NLRB in support of the union. The challenge of triggering a fast food union vote at 50 percent plus one with the NLRB is, therefore, gargantuan. Even triggering a union election at just one of the chains—say, McDonald's—would prove difficult; the company employs approximately 760,000 people across the country spread across over 10,000 restaurants in the United States. SEIU, a behemoth in its own right, understandably seems to balk at the prospect.

"The NLRB has old rules for small shops," says Fells, Fight for $15's organizing director. "This movement is too large to be put in that process." Mary Kay Henry echoed the sentiment: "The best success we've had uses the organizing of our workers to win, not the law." 

After Henry spoke, the president of SEIU's powerful local 32BJ, Hector Figueroa, chimed in: "This is a David-and-Goliath fight. You don't fight Goliath on his terms. We fight on our terms." 

All of these somewhat cryptic statements from SEIU leadership suggest an alternative strategy: voluntary recognition. 

Voluntary recognition goes like this: If the Fight for $15 continues to advocate on its own terms—by publicly and vociferously criticizing fast food chains—then it may force McDonald's and others to agree to recognize the union outright, without SEIU having to go through the onerous process of triggering and holding a union election at each individual McDonald’s restaurant. 

If SEIU could secure such an agreement from fast food companies, then it could safely invest the colossal time and money necessary to get 50% plus one of fast food workers to sign cards in support of the union. SEIU could do so knowing that once it secured enough cards, the fast food companies would have to abide by the prior agreement and recognize the union. Even with such assurance, SEIU would have to scale up the campaign to such a degree that the likelihood of it doing so—and doing so successfully—remains in doubt. The potential reward in membership growth, though, would surely be substantial. 

This strategy calls on Fight for $15 to generate so much negative attention for the fast food companies that they'll do whatever it takes to stop the campaign. To its credit, Fight for $15 has already achieved quite a bit in this regard. By deploying periodic, coordinated single-day strikes in hundreds of cities across the United States and abroad, the campaign—in conjunction with the public relations firm Berlin Rosen—has dominated the media narrative. Plus, repeatedly invoking a militant tactic like the strike allows Fight for $15 to demonstrate that worker commitment will endure for however long it takes to win a union. 

Yet the tactic has not cut into fast food sales. McDonald’s recently reported its third straight quarter of profit growth, which it credits to a new all-day breakfast menu. Ideally, strikes shouldn’t merely generate favorable press; they should hurt business. 

"The great movements in American history have been more than successful public relations efforts," noted Piven. "They have been movements that have threatened to shut it down, using the powerful leverage of refusal." 

Until McDonald’s and other fast food chains fear a threat to the profitable operation of their stores, they will likely refuse to voluntarily recognize a union.

Yet Fight for $15 has avoided escalating its tactics, perhaps out of concern it might alienate the moderate community members and politicians that have flocked to the workers' side. On the other hand, by raising the pay of many fast food workers, the legislative strategy has made a union more likely. "A higher base wage means unionism is easier," argues Lichtenstein. "People who have a permanent relationship to their work have an investment in it and will want a union." 

Perhaps the patient approach, then, is to stay the course. The union is still awaiting the result of a lawsuit brought by the National Labor Relations Board that, if decided in its favor, would deem fast food chains joint employers with franchise owners, thereby allowing workers to unionize nationally instead of store by store. Plus, as fast food workers across the nation win wage hikes, more and more of them will view the job as a viable career. In turn, they'll become more willing to invest the energy necessary to win a union at their workplace. This goal isn’t a fantasy; it’s already on display in European countries like Denmark, where fast food workers belong to a union that secures them a $20 per hour wage and five weeks of paid vacation each year, among other benefits.

Whether or not SEIU wins a fast-food union, its campaign has bolstered existing labor organizations through solidarity efforts, lending both its mouthpiece and its unapologetic model of worker power. At a recent fast food rally, for instance, City University of New York adjunct professor Luke Elliot-Negri spoke about how the fast food workers have given members his own union, the Professional Staff Congress, the bravery to walk off the job amid their current contract dispute. 

"When Staff Congress takes a strike authorization vote," Elliot-Negri declared, "you all will be our inspiration."

Moments later, the fast food workers and their supporters marched to a nearby Verizon store, where they joined the picket line. "We're more when we're united together," said Mike Sweeten, a Verizon field technician and member of the Communication workers of America (CWA). 

CWA's assistant to the Vice President, Bob Master, praised the Fight For $15 for demonstrating "that you need to build a broad movement." Yet Master wondered whether "people in the broader movement necessarily appreciate the importance of a contract guaranteeing rules and regulations at work." That is, he questioned whether they understand the value of old-fashioned trade unionism. 

"A contract is about democracy," Master added. "Verizon is trying to tear the heart out of that democracy." 

The life or death of the progressive movement may very well depend on whether Fight for $15 can get that heart beating once again. 


This was reposted from In These Times.

Max Zahn is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. You can reach him at

Posted In: Allied Approaches