Thursday, April 16, 2015

$15 Now Last Gasp for Organized Labor

Yesterday was another nationwide mobilization to demand a $15-an-hour minimum wage for low-wage workers. The fast-food industry has been the principal target. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is the key labor organization spearheading the push. For instance, SEIU ran the successful 2013 initiative campaign for a $15/hr. minimum wage in SeaTac, the city that is home to Seattle's airport, at the same time it provided valuable support in socialist Kshama Sawant's victory over an entrenched corporate liberal Seattle City Council incumbent. Sawant's win paved the way for Seattle's breakthrough $15/hr. minimum wage, which was copied, in one form or another (usually a lower rate of pay), in other cities and states.

"In Test for Unions and Politicians, a Nationwide Protest on Pay," by Noam Scheiber, provides background and an overview to yesterday's 200-city-plus protest. It is a good story.
“America, period, is unequal,” said Chasten Florence, 26, a construction worker from Jamaica, Queens. “Once we accept that, we can change that." 
McDonald’s said in a statement: “We respect people’s right to peacefully protest, and our restaurants remain open every day with the focus on providing an exceptional experience for our customers.” 
The campaign, staffed in part by organizers from the Service Employees International Union, orchestrated the country’s first-ever fast-food industry strike in November 2012, when 200 New York City workers walked off their jobs. The periodic protests expanded to six other cities in the spring of 2013, 60 cities in August of that year, 150 cities in May 2014, and 190 last December. 
The protests have coincided with an extraordinary shift in the political consensus on the minimum wage. In the last two years, Seattle has moved to gradually increase its minimum wage to $15 an hour, from $9.32. Oakland, Calif., established a new minimum wage of $12.25, while Chicago approved an increase to $13, from $8.25, over the next four years. Alaska and Arkansas passed minimum wage increases by referendum in 2014. 
In 2013, President Obama endorsed raising the federal minimum wage to $9, from $7.25 an hour, then increased that to $10.10 by the fall of that year. Democrats in the Senate are now working on a proposal to raise the national minimum wage to $12 by 2020.
But there was not a peep about the event yesterday in my place of employment, and I work for a union. And that is the problem. There is a yearning on the part of the broad public for a change in working conditions, which Scheiber makes clear, but, besides SEIU, the other big international unions have shown no ability to capitalize on the unrest.
“The labor movement has been stuck,” said Janice R. Fine, an associate professor of Labor Studies at Rutgers University. “They deserve a lot of credit in deciding that, in a situation this bleak, you needed ‘climate change’ ”— that is, a change in how the public views low-wage work — “before you’d actually get an opportunity to organize again.”
Partly in response to the political shift as well as competitive pressure from tighter labor markets, several major employers of low-wage workers have moved to raised their base pay in recent months. Walmart, Target and McDonald’s have all announced plans to increase their minimum wage to or near $10, though for McDonald’s it would apply only to the roughly 10 percent of its workers employed directly by the company, not by its franchisees.
But business groups argue that a substantially higher increase would force employers to reduce hiring, accelerate automation and even threaten the basic economic model of some industries.
For Mary Kay Henry, the president of S.E.I.U., the investment in the Fight for $15 campaign was initially controversial among her colleagues, many of whom wondered why the union should spend millions of dollars on a campaign that did not immediately net it dues-paying members. 
But it was the result of a calculation that the 20th-century model of organizing workers was rapidly becoming obsolete for those in a growing sector where employers considered it essentially costless to replace them. “We can no longer change our lives, and our kids’ lives, without the support of a broader movement of workers,” Ms. Henry said.
The origins of the Fight for $15 campaign date back to early 2012, when organizers from New York Communities for Change, which had built support for Occupy Wall Street activists among more established progressive activists and labor organizers, began canvassing low-income New Yorkers, many of them employed in the fast-food industry.
At the same time, public opinion was shifting. According to the General Social Survey, regarded by researchers as the gold standard in public opinion data, the share of Americans who agreed that “inequality continues to exist because it benefits the rich and powerful” spiked by more than 10 points from 2010 to 2012, to over 60 percent.
“People know Walmart and McDonald’s are doing pretty well, people at top,” said Leslie McCall, a professor of sociology at Northwestern University, who has closely analyzed the opinion data on inequality. “It was like: ‘Wait a minute. We’re into the recovery, the unemployment rate is going down. But most people aren’t doing well.’”
Even politically moderate voters appear to believe that it is the responsibility of corporations to mitigate the problem. In her own preliminary surveys, Professor McCall found that, when asked to choose who should be most responsible for reducing inequality — the poor, the rich, the government, major companies, or that it did not need to be reduced — a plurality of Republican respondents, about 37 percent, chose “major companies.”
The Fight for $15 campaign hopes to harness these sentiments in ways that Occupy Wall Street never quite succeeded in doing. In Seattle, Steve Gelb, who makes above minimum wage at a work force training outfit, said he supported the protests because “the disparity of wealth has reached alarming proportions and the salaries of business owners and executives are way out of proportion.”
There is some evidence that the big internationals headquartered in D.C. are beginning to get the message. But it is not about income inequality and economic justice and the need for a broad mobilization of low-wage workers. What the big, wealthy internationals are afraid of is the rapid spread of right-to-work laws, some of which are being passed at the local and county level. The right senses weakness and fear and it is lunging for the jugular. Right to work has become a new litmus test for Republican governors. Wisconsin's Scott Walker is the matinee idol of the movement. His chances of winning the GOP presidential nomination are as good as anyone's.

The math on right to work is unforgiving. Once passed it quickly leads to a loss of 20 percent in union dues-paying membership. So the message that is coming from on high is not "We need to mobilize our membership and develop a radical consciousness," it is, "We need to get our budgets in line with a possible 20-percent loss in operating revenue. We need to think about a dues increase."

Unions are gray at the top and completely captive to business-as-usual, conventional thinking. There is zero ability to transform into a radical organization capable of spearheading progressive social change. The guys at the top are all about dollars and cents and the size of their pension funds and the amount of bonus miles they have on their credit cards. They have their eyes on retirement. They'll willingly file aboard the Titanic of Hillary's presidential campaign and argue that it is a vessel for working people.

Even SEIU, a local of which I have worked for, is a conventional, top-down, tyrannical hierarchy that produces a culture of mendacity. Our problem is that it is the only game in town. There needs to be a new leftist political formation. At least SEIU has shown a willingness to work with a socialist like Kshama Sawant.

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