The movement that led America’s California and New York to pass $15 minimum wages this week started out nearly four years ago, and was about something else entirely.
It was 2012, and the state and city of New York had begun making plans to start closing underperforming schools in low-income areas of Brooklyn. But hundreds of mostly minority residents depended on those schools to provide a safe environment for their children while they worked. So New York Communities for Change (NYCC), a progressive advocacy group, began sending out volunteers to collect signatures to protest the planned closures.
That campaign coincided with another push for more affordable housing. The two issues were linked: the school closures would cause a huge disruption in the parents’ household finances, forcing them to find ways to rearrange their schedules and expenses to make sure their children were being properly cared for. And the reason their finances were under so much pressure, canvassers learned, was because a disproportionate number of parents were working in jobs that paid little more than minimum wage—in particular, the fast food industry.
“We were like, ‘Why do so many of these people work [in fast-food]?' and it turned out it was because they were the only jobs available,” Jonathan Westin, NYCC’s current director, told me.
At this point, NYCC realized that they had a more profound issue to deal with: How to raise the living standards of working, low-income Brooklynites. So the group reached out to the local chapter of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to see about organizing some sort of campaign for these working families.
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SEIU sent Kendall Fells, a young, black organizer who’d previously helped campaign for assistance to unemployed Washington, D.C. residents, and engaged in various forms of agitation on Capitol Hill to protect union members.
Fells held a series of meetings in the fall of 2012 to listen to the fast food workers’ needs. Their complaints about the industry were numerous, from arcane work rules to unsafe conditions. But everything ultimately came back to pay.
“A lot of people were living in homeless shelters, or couchsurfing, and the question became, 'How much would we need to get these people life’s necessities?’” Fells told me.
$10 an hour wouldn’t be enough, the workers decided. $20 an hour, many agreed, would probably be too hard to obtain. But $15 an hour would probably be enough, at least to start, to get basic food, shelter, and clothing.
At the third meeting, which Fells said 100 workers attended, a strike date was set for Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012. Two-hundred New York City-based fast food workers walked off the job that day in what The New York Times said was “the biggest wave of job actions in the history of America’s fast-food industry.”
The waves would only grew bigger, as fast food workers, led by the SEIU, went on to organize hundreds of strikes across the country over the next three years, culminating in a strike last November in 270 different cities.
The success of the Fight for $15 has been unprecedented. Across America, cities and states have begun slowly ratcheting up minimum wages across industries. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo made the announcement that he would be raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour for state workers at a Fight for $15 rally.
"You should have a decent lifestyle for you and your family," Cuomo told the assembled workers.
That sentiment has been echoed throughout the 2016 presidential race, becoming a stump issue for Democrats and a problem to explain away for Republicans, with questions about the minimum wage coming up at primary debates and town halls.
And now, with this week’s announcements out of Sacramento and Albany, it has notched its greatest achievements to date.
Fells, who, now 35, remains the official head of the Fight for $15 to this day, credits the movement’s success with making workers the face of the campaign.
“In a 21st century union,” Fells told me. “You see workers, people work in Dominoes, you see them on MSNBC, see them on the strike lines, at the McDonald’s shareholder meeting in Chicago…it’s the workers are ones making decision about how this campaign is run.”
But the fact remains that the SEIU supplied the funds and organizing manpower for the fight. Documents show the union has spent more than $50 million on the effort—about twice as much as they spent in contributions to Barack Obama in 2008, ABC News notes.
Or as NBC4 New York put it, “Andrew Cuomo may be driving the push for a $15 minimum wage in New York, but organized labor paid for the bus.”
SEIU was also crucial in the fight in California. In fact, two SEIU cells ended up battling each other, with one calling for expanding sick leave in addition to the $15 minimum, the Los Angeles Times reported.
"There has never been a week in U.S. history when more workers in more places have won a common demand," Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), said in a statement on Thursday.
Still, organizers like Fells, and his initial posse of Brooklyn burgermakers, embody how the movement has also been largely led by, and for, minorities. In 2014, more than a third of black households and 29% of Hispanic households were making less than $25,000 a year.
Meanwhile, women comprise 63% of all fast food workers, with blacks making up 22% and Hispanics 17%. And blacks and Hispanics make up nearly 40% of minimum-wage earners.
“The fight for a higher minimum wage is not without racial and ethnic undertones, as even the Spanish-language addition to the rally’s official name, “¡Lucha por 15!” suggested,” the Chicago-based South Side Weekly noted last year. As Charlene Carruthers, head of the Black Youth Project 100, a racial justice organization that has collaborated on the Fight for $15 movement, put it to the paper, “We see our work as squarely focusing on making sure that the narrative of racial justice is integrated into how people talk about the Fight for 15.”
Also working in the Fight’s favor is that raising the minimum wage this high in the U.S. is happening without comparison—counter-arguments are almost entirely speculative.
But the specter of unintended consequences still looms. The most common fear is that it will lead to job losses or even business closures, especially for small businesses. Independent retailers where higher wages have already kicked in are already scrambling to adjust.
"The effect of very high and localized minimum wages, like what we have in San Francisco [which passed a $15 minimum wage in 2014], in essence is beneficial to big businesses while being detrimental to small businesses," one comic book store owner told CBS News. "The impact rests completely on my only location. An impact on someone like Walmart is relatively insignificant."
The most important study on the effect of minimum wage increases, done in the early ‘90s, found no significant impact, although the scale of those increases was much smaller than what we’re seeing proposed now.
And the direct benefits to unions like SEIU from the fight may have left some confused, since most fast-food workers aren't unionized. For Fells, unions see improving the lots of all workers as having a knock-on effect for their groups.
"If there’s a different wage floor in this country, it changes debate in this country [for unions]," he said. "The fight for $15 has so much momentum that it's putting $15 on the table [in our negotiations].
Also left unsaid is that Fight for $15 fighters are also demanding the right to form a union, something that hasn't really happened yet. Fells contends that while they may not have a union on paper, their collective actions effectively make them one.
"For all intents and purposes, if they're standing united creating fundamental changes for their lives, they already have a union," he said. The 20th-century process is too small. Our process is not bound by industry, or region, or country. McDonald's now has to come to this giant group—that's how they get to their official legal union."
The holy grail for the Fight is raising the federal minimum wage, which has been stuck at $7.29 since 2009; on an inflation-adjusted basis, the wage has actually declined 30% over the past 50 years. Hillary Clinton has said she supports a $12 minimum wage; Bernie Sanders is all-in at $15. Donald Trump has said both that wages are too high and too low.
But whoever wins, the movement’s success shows their demands can't go unaddressed.
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.