News by VICE

The Resurgence of the Labor Movement: The Year in Workers' Power

McDonald's and Walmart ceded moderate income hikes while workers staged enormous rallies around the country demanding $15 an hour -- an "audacious" ask that many governments are getting behind.

by Colleen Curry
Dec 21 2015, 11:30pm

Fast food workers. Airline workers. Healthcare workers. Retail workers. 

All of these groups rallied for higher wages and better benefits in 2015, giving new power to organized labor as a force for economic and political change in the country. 

As income inequality in the US reached levels unseen since 1928 and US jobs continue to be moved overseas, experts say more Americans identify with the need for better working conditions and pay. A 2014 study from Harvard found that CEOs make 350 times the average salary of workers in the US, the largest gap among 16 developed nations examined in the study, and the average worker at McDonald's earns over the course of seven months what its CEO makes in an hour, according to another study

It was McDonald's workers and their colleagues from other fast food restaurants who netted the biggest victories in the fight for better pay this year, as their "Fight for $15" campaign came to serve as an umbrella organization for all low-wage workers across a variety of fields.

"To me the $15 fights around the country are really huge," said Saru Jayaraman, the director of the Food Labor Research Center at University of California, Berkeley. "For us, we made the kind of advancement you dream about when working in this industry for more than 14 years. This year was really a signature year in many ways." 

The campaign drew two quick victories in the first half of 2015, with Walmart announcing in February that it would raise its base pay to $9.00 an hour this year and $10 an hour in 2016, and McDonald's announcing on April 1 that it would raise its pay one dollar above the local minimum wage wherever it operated. 

Related: Watch VICE News documentary: Permanently Temporary: The Truth About Temp Labor

Still, the Fight for $15 and labor groups like Our Walmart asked for more. The campaign organized an international labor rally on April 15, which was attended by thousands of union members, including those from construction and plumbing industries who came to show their support and reinforce the labor movement's power.

"We're here because we want to be in poverty no more," Jorel Ware, a McDonald's worker from New York who attended the rally, told VICE News that day.  "We've worked hard to make their dreams come true to become millionaires and now we want them to make our dreams come true by helping to pull us out of poverty."

While much of the rally focused on minimum wage and national retailers and chain stores, the fight over tipped wages began to shift among smaller, fine dining restaurants, like those owned by restaurateur Danny Meyer in New York City. Meyer led the charge to abandon tipped wages for workers, and there are now bills pending in eight states that would raise the minimum wage for tipped workers. 

There was also a marked shift among workers participating in the so-called "gig economy," with the most high-profile gig employer, Uber, losing a case in California in which the Labor Commissioner's Office ruled that Uber drivers are, in fact, employees deserving of workplace protections, not independent contractors. The case will now head to court. And the drivers of Uber and other companies have banned together to create union-like groups called "App-Based Drivers Associations" in two states to fight for better working conditions and protections.  

Related: The Modern-Day 'Harvest of Shame'

Other victories included Chipotle agreeing to offer workers paid sick time, paid family leave, and tuition reimbursement, Jayaraman said.

The year wasn't all good news for labor, however. The restaurant industry continued to battle against Seattle's $15 minimum wage, which was approved in 2014 but is set to begin its phase-in in 2015. And the American Enterprise Institute released a study in October showing that the number of restaurant jobs in the city had fallen as the wage increases were implemented.

But observers say that the chain restaurant industry is on the defensive for the first time now that the question of income inequality has come to occupy such a central place in US politics. Jayaraman said the National Restaurant Association has been less aggressive in its tactics toward workers' rights advocates over the past year, and pointed to editorials by The New York Times and USA Today in support of one fair wage for workers as signs that the topic had reached critical mass. 

"The Fight for 15, in just 3 years, it's just changed the country's politics and economic policy to a degree I don't think anyone would have expected," said Paul Sohn, general counsel at the National Employment Law Project. 

In addition to moderate wage hikes by private companies, legislators at the city, state, and federal level got involved in the national Fight for $15. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo used executive power to raise the minimum wage for all government workers in the state, and said he would try to convince the legislature to do the same for the private sector. And both Los Angeles' city council and LA County, along with nearly a dozen other cities in California, approved $15 minimum wages for workers there.

"At first it was this audacious demand by fast food workers, and then a handful of cities adopted these minimum wages, and now New York and California look poised to adopt them statewide in what are the two most economically important states in the country. It's unprecedented," Sonn said.

President Obama asked Congress to consider increasing the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, which experts said always lags behind state and local increases, and he proposed new rules in June to the Department of Labor to extend overtime pay to some 5 million American workers. The Securities and Exchange Commission, meanwhile, issued its new rule that companies will have to start disclosing the gap between their CEO's pay and the median pay of their workforce.

Related: Black Friday Brings Renewed Call For Better Wages at Walmart

Under the Securities and Exchange Commission's final rules, companies will get some flexibility in how they find the median. For instance, they can exclude five percent of their overseas workers when arriving at the number and use statistical sampling.

"In the past, minimum wage increases were very small and incremental and raised pay for people at the very bottom. But these [$15 minimum wages] raise pay for a third of the workforce, and are the first really muscular steps the country has taken to reversing eroding wages," Sonn said.

The question of living wages also became a primary concern of the 2016 presidential election, with both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton including it as part of their platforms.

"In America today, what we are seeing is the richest people becoming richer, and almost everybody else becoming poorer," Sanders told striking workers on the National Mall in Washington, DC, in November. "People in this country who work 40 hours a week deserve a living wage."

"I want to raise the federal minimum wage to $12, and encourage other communities to go even higher," Clinton said at a campaign stop in November. Clinton also vowed to crack down on employers who were treating full-time workers as contractors. 

The year in labor ended the way it has for the past four years, with retail workers walking out on the country's national shopping day, Black Friday, and picketing in front of stores as shoppers rushed in.

The successes across industries has helped fuel the fight, Jayaraman said.

Related: McDonald's Gives Its Shareholders $30 Billion as Its Workers Protest for $15 an Hour

"What I think has happened organically is all of us separately getting attention, the Fight for $15 and Walmart and tipped minimum wage. We all gained high profile attention around high profile companies at the same time which has had reverberating effects on each other," she said.

Writers and editors in New York City also organized at online new media companies. Editorial staff members signed union cards and began pushing for collective bargaining rights at the Huffington Post, Gawker, Salon, the Guardian US, and at VICE, including VICE News employees. 

Though workers have been fed up for years with low wages and lack of benefits, there was a political opening in 2015 in which they saw that they had a chance to succeed in their demands, Jayaraman said. 

"When we got a couple of wins, and seeing the opposition on the defense, and seeing legislators respond, there was real moment of political opportunity opening," she said.  "The biggest piece of this year is we've won these things and not lost momentum."

Tagged:
Politics
VICE News
americas
WALMART
labor movement
McDonald's
End of Year
minimum wage
fight for 15
labor unions