$15 or a Union? Dilemmas of Workers’ Power in the Fight for $15 Movement in the United States

Monday, 16 July 2018: 11:10
Oral Presentation
Chris RHOMBERG, Fordham University, USA
One of the more prominent recent labor mobilizations in the U.S. is the “Fight for $15” campaign, sponsored by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and sparked by a series of highly-publicized strike actions by workers in the notoriously hard-to-organize fast food industry. Since 2012 the campaign has conducted more than a dozen nationally coordinated one-day strikes with participation by thousands of workers, and it has won local legislation boosting the minimum wage to $15 (more than twice the federal minimum) in several major cities and the states of New York and California.

In this paper, I use a power resources framework to analyze the Fight for $15 campaign. In fast food, the structure of the fissured workplace undermines traditional forms of workers’ power. Instead, organizers have pursued a dual strategy: In the industry, SEIU has led a corporate campaign targeting McDonald’s in particular, while politically the campaign has built local coalitions to win regulatory reforms on wages and working conditions. In both, the strike actions have been crucial not for their structural but their symbolic power, as the public drama of protests in the archetypal sector of low-wage, precarious work has helped galvanize popular support for reform.

As it moves between the industrial and political spheres, however, the movement encounters varying institutional conditions affecting the position of actors and the rules, resources, and strategies for action. Notwithstanding its achievements, the campaign now faces a crisis of sustainability as it has yet to win collective bargaining rights and new union members in fast food while the SEIU faces grave threats to its own resources from legal challenges before the US Supreme Court. The result recalls a classic dilemma of labor political action: policy gains may benefit both union and non-union members, but also need to strengthen workers’ associational power.