“In America, people who work hard should be able to afford basic necessities like groceries, rent, childcare and transportation. New York City fast-food workers also need dignity and respect on the job, and the right to organize without retaliation to protect their rights. This will benefit workers and their families, customers, the industry and our economy.”
This was the mission statement for Fast Food Forward, a grassroots movement of low-wage fast-food workers in New York City demanding higher wages and workers’ rights. Back in 2011, when a few hundred members of Fast Food Forward carried out their first strike, those workers in the city’s fast-food chains were earning $7.25 an hour and the idea that striking and organizing could achieve an increase in that minimum wage to $15 an hour was widely reported in the media as “a pipe dream.”
But Fast Food Forward, which says its members are “overwhelmingly immigrants, youth, women, and workers of color,” would become more than just a movement for fast-food workers’ rights. It evolved into the Fight for $15: a global movement of underpaid workers everywhere, from fast-food workers to caregivers and retail employees, all demanding better wages and union recognition.
Today the Fight for $15 claims it’s in more than 300 cities on six continents. In the United States, the effort is backed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a labor organization representing 2 million workers. In 2016 California became the first state to mandate a $15 minimum wage, and in the three years that followed five other states and Washington, D.C., joined it—including New York. (However, all these increases are phased in over several years, with Washington, D.C. slated to reach $15 an hour first in 2020.) Other states have introduced smaller increases.
The campaign has helped create a sea change in the US. But while McDonald’s has pledged to no longer lobby against blanket increases to the minimum wage at the local, state and federal level, SEIU has been unable to secure union recognition from the world’s largest restaurant chain. In August, SEIU president Mary Kay Henry called on all 2020 presidential candidates to commit to bringing the biggest players to a nationwide “fast-food industry bargaining table” aimed at improving working conditions and wages.