by Héctor Figueroa
President, 32BJ SEIU
Three years ago, in November 2012, fast food workers in New York City walked off the job. They had a simple demand: a pay raise to $15 an hour, and the right to join a union.
Think about that for a minute. These few workers, who were routinely dismissed as expendable, working in jobs considered disposable, had the audacity to stand up to some of the largest corporations in the world and demand better treatment.
I’m proud that 32BJ SEIU was there standing with those workers from the beginning. Even as the movement spread to more cities and then around the world, there were still many people who, while sympathetic to the workers, considered their cause to be a hopeless stunt.
32BJ never believed that. We knew, from over 80 years of experience, that real change, real power doesn’t come from think tanks or pundits. We knew decision makers and elected officials, no matter how sympathetic or well-meaning, don’t act unless moved. Real change happens when the people are willing to stand up, unite and demand change.
Now the moment has arrived. Three years featuring dozens of actions around the country and around the world, where thousands of workers have overcome intimidation and ridicule and apathy to demand $15 and a union. And now a wage board established by New York Governor Cuomo has sided with the workers and set new wages for fast food workers at $15 by 2018.
The Wage Board recommendations will bump fast-food worker pay in New York City to $10.50 by the end of 2015, $12 in 2016, $13.50 in 2017, and $15 by the end of 2018. Workers outside of New York City will reach $15 by mid-2021. This will apply to workers at fast-food chains with 30 or more locations throughout the country.
This is a real victory for workers, one that we should celebrate. But this fight isn’t just about fast food workers. It’s about airport workers, and home healthcare workers and carwash workers, and office cleaners and all workers struggling in low paying jobs.
This movement has no limits. Whenever I talk about the Fight for $15 campaign, someone says “why should fast food workers make $15? I barely make $15!” The question misses the point. They are underpaid too. But raising the wages of fast food workers is a start on getting higher wages for them too. Worker productivity has skyrocketed, corporate profits have never been higher, but workers haven’t shared in the prosperity. It is our job to engage with all other workers, share the story of this victory for fast food workers and forge alliances so that everyone is demanding their fair share.
And as we celebrate, we must not forgot the second piece of the original demand, “and a union.” It is only a union of organized workers, standing together, who will continue the fight for better wages, benefits and working conditions. Only a union can give people the power to dream. Only a union can give people hope. Only a union can create an America that lifts all working people.