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USA: low paid fight for $15

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As the fight for a living wage begins to take off here in Britain, Chris Clough takes inspiration from the Fight for $15 campaign in the US

Fast food workers are causing a storm at the heart of the world’s most powerful nation. A movement for a $15 an hour minimum wage has spread like wildfire across the country. In May it was even able to coordinate one-day strikes in 30 countries across all continents.

A national conference of 1,500 in Chicago, held in July, adopted a strategy of civil disobedience: demonstrations, blockades, pickets and street occupations. Strikes on 4 September took place in 150 cities across the USA.

The campaign is hugely inspirational and reaches beyond the fast food sector. The poorest workers, often ignored by the trade unions, have shown themselves to be militant activists and ferocious fighters. Their demand is for a dignified existence, something that is impossible on the $8.75 wages offered by companies like McDonald’s, KFC and Burger King.

Their movement has not only sparked a nationwide debate about inequality and poverty wages, it has begun to make a difference for working people across America.

A key tactic used to protect corporate profits and hold down wages is to argue that the workers are actually employed by the small businesses that run outlets as franchises. Now, in response to a campaign by workers in 40 different outlets, the General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, Richard Griffin, has ruled that McDonald’s is a “joint employer” and therefore has a responsibility for conditions and wages along with the franchise holders. If that ruling is upheld, it will strengthen the position of millions of workers.

The Fight for $15 campaign had modest beginnings. The first big action, in 2012, brought out just 200 workers from 60 restaurants across New York. Two years down the line, thousands have joined the movement, striking at peak times, occupying stores, blocking roads and taking the fight to the CEOs by targeting their head offices.
The main organiser is the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which led the initial recruitment drive around a series of rallies. From the outset, however, it has been clear that workers from the restaurants themselves have embraced the campaign and made it their own.

Every report is full of confident workers, mainly black or Hispanic and often women, who are eager to spread their message. The vibrancy and success of this movement is a testament to the deep involvement of the rank and file in pushing the campaign forwards.

In many ways, this is not so surprising. Under the surface, the USA is bubbling with tension. The suffering caused by home repossessions and poverty wages, alongside the extreme wealth flaunted by the rich, has made the country a tinderbox.

Nowhere is this more the case than in the fast food sector, where those at the top can “earn” in a day twice what a worker earns in a whole year. The wages they pay are not enough to keep even a single worker with no dependants, let alone those with families to support.

Every year, US taxpayers pay out $7 billion to top up these wages. More than half of all workers, 52 per cent, have to claim this support just to survive. Nor is this restricted to fast food. All across the USA, people face similar hardship; since the recession a million better paid jobs have disappeared and the much publicised increase in jobs largely comes from an extra 1.8 million low paid jobs. Today, the top 20 per cent own 84 per cent of all the wealth.

That is why, when the fast food workers stood up, so many others joined them. Walmart workers are campaigning for $15. Seattle council has implemented the $15 minimum, and popular pressure has meant pledges of $13 or more in New York, Chicago, Washington DC, San Diego, San Jose, Los Angeles and Oakland. San Francisco will vote this month to join Seattle at $15 an hour. Even Obama was forced to go half way towards one of his election promises, raising the minimum wage to $10.10 for federal contractors.

This of course is an outrage to bosses who have gotten used to having everything their own way. They have used their influence in the media to attack the movement, starting quite predictably with claims that there were no strikes, only rallies by “outside agitators” who were paid $500 to attend.

Wages and profits

When this failed to make any impact on the growing movement, they turned to the “it’s just economics” argument; higher wages would eat into profit margins and they would be forced (forced!) to sack staff or raise prices.

This is a more dangerous line of argument for them because there is a grain of truth in it. An increase in wages would mean lower profits, but whether that would lead to job losses or higher prices would depend on the balance of forces within society. An effective fight for a wage increase could also be strong enough to force the bosses simply to accept lower profits.

The tension between wages and profits is what drives the trade union struggle, but it is also a starting point for the struggle for socialism. The bosses’ argument actually makes it clear; either they enjoy high profits or the working class has decent living standards. Their economic system, capitalism, cannot support both.

That is why, although militant trade unionism can force the bosses to pay higher wages, such gains will always be liable to counter-attack until their control of the economy as a whole is removed.

That is why the Fight for $15 is not just a trade union issue, but also a political issue. It raises the question of control over society’s resources. To enforce a minimum wage requires legislation and, in the USA, it would mean federal legislation that overcame the divisive effects of individual states’ “rights”.

These political issues are not completely separate from the burning questions of how to win the campaign for $15. To win, workers need to escalate the strikes. In particular, they need to draw in other sections of low paid workers, using the weight of numbers to force the bosses to climb down.

There can be no doubt that such a movement will come under attack not just from the bosses’ media but from the bosses’ state. As the campaign has already shown, its great strength lies in the determination and energy of the workers themselves. This must be given organisational expression through a democratically controlled network of action committees to control the strike itself and any negotiations.

The political implications of the movement are clear for all to see, not only in the context of the mid-term Congressional elections but with a view to the next Presidential election.

The leaders of the SEIU are already looking towards the likes of Democrats Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren for promises on a minimum wage and other protective legislation. Like Obama, in whom even greater hopes were placed, they will not deliver, because they are tied hand and foot to the corporations and institutions of US capital.

Just as the fast food workers need to build their own organisations to wage an effective pay campaign and take control of their trades unions, so all the workers of the USA need a political party of their own that can fight for control of the resources of this richest of all countries. Only then will it be possible to plan the economy so that it guarantees decent living standards instead of threatening them.