Letasha Irby works at a factory in Selma, Alabama, that produces car seats and headrests for Hyundai cars. It’s just the sort of manufacturing job that Americans historically associate with solid, middle-class wages. Yet Irby says she earns only $12 per hour after a decade of service at her plant.
On Tuesday, Irby plans on driving to Tuscaloosa after she finishes her shift at the factory. She’ll be joining a protest alongside people who, on the surface, wouldn’t seem to be in the same economic class as herself: fast-food workers from chains like McDonald’s and Pizza Hut.
“I have a whole lot in common with them,” said Irby, a 37-year-old Alabama native and mother of two. “Whether it’s fast food, retail, child care … we’re all being underpaid for our services.”
Irby says she wants to be part of the next phase of the Fight for 15, the labor union-backed campaign that has shamed low-wage employers and helped spur minimum wage hikes around the country. The campaign launched three years ago this month with a walkout by restaurant workers in New York City. It has since spread to cities around the country and to industries well beyond fast food.
Spokespeople for the campaign say it plans to launch one-day worker strikes in 270 cities on Tuesday, its largest demonstration yet. In the past, many of these worker walkouts have been negligible — single digits in small towns, made visible only with the help of community activists. But others, in cities such as New York and Chicago, have been significant enough to disrupt service or even temporarily shut down restaurants, forcing major chains to publicly address the issue of poverty wages.
The Fight for 15 is funded by the Service Employees International Union, which represents 1.5 million workers mostly in the service sector. Three years in, it is still no clearer where exactly the campaign is headed, or how it plans to become a sustainable model for labor activism. For all its success in embarrassing low-wage employers and raising local wage floors, the campaign and its strikes have not led to more dues-paying union members to financially support the cause. Meanwhile, SEIU has poured millions of dollars into the effort.
Yet while its endgame remains murky, the campaign’s next step is clear. By scheduling the next strike a year to the day from the 2016 elections, organizers hope to show the national political clout of low-wage workers. Activists will be turning out at state capitols around the country, demanding that lawmakers accept the effort’s core demands — a $15 minimum wage and union recognition. Workers employed in low-wage contract jobs at the U.S. Capitol will take part in a protest with sympathetic lawmakers in Washington. Organizers say the day will culminate with a protest outside the GOP presidential debate Tuesday night in Milwaukee.
In a statement, the Fight for 15 described workers paid less than $15 an hour as “a voting bloc that can no longer be ignored.”
Until now, the campaign has focused primarily on industries where SEIU has been organizing workers — fast food, child care and home care. But now, as seen with Irby, workers affiliated with other unions will be taking part in the Fight for 15 demonstrations. Irby is a supporter of the United Auto Workers, who have been trying to organize her plant in Selma and have so far not succeeded. The UAW did not respond to an interview request.
Angela Simler works at a T-Mobile call center in Wichita, Kansas. She supports a campaign by the Communications Workers of America to unionize her T-Mobile facility. Simler said she earns $12.43 per hour. As the mother of a 5-year-old and a 7-year-old, she said her wages don’t cut it, and every month presents wrenching decisions over which bills to pay and which to set aside.
“Whether it’s fast food, Walmart, child care, T-Mobile, all these people are paid too little to support their families,” said Simler, 33. “The wages have remained stagnant for too long.”
Although T-Mobile workers will not be taking part in any strikes, CWA said it plans to hold a Fight for 15 barbecue outside of Simler’s call center on Tuesday, where it hopes to talk to employees about the union. CWA has been wrapped up in a legal battle with T-Mobile for years, accusing the company of unfair labor practices stemming from its organizing efforts. T-Mobile could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.
“This is the first time, at least in Wichita, that we’re working with the Fight for 15 campaign,” said Joshua Coleman, a union organizer with CWA. “It does resonate with these workers.”
Broadening its base with new workers like Simler has been key to the Fight for 15 campaign’s success. The one-day strikes and protests have no doubt helped usher in new minimum wage hikes in cities and states from coast to coast, and ones as high as $15 an hour in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Labor officials in New York announced that they would set a $15 wage floor for the entire fast-food industry in the state, a regulatory maneuver that will eventually raise pay for hundreds of thousands of workers there.
Simler said she found such successes inspiring for her own cause.
“The fight for $15 and a union, that’s for everyone now,” Simler said. “That’s to raise standards all across the board.”
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