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Fight for $15: Tens of Thousands Rally as Labor, Civil Rights & Social Justice Movements Join Forces

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Low-wage workers in the United States have staged their largest action to date to demand a $15-an-hour minimum wage, with some 60,000 workers walking off the job in more than 200 cities. The “Fight for $15” campaign brought together fast-food workers, home-care aides, child-care providers, Wal-Mart clerks, adjunct professors, airport workers and other low-wage workers. Organizers say the action was held on Tax Day to highlight the taxpayer funds needed to support underpaid workers. A new study says low wages are forcing working families to rely on more than $150 billion in public assistance. We speak with Steven Greenhouse, former labor and workplace reporter for The New York Times, who has been covering the “Fight for $15” movement.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Low-wage workers in the United States have staged their largest action to date to demand a $15-an-hour minimum wage, with some 60,000 workers walking off the job in over 200 cities. Protesters in the Fight for $15 campaign include fast-food workers, home-care aides, child-care providers, Wal-Mart clerks, adjunct professors, airport workers and other low-wage workers. The Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, helped organize the campaign.

In Chicago, demonstrators held signs saying, “We are worth more!” while in New York dozens of protesters temporarily halted business at a McDonald’s by staging a die-in, lying on the ground in front of the franchise. Several New York protesters carried signs saying, “We work hard” and “We see wage slavery.” Protesters included Jemere Calhoun, who works at two McDonald’s restaurants.

JEMERE CALHOUN: We’re fighting for $15 and a union. We’re fighting for a $15 minimum wage, because we feel that that’s what we need, and that’s what we deserve, and it’s only humane. We’re fighting for a union, because without a union, I mean, you know, it’s tough to enforce these rules that these companies ignore or just simply just don’t care about. You know, we need benefits. We need healthcare. We need sick days. We need maternity leaves. These things are really important to families.

AMY GOODMAN: Organizers say the action was held on Tax Day to highlight the public assistance needed to support underpaid workers. A new study says low wages are forcing working families to rely on more than $150 billion in public assistance. According to the University of California Center for Labor Research and Education, more than half of combined state and federal spending on public assistance goes to working families. President Obama has been pushing to raise the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 to $10.10. On the state level, Colorado, Maine, California, Oregon and Washington are all considering increasing their minimum wage to $12 an hour. Meanwhile, the Center for Economic and [Policy] Research says the minimum wage would be more than $18 an hour if it had risen as fast as productivity since 1968.

For more, we’re joined by Steven Greenhouse, former labor and workplace reporter for The New York Times. He has been covering the Fight for $15 movement extensively. On Wednesday, he co-wrote a piece for The Guardian called “Fight for $15 swells into largest protest by low-wage workers in US history.” He’s also author of The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Steven Greenhouse.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Nice to be here, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the significance of what’s being described as the largest low-wage protest in U.S. history.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So this began in November 2012 as a one-day affair in New York with 200 strikers at like 30 restaurants. It was a small acorn. And, you know, lo and behold, it’s really grown into a fairly mighty oak—you know, over 200 cities, support actions in over 30 countries, 60,000 workers.

And it’s really put several things into the national discussion—one, the whole issue of low-wage workers and the difficulties it takes to live on $7.25 or $8.00 an hour. And second, it’s really kind of changed—also changed the conversation from not about whether we’re just concerned about a minimum wage, but really establish a living wage. And it’s really brought into question, you know, whether even the $10.10 an hour that President Obama is pushing begins to be adequate.

And we’ve even seen some companies—McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, Target—raise their wages. And a lot of people say that’s the result partly of these pressure campaigns, also because of a tightening labor market. But at the same time they’re saying they’d like to see Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Target go up to $15, which is a big leap.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what are some of the groups that have been involved in making the movement so large?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, like here in New York, there’s a group, New York Communities for Change, which is a group representing many African Americans, Hispanics, poor people, and they’ve worked very closely with the Service Employees International Union. In this protest yesterday, what was new is they started working very closely with civil rights groups around the country, with Black Lives Matter. And labor unions, in general, are very involved. The Service Employees union has spent millions of dollars really getting this going, hiring organizers, and it’s really created a movement that, you know, people around the country are saying there’s something new here. This is not just, you know, workers at a few restaurants. It’s really this movement of fast-food workers, Wal-Mart workers, janitors, home-care aides. And politicians are really starting to pay lots of attention.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about this convergence of the different movements, as you’re describing—Black Lives Matter, the immigrants’ rights movement, Occupy before it. Go back to 1968, right? Dr. Martin Luther King died trying to organize the Poor People’s Campaign. Talk about this trajectory.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, I went to Atlanta a few weeks ago to do a story for the Times about how they were very deliberately trying to combine this movement of the fast-food workers, the Fight for $15 movement, with the civil rights movement to show that it’s not just, you know, trying to raise pay a few dollars an hour, but it’s an economic justice and social justice movement. And the meeting was held in the reverend—you know, Reverend King’s former church, Ebenezer Baptist Church, and it was very moving. And a lot of the language they’re using or rhetoric they’re using really comes out of the civil rights movement, that—you know, “I am a man,” “We want dignity,” “$7.25 isn’t enough to support our families.” And it’s really snowballing.

And one big change I’ve seen since I started covering this in November 2012 is just many, many people—you know, we often think of low-wage workers are like scared to stick their heads above the parapet because they’re going to fired or they’re going to get in trouble, and many of them are immigrants worried that bad things will happen to them. People are usually emboldened. You know, now when I go interview a lot of these workers, they’re happy to give me their names. And usually when you interview workers, they’re very scared to.

AMY GOODMAN: A hundred fifty billion dollars, public assistance, that goes to working families? Explain the significance of this, something that I think people across the country identify with, that regular working people and poor working people are supporting these large corporations like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s by having to pay public assistance to their workers.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: There’s this notion that everyone who receives public assistance is a chisler, isn’t working, isn’t sitting on their hands, isn’t going to look for a job. But this study out of Berkeley found that three-quarters of the money, nationwide—three-quarters of the money nationwide spent on public assistance, whether food stamps, Medicaid, goes to people with—goes to families who have at least one person working. And the study found that this is an indirect subsidy to companies like Wendy’s and Burger King and McDonald’s and Taco Bell and Wal-Mart and Target, which often pay $7.25, $8, $9 an hour. And it’s very, very hard to raise yourself, no less two or three kids, if you’re earning that much. And, you know, I think one of the points of the study is that it really raises the question: Should taxpayers be subsidizing the Wal-Marts and McDonald’s? And Wal-Mart and McDonald’s respond that, “Well, thanks to—thanks in part to our lower low wages, we’re able to give consumers low-cost products.”

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And they also make the argument, of course, that if they paid higher wages, they would employ less people.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Yes. I mean, you know, as many of your guests have said on this show, many, many economic studies show that a modest increase in the minimum wage will have very little effect on jobs. You know, jumping—there really haven’t been studies about the—

AMY GOODMAN: Or they’ll charge more—or they’ll charge more for burgers.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Or they’ll charge some—well, if you raise pay to $15 an hour, they’re going to charge more for burgers. That’s—I mean, yeah, but even liberal economists like Jared Bernstein say that, you know, there haven’t been studies about the job effects of going from a $7.25 federal minimum wage to $15. You know, that could really speed up automation. We could see some McDonald’s cashiers replaced with kiosks and—

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of McDonald’s, McDonald’s just announced that they’re going to increase the minimum wage—but explain the little twist here—to the nonfranchise workers. Franchises employ 90 percent of McDonald’s workers. It won’t go to them?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Right. See, McDonald’s on April 1st trumpeted this, quote-unquote, “big announcement” that it’s raising wages to about $9 an hour—you know, raising wages by about 89 cents, on average around 10 percent, for its workers, from around $8 an hour to around $9 an hour, roughly. But that’s only for the workers at company-owned restaurants, which—and that’s only about 11 percent of all the workers at McDonald’s restaurants in the U.S. The other 89 percent work for franchisee, franchise-run restaurants. So, one of the weird things is McDonald’s said, “Look, we’re doing this great thing to help workers,” but many workers in the franchise restaurants got really pissed off, and I think it really jazzed them up. And as a result, a lot more participated in yesterday’s protest than people were expecting.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: How likely do you think it is, to the extent that you can speculate, that $15 is a realistic goal? And also, if you could talk a little bit about what the impact of this movement is likely to be on the 2016 presidential race?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, when this started—you know, this movement started in November 2012—I think many, many, many people said, “$15, that’s just a crazy, crazily ambitious number.” But then we’ve seen, you know, SeaTac approve $15, and Seattle has approved a $15 minimum wage, and Washington state talks about perhaps going to a $15 statewide minimum wage. And San Francisco has a $15 minimum wage. And Chicago, with a centrist mayor, has adopted a $13 minimum wage. So the discussion about what’s a achievable wage has really changed. But $15 is a very ambitious goal, in my view. You know, typical wages in fast food now are about $8.80, $9 an hour, and we’re really talking about a two-thirds increase. That’s a lot. And my sense is if the movement could get $12 or $13, they’d be pretty darn happy. They still—you know, it’s hard to know whether $15 is really, really the goal, or it’s kind of a bargaining position to aim for $12 or $13.

And the explosion in the streets yesterday, I think, is putting pressure on the candidates, Democrat and Republican, to take a stand on the minimum wage. Certainly, Hillary, as the lone Democratic candidate, will be pushed to embrace, somehow support the campaign, maybe support a minimum wage of higher than $10.10 an hour. The Republicans, you know, uniformly oppose a higher minimum wage. But I think, as this movement builds, it’s going to increase pressure on them. You know, so Marco Rubio said, “I don’t want wages of $10.10 an hour. I want people to be paid $30 an hour.” That’s kind of dodging the issue. I think this movement is going to really press the Republicans to take a firm stand on what they want to do on the minimum wage.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds. I want to jump to what our next subject is, TPP. You just interviewed Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, and Trumka told you he’s no fan of the TPP. Explain.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: So, he could talk about that for half an hour [inaudible]. So, he says the agreement is too secretive. It’s not going to do much to help labor rights. It says—he says it’ll be too much like NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, that it’s going to increase imports from overseas, it’s going to take away jobs from Americans, and that, he says, basically is part of a corporate agenda that’s going to help big corporations and not do much for American workers, perhaps hurt them.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Steven Greenhouse, we want to thank you for being with us, former labor and workplace reporter for The New York Times. He’s been covering the Fight for $15 movement extensively. On Wednesday, he co-wrote a piece in The Guardian, “Fight for $15 swells into largest protest by low-wage workers in US history.” We’ll link to that article at democracynow.org. His book is called The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker. And next up, we will talk about the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with Lori Wallach and Florida Congressmember Alan Grayson. Stay with us.

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