SEIU’s Mary Kay Henry on the Fight for $15’s 10-year anniversary

Dylan Miettinen Nov 28, 2022
Signs sit in a pile during a 2016 protest in Chicago, where demonstrators demanded a $15 minimum hourly wage. Scott Olson/Getty Images

SEIU’s Mary Kay Henry on the Fight for $15’s 10-year anniversary

Dylan Miettinen Nov 28, 2022
Signs sit in a pile during a 2016 protest in Chicago, where demonstrators demanded a $15 minimum hourly wage. Scott Olson/Getty Images

The Fight for $15 — the nationwide labor movement that demands a minimum hourly wage of $15 for workers — officially began on Nov. 29, 2012, when hundreds of fast food workers in New York City walked off the job, demanding better wages and working conditions. 

After a decade of protests and advocacy, the movement has helped push raising the minimum wage into mainstream political discourse. Though there is still progress to be made, the movement has seen some success at the local and state levels. A dozen states (plus D.C.) are moving toward a $15 minimum wage through incremental pay increases and will achieve it in the next few years; California is currently the only state in the nation where $15 is the minimum pay for workers at larger companies. 

Meanwhile, though President Joe Biden raised the minimum hourly pay for federal workers and contractors to $15 an hour, the federal minimum wage has been stagnant at $7.25 per hour since 2009, making this the longest period of time in U.S. history with no minimum wage hikes. (A proposed $15 federal minimum wage failed in the Senate last year.)

All of this, despite the fact that decades-high inflation is eroding the real value of the federal minimum wage, which —  pre-tax and full-time — figures out to $15,080 per year. That’s just $1,490 above federal poverty guidelines. (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator, a person earning $7.25 per hour in 2012 would need to earn $9.38 in 2022 to maintain the same buying power.)

“I think that what the fast food workers movement has done is pushed the conversation from bare minimum to what we need to be paid to make a living wage,” said Mary Kay Henry, the international president of the Service Employees International Union. The union represents nearly 2 million workers and has championed a $15 minimum wage since the movement’s start. 

“Marketplace” spoke with Henry about the 10-year anniversary of the Fight for $15, what’s been accomplished since the movement’s inception and what’s next for it. The following are highlights of the conversation.

Dylan Miettinen: So first up, how are you feeling and what are some of the things that you’re reflecting upon as we come up on the 10th anniversary of Fight for $15?

Mary Kay Henry: I’m feeling really proud of how the Fight for $15 and a Union has been a transformative and effective economic and racial justice movement of the last decade. The fast food workers, the cooks and cashiers — I think — have fundamentally changed the politics of wages and have reshaped what working people believe is possible when they join together and demand a union.

Miettinen: What, if anything, would you have done differently?

Henry: You know, the only thing I can think of that I would have done differently is to encourage more parts of the labor movement and other movement leaders from immigration to environmental and racial justice organizations to back the fearlessness and courage of the fast food workers who risked their lives and livelihoods to challenge systemic racism in their workplaces and unrig a system that was never designed for workers of color. I think it would have been great. And that’s since happened over the course of the movement, but what I would have done differently is to encourage more of that at the very beginning.

Demonstrators fighting for a $15-per-hour minimum wage march through downtown during rush hour on May 23, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois.
Demonstrators march through downtown Chicago in 2017. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Miettinen: A $15 minimum wage has garnered some success at the local and the state level, but what barriers persist in raising the federal minimum wage?

Henry: Yeah. It’s 10s of millions of workers have won raises worth over $100 billion and countless corporations have also followed the 12 states and DC. And I think what we’re proud of is that the fast food workers have pushed $15 to become a mainstream political position, just like when President Biden mentioned it in his State of the Union. And the only thing that prevents it from being passed federally is elected officials who resist it and think that somehow it’s not right for every worker in this country to have at least $15 as the minimum wage.

Miettinen: So, a very “Marketplace” question here: $15 in November 2012 would have roughly the same buying power as about $11.59, per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. With inflation still at its highest in decades, is that changing how you’re thinking about your advocacy?

Henry: Yeah, you know, I have to say workers have been clear from day one that $15 is the bare minimum that workers everywhere need to survive. And while 10s of millions have won those raises over the last decade, we really support the workers all across the country who are demanding more. And I think if that’s what you’re asking about, how do we think about, with the cost of living skyrocketing for working families, we’re proud to stand with workers anywhere who are demanding to be paid a living wage. And in some parts of the country, the demand is $20, in other parts it’s $22, and in still other parts it’s $25. And we support those demands because I think that what the fast food workers movement has done is pushed the conversation from bare minimum to what we need to be paid to make a living wage.

Miettinen: Labor organizing is having a huge moment right now. What’s special about this moment and can that momentum be sustained?

Henry: Well, I think that the Fight for $15 and a Union movement over the past 10 years helped create the conditions for workers to believe when they joined together, they can make a change. And so the fast food workers are proudly standing with the Starbucks partners who have been winning NLRB elections and are making a demand for bargaining a contract on that corporation, and with the Amazon workers who are fighting some of the most powerful corporations in the world. And we’re really excited that this movement has gained so much momentum that the workers in California rewrote the rules and created a fast food sector council that requires franchise owners, franchisees and workers and government to sit together at a table and solve the problems of this poverty-wage work in California.

Demonstrators demanding an increase in the minimum wage to $15-dollars-per-hour prepare to march in the streets on April 14, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.
Demonstrators march for a $15 minimum wage in Chicago in. 2016. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Miettinen: I always like to ask this of anyone in an advocacy space: What gives you hope?

Henry: The workers that have been winning. You know, the idea that 10s of millions of people have earned a wage that those original workers in 2012 were ridiculed for demanding — that gives me hope. Crystal Orozco, who is a fast food leader in California, led a strike for the first time in October of ’21 to protest wage theft after working three years on the graveyard shift and she won backpay for that wage theft because she organized together with her co-workers — that gives me hope. There’s a woman who is founding the United Service Workers Union of the South because she wants to help teach other southern workers about their rights and sharing the tools that she’s learned in the Fight for $15 and a Union movement in North Carolina. And she gives me hope. And so this movement has moved from a bold demand in 2012 to inspiring action by elected leaders and corporations to a tipping point where workers took their demands to a ballot box, and so what gives me hope is something that seemed impossible in 2012 is now very possible. And people like you are asking me, “Why can’t we make it a federal minimum?” and “Is it enough?” And I think those are all signs of hope.

Miettinen: So what do you see as being next on the agenda for Fight for $15?

Henry: Well, I think we have to figure out how to beat the fast food industry in California, who is blocking the implementation of the Fast Recovery Act through a referendum on the ballot in California, so that those workers — a half a million of them — can get a seat at the table to solve problems at the job. And we’re excited to be backing the workers that are organizing in the South and creating a new union of Southern service workers to demand living wages, dignity and a voice on the job. So I think that’s a really exciting development in the next stage of the Fight for $15. And then I think the workers winning at Starbucks and Amazon is also going to fuel this movement. And who knows what’ll be possible as we continue to organize together and strike together and make demands on corporations to end the low-wage poverty jobs that mostly Black and brown workers are forced to do in this country.

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