Three-and-a-half years after 200 fast-food workers walked off their jobs in New York City, sparking a national movement for $15/hr and union rights, the Fight for $15 won its biggest victory yet when Gov. Jerry Brown reached a deal with state legislators Monday to make California the first state to pass a $15/hr minimum wage.
“When workers in New York City started this movement in 2012, nobody gave them a shot and when we joined in in California a few months later, people said we had no chance. But today, more than 6 million Californians secured life-changing raises that will lift our families out of poverty,” said Guadalupe Salazar, a McDonald’s worker in Oakland and member of the National Organizing Committee of the Fight for $15. “And more victories are on the way across the country. Our movement has unstoppable momentum. When workers join together and speak out, real change results.”
The deal will raise pay for the more than 6.5 million Californians paid less than $15, representing increases for 43% of the state’s workforce. It comes as California celebrates the 100th anniversary of its state minimum wage, and will result in raises that haven’t been seen in generations. By 2020, workers will see what amounts to a 50% increase over the current minimum wage, the most rapid raise since the state minimum more than doubled to $.33 from $.16 from 1918 to 1920.
It comes months after fast-food workers across New York won $15/hr and as politicians across the country are racing to respond to workers’ demands for $15/hr. Last week, Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser unveiled a plan to raise pay to $15/hr by 2020, while New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is in serious negotiations to raise New York’s minimum wage to $15, multiple outlets have reported. In New Jersey, Senate President Stephen Sweeney said he will put a $15/hr constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2017.
The Fight for $15 has built a growing awareness that $15/hr is the minimum wage level American workers in every part of the country need to survive and pay for the necessities to support their families. Cities including Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles have raised their minimum wage to $15/hr. And home care workers in Massachusetts and Oregon won $15/hr statewide minimum wages. Companies including Facebook, Aetna, Amalgamated Bank, and Nationwide Insurance have raised pay to $15/hr or higher; workers in nursing homes, public schools and hospitals have won $15/hr via collective bargaining; and fast-food workers have ratcheted up pressure on companies like McDonald’s to raise pay to $15/hr.
The Democratic Party adopted a $15/hr platform, the Democratic candidates for president have lined up in support of the workers in the Fight for $15, and elected leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Kristen Gillibrand back a $15/hr federal minimum wage. It’s a far cry from the situation when the Fight for $15 started—when discourse on the economy was limited to talk of debt and deficits and two lone Democrats in Congress (former Sen. Tom Harkin and former U.S. Rep. George Miller) were the only ones brave enough to even call for $10.10/hr.
Slate, among others, has credited the Fight for $15 with completely rewiring “how the public and politicians think about wages.” MSNBC said the Fight for $15, “entirely changed the politics of the country, and Fortune said the Fight for $15 “transformed labor organizing from a process often centered on nickel-and-dime negotiations with a single employer into a social justice movement that transcends industry and geographic boundaries.”
On Nov. 29, 2012, 200 New York City McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and KFC cooks and cashiers walked off their jobs, demanding $15/hr and union rights, in what the New York Times called, “the biggest wave of job actions in the history of the fast-food industry.” Few gave the workers a chance, but their calls for higher pay caught on and spread across the country. Within months, workers walked off their jobs in Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and Milwaukee, sowing the seeds of a national movement that would eventually hit California on Aug. 29, 2013, when hundreds of Los Angeles fast-food workers walked off their jobs for the first time.
The Fight for $15 quickly spread throughout California, with strikes hitting cities like Oakland, Sacramento and San Diego before boomeranging back to Los Angeles with a bang in May 2015, when the City of Angels became the biggest city yet to pass a $15 minimum wage. Los Angeles County followed suit in September, with cities like Pasadena, Mountain View and Santa Monica also passing $15. Workers continued striking—cooks and cashiers in 50 California cities went on strike in November—and the unstoppable momentum led to a push to make $15 the statewide minimum wage, an effort that came to a historic conclusion Monday.
“The victory in California shows us that we need to keep on marching, keep on speaking out and keep on sticking together until we win $15 everywhere,” said Terrence Wise, a McDonald’s and Burger King worker in Kansas City, Mo. and member of the Fight for $15 National Organizing Committee. “If you work hard, you shouldn’t have to rely on the government to support your family—you should be paid enough to put a roof over your kids’ heads and food on their table.”