Jean-Carl Elliott reflects on the electoral approach to worker power, using the Fight for $15 and One Fair Wage campaigns as examples. This article was first published by Organizing Work.
According to the Fight for $15’s website:
The Fight for $15 began in 2012 when two hundred fast-food workers walked off the job to demand $15/hr and union rights in New York City.
Today, we’re a global movement in over 300 cities on six continents.
We are fast-food workers, home health aides, child care teachers, airport workers, adjunct professors, retail employees – and underpaid workers everywhere…
We can’t feed our families, pay our bills, or even keep a roof over our heads on minimum wage pay.
When we first took the streets, the skeptics called us dreamers. They said a $15 wage was “unwinnable.”
We didn’t listen. We organized and we fought for what we knew was right.
We didn’t win these increases because we elected supportive politicians to office. We won because we made them support us. That’s the power of direct action, of taking to the streets, of organizing.
We’ve already won raises for 22 million people across the country – including 10 million who are on their way to $15/hr – all because workers came together and acted like a union.
Throughout my time as a professional organizer with Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC), I spent a lot of time with Fight for $15 (FF15) organizers and attended several of their actions. I also participated in two ROC campaigns to raise the minimum wage in Michigan, the second of which is now formally called One Fair Wage (OFW). While campaigns like these might make claims such as “We didn’t win these increases because we elected supportive politicians to office,” I’m going to argue that they actually do. And the fact that they do has serious implications for their own efforts and for the labor movement in general.
The smoke-and-mirrors sort of approach that FF15 and OFW take to winning wage increases is part of a broader strategic framework called “electoralism.” Electoralism sometimes gets confused with voting. Voting is just one tactic that gets employed within electoralism — it’s really only a very small part of the bigger picture. The debate over this tactic can produce some pretty ugly back-and-forth mudslinging between proponents and opponents of voting, each one blaming the other for our current state of affairs. But to confuse the tactic (voting) for the strategy (electoralism) is like missing the forest for the trees.
Electoralism in a broader sense is a strategy that relies on elected officials — and the people they appoint to office — as the main catalysts for change. And so whether or not you vote, chances are (no matter how anti-state or anti-electoral you think you are) the political work you are participating in probably fits very nicely into someone’s campaign for office. Although FF15 and OFW are only two campaigns among many that engage in electoralism, I have chosen them to be my case studies since I’ve had close relationships with them.
FF15 and ROC both started their legacies by taking actions against employers. As mentioned on their site, FF15 began with walkouts at McDonald’s restaurants. I first heard about ROC in my home state of Michigan after they organized workers to address wage theft and unfair firings at a restaurant called Andiamo. These actions caught the attention of many folks in the labor movement in large part because the food service industry had been off the radar of unions for about half a century. Unions had made every excuse in the book to avoid us: turnover is too high, profit margins are too low, these aren’t “real” jobs… all the excuses employers also make when we workers try to get a bigger piece of the pie. FF15 and ROC, in the eyes of mainstream labor, represented a new way of organizing workers and a new way forward for the future of labor.
After some time, both organizations made decisions from the top that single employers were not an ideal target. To make long-lasting change for workers, the answer was public policy, specifically raising the minimum wage. Who has the power to change policy? Policy makers, aka politicians and their appointees.
FF15 definitely doesn’t seem like an electoral campaign on its face. They produce plenty of news headlines about “strikes,” with images of workers leading chants through megaphones, faith leaders and union activists carrying banners and waving signs… much of the same imagery you’d see in a documentary about the 40-hour work week, the abolition of child labor, and the other great victories brought to us by the labor movement. The major difference between a FF15 strike and a traditional strike is who participates and where.
FF15 strikes aren’t really strikes — they’re rallies. The makeup of the crowd is predominantly staffers and local activists. And “strikes” happen off the property of the business they are targeting. When you look through the front windows, you can still see workers working. The goal is not to disrupt production, but rather to raise awareness. Whose awareness are we raising? The electorate’s. To do what? Elect supportive politicians to office.
The loudest demand at a FF15 protest will be for “$15 and the right to form a union.” The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) states quite explicitly that workers have “the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” So what’s holding them back? Well, because of the complex structure of McDonald’s, establishing the parameters for a certified bargaining unit has been a legalistic clusterfuck. First off, certain locations are part of their corporate empire and other locations are franchises. So there’s been a legal debate as to whether or not the corporation can be targeted as an employer in the case of the franchisees. This also affects who would be included in a bargaining unit: the employees at one location? in one region? some but not all? Having a labor-friendly National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) could really help clear a lot of this up. The NLRB is appointed by the President of the United States of America. In its dispute with FF15, McDonald’s tried to “run out the clock” on the Democrat-appointed Board.
A $15 minimum wage, however, is the demand that launched FF15 into mainstream politics. Something we’ve seen at union drives at major companies is that they don’t pull any punches when it comes to union-busting. So instead of targeting one employer, FF15 decided that if they could change public policy (raising the minimum wage), not only would McDonald’s have to raise their wages, but every other employer would have to do the same.
As more and more protests occurred, it became common to see local politicians at these events. That’s a big deal to a lot of folks because we usually don’t see politicians hanging around unless they want something from us. Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative made big names for themselves by passing the first $15 minimum wage in Seattle. When they stepped on the scene, they picked up the slogan “$15 NOW!” and ran with it. After hard campaigning, Sawant was elected in 2014 and was welcomed to office with pressure to do a lot of compromising. One of the big compromises was that the minimum wage needed to be phased in over time so that the market could adjust and so that small business owners could tweak their operations accordingly. One would think that a socialist would be more concerned with workers than business owners or the market, but when a workplace struggle gets handed to a politician, the power dynamics change. Workers affected by $15 NOW are not quite at $15 yet, despite it being 2020. Workers will be able to say they have $15 “NOW” in 2024.
Back in my home state of Michigan, we haven’t had quite a concerted effort for $15. We have all the rallies and the chants of “If we don’t get it? SHUT IT DOWN!” but we still haven’t figured out how to shut it down from across the street and without worker participation. But every once in a while a politician shows up and promises that they’re doing everything within their power, but there just isn’t enough support from their colleagues. But if we can get out the vote and get “the right people” (Democrats) in office, that will bring us a whole lot closer. In the meantime, ROC and their coalition partners have launched a few petition drives to get minimum wage increases on the state referendum. I participated in one such effort in 2014 to raise the wage for all workers (tipped and waged workers) to $10.10/hr, and I participated in the beginning stages of the campaign that was officially launched in 2017 (I resigned in January of 2018) called One Fair Wage, which sought to raise all wages to $12.
When OFW was launched, I received barrages of messages from all sorts of people asking, “If there’s an international movement for $15, why is ROC pushing for $12?!” The official answer I had to give was that $12 was a pathway to $15, but a key point that I discussed off the record was that this was not a demand made by workers at any point in the campaign. ROC is funded by large foundations and major decisions are made by unelected board members. And of course, since the issue was going to be circulated via statewide petition, it had to be a number that would be manageable to “the voters.” Worker power was never part of the equation.
What made both ballot initiatives different from FF15 however is that we weren’t bullshitting ourselves about strikes (fake or not) or any other sort of disruption. We knew damn well that restaurant workers aren’t unionized and many folks in these circles will argue that we can’t be unionized. A ballot initiative is a nice little shortcut that circumvents all of that. We would just have to gather enough signatures from registered voters so that it would appear on the appropriate ballot referendum (more state sanctioning of the process, which also warrants a discussion about citizenship). It should also be noted that many of the decision-makers in these coalitions have close ties to the Democratic Party and that in addition to the minimum wage being on the ballot, voters will also be voting on new governors, senators and representatives on the same ballot. This is very strategic and not at all a coincidence.
Again, ROC was very up-front about their lack of faith in traditional organizing. Their strategy was to move to hearts and minds of the electorate and that would be their vehicle for change. When we were in the news, we would cite numbers from small business associations and if possible feature a small-business owner who championed the wage we were fighting for. It was also imperative to have a worker be interviewed, but it wasn’t talk about empowerment or threats to “shut it down.” These workers were victims. Powerless victims who couldn’t afford groceries, who worked multiple jobs, who relied on food stamps and other forms of government assistance. You could almost hear Sarah McLachlan music in the background with a voiceover saying “for an extra 10 cents on your happy meal, you can give this poor restaurant worker a raise.” But it worked. We (and several stipended petition circulators) collected enough signatures to put raises on the ballot both in 2014 and 2018.
In 2014, we submitted the boxes and boxes of petitions (10 signatures per page and literally hundreds of thousands of signatures) to the Board of State Canvassers. When they said we had enough signatures to go on the ballot, the next step was to knock on doors and make sure that people came out to the polls.
But then something happened that took everyone by surprise. The state legislature used a legal technicality and pulled our issue off the ballot. We did exactly what the State Constitution told us we were allowed to do, but the conservative legislators blocked our efforts. The issue wouldn’t go before the voters in November. The wage still increased, but by a much smaller amount over a longer period of time, and tipped workers were almost completely left out of the equation. The activists involved were assured that a lawsuit was coming and the people behind this would be held accountable. That never happened. So the strategy instead became to hold the Republicans accountable for allowing this to happen and to get them out of office so it could never happen again. We were assured that having the right people in office (progressive Democrats) was the solution. Even though our issue wasn’t on the ballot, there were people who were running for office who supported us and it was crucial to get them in. I learned that even though the wage issue may have seemed nonpartisan, the strategy was absolutely dependent on the electoral process.
2017 started to foreshadow similar events. We were told that $12 was the number, not because workers demanded it, but because the voters would approve it. We would hold regular events for OFW, attend FF15 rallies with OFW banners, and we even got Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin to dress up like restaurant workers on film to promote our cause. The strategy from OFW was that having this minimum wage increase on the ballot would compel more progressive voters to go to the polls. I saw OFW organizers and board members posting to Facebook about a Blue Wave. “We need to get the Republicans out!” By this time, I was becoming disillusioned with our strategies, and I resigned my position in January of 2018. But prior, I had asked higher-ups about what would happen if the state legislature pulled a similar stunt to what happened in 2014. They said we would sue. They had also said this in 2014. And since then, OFW ballots had been defeated by similar moves in other states. I had regained my hope in workplace organizing, so I got out of the electoral mess and went back to restaurant work. But I kept my eye on the campaign and kept in touch with people who were still working on it.
Sure enough, plenty of signatures were collected and sure enough the legislature pulled sneaky legal moves to undermine the campaign. OFW promised a lawsuit which never came. It was like déjà vu. It’s been two years, and to this day I still receive emails and invites to OFW events in which local Democrats are featured — not because it’s a party event, no sir, they just happen to be the main supporters of this non-partisan issue.
Until recently, Saru Jayaraman was known publicly as the co-founder and co-director of ROC-United. During her time in this role, she would bring groups of restaurant workers to attend events that were hosted by wealthy progressives to convince them that restaurant workers “… are the rising American electorate. They are the face of the future. They are the women of color that are going to determine the future of every next election in the United States.” The effect of this is twofold: 1) it shows restaurant workers that having the attention of lawmakers and people with money is how progressive change happens, and 2) it’s a form of auctioning off the allegiance of marginalized workers to the Democratic Party. “If your foundations deliver us money, we’ll deliver you votes.” Electoralism starts at a rally across the street from an employer and moves the fight farther and farther away from the workplace until it reaches the ballot box.
Saru recently left ROC and has helped launch One Fair Wage into becoming its own organization. It has a 501c3, which means that it can solicit “charitable” donations, and a 501c4, which means that it can give money to political candidates without having to disclose who received it or how much. But if you search YouTube for “One Fair Wage,” they conveniently have plenty of videos of politicians who support the campaign. So when you hit the polls this November, you know exactly who to give your power to.