Low-wage workers use minority unionism to fight for $15 minimum wage

Low-wage workers use minority unionism to fight for $15 minimum wage

When Judith Luna went to work at Sears, she never expected to be paid so little that she would seldom be able to shop at the clothing retail store. Nine dollars an hour barely covered her living costs, and it was especially hard when the store barely gave her enough hours to qualify as part-time work.

And there’s more the sale associate didn’t expect. Luna never expected she’d be part of a movement that is trying to change how much she and her coworkers are paid.

“I believe that people deserve better than 8 or 9 dollars an hour,” said Luna, one of the hundreds of low-wage workers who walked off the job this week. “Especially when the employees are making millions of dollars downtown for these corporations.”

She is a member of the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago, a small union that is organizing Chicago workers in retail and food service. The name of their campaign is Fight for 15, and it took to the streets Wednesday, holding an all-day march that picketed its way from Subways to McDonalds to Macys across downtown and the north Loop to support workers who had gone on strike for the day.

Subway employee Jeremiah Green poses for a photograph in St. James Cathedral before participating in the rally. Photograph by Jonathan Gibby

The goal is to raise the minimum wage at these stores to $15 an hour, an amount organizers argue offers a living wage. But the campaign is also offering something else–a model for nontraditional organizing that could offer a way to fight for better wages and working conditions at a time of declining unionization.

It’s called “minority unionism.” It was used by the Walmart workers who made headlines around the world in the fall when they walked out of their jobs. Fast-food workers staged similar walkouts in New York earlier this month, and now it’s hitting the Chicago streets.

Robert Bruno, a professor at the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois based in Chicago, calls minority unionism “a catch-all way to describe new ways in which workers are organizing.”

The basis of minority unionism is that rather than organizing workers all in one workplace, a union like the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago will try to organize workers with similar workplaces and similar conditions around a similar set of demands.

Hundreds of low-wage workers and activists march through downtown Chicago during a rally urging retail stores and restaurants to pay their employees $15 an hour. Photograph by Jonathan Gibby

It’s used in workplaces where it would be particularly difficult to win a union vote–as in the case of the notoriously anti-union Walmart, or when the workforce is dispersed, as in the case of McDonalds or Subway franchises.

“You are simply organizing the workers who want to be organized and share something in common,” Bruno said.

“Ultimately, you want every worker who is working in the industry to be treated fairly and paid fair wages,” Bruno continued. “But you are not waiting to meet some arbitrarily defined number of workers in favor before you can act like a union, or before you can try to make things better for workers.”

Under current union law, for a workplace to be legally recognized as unionized, more than 50 percent of the workplace has to have voted to be in a bargaining unit. This is called “exclusive representation,” Bruno said.

A woman raises her fist in support of low-wage workers. Photograph by Jonathan Gibby

The relative rise of organizing outside of the traditional one-shop way comes as the U.S. is in a record decline of unionization. The percentage of the U.S. population in a union has gone from 26.7 percent in 1973 to 13.1 percent in 2011, according to a 2012 report by the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan economic research group.

Meanwhile, the number of Illinois workers in a union was 14.6 percent of workers in 2012, down from 16.2 percent in 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And even as job creation inches slowly upward, a disproportionate number of the jobs created since the recession are concentrated in low-wage sectors like Luna’s, the National Employment Law Project found.

Minority organizing is part of an ongoing debate in the labor movement as to what the future of organizing should look like, Bruno said. While the debate is being hashed out, it comes with the added bonus: As soon as there is an interest in collectively trying to make changes in the workplace, workers can start pushing for them despite not having a union recognized by the National Labor Relations Board.

As soon as workers start signing union cards, unions can “use whatever power they have to file lawsuits, to advocate for the workers,” said Bruno, and hopefully “negotiate some remedies.”

Luna said that since she became a member of the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago, her manager has cut her hours from nearly 40 hours a week to only 20 a week. But that gives her even more reason to continue organizing, she said.

“This is why it is so important to unionize. There is no safety net at all at this point,” she said. “People don’t just organize just to organize. There is obviously a need, and there needs to be some change in Chicago.”


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  • great article....keep up the good work!

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