30 August 2013

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Yesterday I went to the Fight for Fifteen rally in Federal Plaza, Chicago. The usual suspects were in attendance, from  labor activists from Action Now and Jobs with Justice to a few rogue Wobblies and the inevitable Revolutionary Communist Party literature table. Participants were color coded by shirt. Workers gave uplifting testimony, Democratic legislators talked about how much they had learned from the workers, and the ceremony ended shortly after musical performances by an electro-traditional Mexican folk group and four break dancers. Media trucks with massive antennas broadcast their coverage, captured from cameras in the back. Police presence was constant but subdued until thirty minutes before the rally’s end time, when fifteen CPD on bikes approached on the sidewalk, stopped, turned, and waited for the event to end.

If you, like me, have been to rallies and protests and marches before, none of the above will surprise you—but then, and as others have already noted, the rally’s purpose was not to surprise or mobilize but to publicize. The control exercised on the demonstrators by the SEIU-based campaign made this abundantly clear. Yet though it was obviously a publicity event, when I tried to describe the rally to friends outside the left I found myself struggling to answer as basic a question as “Who’s the target?”

The blog post noted above speculates on this, coming up with two possible targets: state and municipal governments, hoping to make minimum wage systems more flexible and open to local control, or the companies themselves,  to accept unions in exchange for tax breaks and other benefits from SEIU’s political allies. While these outcomes are obviously not what the author would hope for, he notes that they do create “places where radicals can step in,” involve themselves in the struggle, and maybe actually organize a few workers along the way.

Here I must confess that I am a pessimist. This  sounds like a good way for corporate unions to pacify a handful of young radicals, overworking and discarding the soon-to-be disillusioned majority while capturing and converting a solid few. Again, this is nothing new, nor does it take away Fight for Fifteen’s importance as an effort to bring something like organizing to a vast and group of American workers, or its ability to educate the middle class on the situation of those struggling with minimum-wage jobs. These are both good things, though they may or may not be things that somebody worried about capitalism would do for 70 to 80 hours a week for a few years. The campaign is good, and I’ll continue to put my body in front of the TV cameras for them, but as a candidate for the catalyst of a major labor movement I think it is fundamentally lacking. Not because it is a publicity campaign, but because of the nature of its publicity.

The campaign’s messaging revolves around two key points. One, that fast food and retail workers are not young people looking for extra money but generally independent adults who may have children of their own. And, two, that the businesses involved can afford to pay their workers $15 an hour. Worker testimonies and well-designed graphics attest to the first, while vitriolic stories of CEOs’ greedy salaries reveal the latter. With the first set of messages I have no qualms—the less workers are thought of as lazy bums and instead as responsible adults caught in a horrific wage trap, the better—but the second message falls into the same category as Occupy’s “99%” rhetoric. It might be energizing for some unorganized folks, but for the cynical Americans who are desperately looking for explanations for the crises that surround them it rings hollow.

While it is true that executives make too much, and that workers deserve more, we know that we could not have the economy we do if the minimum wage were $15 an hour rather than $7.25 and up, and I suspect most Americans know that too. This point, perhaps the central one of the whole campaign, is a simplification at best, and a lie at worst. That might not matter if your goal is organizing workers to risk their jobs in order to actually pressure their bosses, but remember that isn’t Fight for Fifteen’s goal. Its goal is to gain publicity and support outside the labor movement. The middle-class Americans they might be trying to convince seem more likely to sympathize with the company’s “small business” woes, or to listen to not entirely unjustified critiques of the campaign as something that’s better for the union than the workers.

It seems to me that the only way that one could build a labor movement that was both functional and radical, that could work in the world today as well as advancing practical organizing goals for coming crises, would be one that told workers that they deserve more than they can get. That it is actually impossible for them to receive what they need to live the lives they want in our current economy. I think that many people already know this, whether deep down or with a skeptic’s resignation. To give every worker a chance to “survive and thrive,” major changes would be needed for people in their position to enjoy the comfort and security that the middle class does. Our world not only expects but needs people to live lives no person should ever live.

Perhaps Fight for Fifteen is an opportunity to say just that. I’m not convinced.

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