The narrative behind the Fight for 15 campaign is that Fast Food workers rising up and within a few years created dynamic change to the industrial-political landscape. A closer analysis may suggest this a fraud, relies on a flawed means and ends argument and reveals an accidental result over another chapter into the seedy side of SEIU politics.
Much has been written about the narrative of workers developing this campaign as against the SEIU trying to keep their involvement guarded. To understand the motivation of this campaign and SEIU involvement, we need to look at the broader labor movement and the behind the scenes politics that inspired this program.
After an abortive attempt to amalgamate with UNITE-HERE, which resulted with in a split with the UNITE-HERE leadership, that become Workers United, who became the sponsor of the early Fight for 15 campaigns (this does not dismiss the numerous Worker Centre programs that the SEIU had funded). While it might seem unusual for the SEIU to involve themselves with a campaign in an industry they have no previous involvement, SEIU have been notorious Union raiders. The upshot of the SEIU interference in UNITE-HERE is they ended up with control of the asset of a bank, with multi-billion dollar assets and multi-million annual profits. A bank that the SEIU was heavily indebted to.
Despite this, and many claims can be made about the motivation of a highly successful political campaign being irrelevant, this is not the most pressing criticism of this campaign. The success of this campaign has relied on Democrat control of various legislature that implemented the $15 minimum wage.
A Democrat party that Andy Stern boasted of having unprecedented access to the White House for. A Democrat party that has been supported for many years by the ‘Purple Wave’. A Democrat party that was sophisticated in use of legislature to support SEIU unionization (particularly in disability care). If you watch some the many you-tube videos about the Fight for 15 we see two distinct categories of videos, the protests themselves, and then the compelling testimony of many fast-food workers in legislative hearings.
The protests, walk-outs and ‘strikes’ themselves represent nothing more than pageantry, a Situationalist spectacle against the backdrop of significant behind the scenes negotiation of SEIU leadership . In David Rolfs account of the first break-through in Seattle, not only was it the result the surprising election of a supportive council, SEIU had already formed a committee with business leaders to introduce this initiative, a long way from rank-and-file leadership.
Research is already documenting the real cost of the actions of workers, while community leaders ‘walked-in’ workers after direct industrial action, it is in the subsequent months that worker retaliation, dismissals and harassment occurred. These workers did not have the backing or legal support of the Union over retaliatory behavior. While there were workers that gained employment through the Labor movement this has been no more than Union ‘succession-planning.’ Meanwhile, the vast majority are nothing more than the disposable hero’s of the Labor movement, the unknown soldiers forgotten in the celebration and celebrity of people like David Rolf.
It is significant that in an era of declining Union membership, union activity is a flash-bang centre-stage performance that disguises political lobbying as the real agent of change. Union membership is seen as temporary or as in the case of Fight for 15 unnecessary focusing on activist/leader to organiser career promotion.
This is the context behind Sally McManus public statements about protesting unfair laws, the context behind United Voice ECEC members walking off the job, the context behind future ‘strikes’ by hospitality workers over penalty rates cuts, the context behind after a decade and millions of dollars being poured into organising cleaners, Cleanstart being quietly shelved. It is not building mass movements or supporting rank-and-file activism for that matter, but the postmodern union is about disposable members organised around temporary campaigns while celebrating the success of movement leaders, current and future ( such as Luke Hilkari) . Hard-working individuals, hand-picked, lacking creativity and initiative whose remain fixated on the colonising solutions of the United States labor movement . Their solutions is not to shift institutional, structural and cultural to incorporate working-class realities in all its multi-dimensional forms but to create sugar-hit solutions to the long-term problems of capitalism.