A United Front

A strong alliance between Fight for 15 and Black Lives Matter would propel both movements forward.

A July 2013 fast-food workers strike in New York City. Annette Bernhardt / Flickr

One evening in late March, I found myself sitting in a crowded union hall on Chicago’s West Side. A rank-and-file member of the Faculty Forward graduate workers campaign, I was attending an organizing meeting for the National Day of Action for the Fight for 15 campaign (FF15). The following month, 60,000 workers in 200 cities would turn out for the largest mobilization of low-wage workers in US history.

The meeting brought together a range of organizations. In Chicago, the main group behind FF15 is the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago, a union of workers from a variety of service-sector firms, including McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Walgreen’s, Macy’s, Sears, and Victoria’s Secret. A diverse group of other organizations endorsed the campaign.

Representatives from community organizations like Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation and ONE Northside sat with the group of unionists, mostly from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the primary funder of FF15.

The two sides of FF15 and SEIU were on display. FF15 uses innovative strategies to reach workers. Instead of running one unionization campaign against a single employer, it employs a metro strategy, mobilizing workers across the city and across several sectors: low-wage retail, home care, child care, higher education.

This approach has brought real victories, including wage increases at corporate-owned McDonald’s outlets and minimum-wage hikes in Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York State. And last week, in a landmark decision that can only be considered a product of the FF15 mobilization, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that parent corporations are joint employers and thus can be compelled to negotiate with unions representing workers at their franchises.

The board, in other words, answered the “who’s the boss” question with a resounding reply: the corporation, not just the franchisee. In an economy where companies habitually use franchising and subcontracting to avoid liability and scuttle organizing drives, the ruling opens up enormous opportunities to organize the unorganized.

With these important victories and broad coalitions behind them, some see FF15 as transcending the narrow struggle for higher wages and better jobs. They see the seeds of “social movement unionism,” in which organized labor is at the center of a broader movement for democracy, equality, and a decent life.

But FF15 hasn’t been without its left critics. Set in motion from the top down, some worry that worker participation in FF15 is relatively low, with media-friendly optics often standing in for genuine shop-floor power.

The campaign runs on cadres of idealistic organizers who quickly burn out and leave organizing work behind or, in the case of the Faculty Forward organizer who brought me to the meeting, get fired for their failure to meet their aggressive organizing quotas. This dynamic creates concerns that SEIU is running a “legal and public relations campaign” for a contract, not an organizing campaign to build worker power.

The 2009 plan that launched FF15 also reveals some of the limitations of SEIU’s political vision, laying out SEIU’s ambition to become “the dominant union in the security” industry. In principle, there is nothing wrong with organizing private security guards. But can SEIU do so in such a way that challenges instead of reinforces the wholesale criminalization of poor and racialized communities, that doesn’t accept the inevitability of an expanding private security sector?

SEIU has made some halting steps in the right direction, but social movement unionism means more than pragmatic coalition-building or forming racial justice task forces (more on that later). For a campaign like FF15, where organized labor is mobilizing workers in criminalized communities, social movement unionism demands a serious reckoning with racism and the penal state.

If FF15 and Black Lives Matter can meaningfully engage — if the connections between capitalism and a ballooning carceral state can be made manifest and fought in tandem — both will come out stronger.

Picking Sides

Organized labor is not a monolith. There are often real divisions and conflicts: between rank-and-file workers and union leadership, between union locals in the same region, between union locals and the international union.

In Illinois, these divisions were on public display during the fight around the closure of the Tamms Correctional Center, a facility dedicated exclusively to holding prisoners in solitary confinement and which for years activists had been demanding be closed. Tamms didn’t have a yard, cafeteria, classrooms, or chapel.

In 2012, then-Gov. Pat Quinn announced Tamms would be one of five state prisons he would shutter, citing budgetary reasons. While many celebrated, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), who represented Tamms’s prison guards, fought Quinn’s order. They reached out to their legislative allies. They launched a public campaign of advertisements and actions. They even sued the state.

In the end, AFSCME’s gambit failed, and the prison was closed. But the incident left many grassroots organizations and activists feeling distrustful toward organized labor. One activist with the Tamms Year Ten campaign told Truthout that AFSCME had “gone entirely ballistic with a campaign of outright lies, half-truths, and fearmongering.”

Inside organized labor, the fight over Tamms was equally divisive. While AFSCME was the union most affected by the Tamms closing, SEIU also represents 25,000 workers in corrections. With this constituency, the international tends to be conservative on mass incarceration. For example, SEIU has not taken a position on solitary confinement, despite considerable pressure from movement organizations.

The leadership of SEIU Local 1 and Local 73 — two large locals that represent public-sector workers in Illinois (and elsewhere in the Midwest) — saw Quinn’s proposal as something to be resisted, as an attack on the public sector. In contrast, SEIU-Healthcare Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Kansas (HCII) supported the effort to close Tamms.

The same dynamic repeated itself in this year’s Chicago mayoral campaign. HCII was the first SEIU local to support Jesus “Chuy” Garcia’s populist challenge to Rahm Emanuel. After some internal strife that culminated in Local 73 filing a cease-and-desist request against HCII for its endorsement of Garcia, SEIU’s Illinois council eventually endorsed Garcia, overriding Local 73’s preference to stay neutral.

Despite these differences between locals and the ability of progressive locals like HCII to influence the larger union, SEIU remains a top-down organization. The big decisions are made at the international. The conflicts within Illinois SEIU locals around the Tamms fight did not leak out into the press or translate into meaningful solidarity with the coalition assembled to close Tamms.

In the longer term, however, these points of contention do work their way through the organization. The SEIU organizers who would speak with me — fearing reprisals, only on the condition of anonymity — said the Tamms fight ultimately helped SEIU.

“Internally, it was controversial,” one SEIU organizer told me. “Immediately, it didn’t translate into much of anything, but it did highlight some tensions. We’re still working on them, but the international and the locals are now really thinking about racial justice and mass incarceration.” Another SEIU insider echoed this, telling me that “some of the dissent coming up about Tamms put SEIU in a better position to reach out to the Black Lives Matters movement.”

In March, the international created a Racial Justice Task Force that will conduct a ten-month study of structural racism and make recommendations to the union. And to its credit, in Chicago the task force has met with union locals and organizations associated with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Connecting Issues

These steps have not gone unnoticed. Charlene Carruthers, the national director of Black Youth Project 100 (BYP 100), told me that her organization and other allied groups “are having conversations with FF15 and labor. There’s lots of overlap, and we are pushing conversations that the labor movement has never had before. I’m excited to see the results.”

This winter, the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago reached out to BYP 100 about endorsing the FF15 and helping organize the April 15 march. After some internal deliberation, BYP 100 accepted the overture.

Carruthers saw it as an important opportunity. “Black and brown workers are at the forefront of the FF15,” she explained. “We wanted to make sure their narrative was representative. We tried to shift the messaging and make sure that the FF15 was more squarely centered in racial and gender justice.”

The partnership paid dividends. “Organizations like BYP 100 shifted the dynamic,” one SEIU organizer said. “They pushed on FF15 from the outside. It helped move some conversations forward that could have stagnated.”

For another SEIU insider, BYP 100 helped the Chicago FF15 campaign assert local autonomy: “Bringing BYP in built grassroots power within the union to press for racial justice, to highlight the centrality of racial justice in the FF15. What the campaign knows is good and what the national knows is good are two different things.”

Jasson Perez, the national co-chair of BYP 100 and the primary point of contact between FF15 and BYP 100, felt that BYP 100 achieved its goal: “In hindsight, the conversation did shift around racial justice and the connections to economic justice. The SEIU leadership felt like FF15 did enter into a meaningful dialogue with Black Lives Matter organizations. You see some movement in the international, not just in the locals.”

Perez, who previously worked for SEIU as an organizer, continued:

Labor has problems, but they’re trying to figure out how to support Ferguson and Black Lives Matter. It’s a not a kumbaya moment but it’s something real to build on. It’s not even that there’s tension and conflict with labor. It’s more basic.

Labor needs to understand Black Lives Matter. It’s not just a cultural affirmation project. In Chicago, about 40 percent of the budget goes to police. In most cities, it ranges from the high 20s to 40s. Realigning this investment is a redistribution issue, just like increasing the minimum wage.

The partnership has also heightened BYP 100’s focus on economic equality — the group is currently working an economic justice agenda.

“We need to do a better job of explaining how wage growth impacts gun violence,” Perez said. “Violence is derivative of poverty. Money in the community has a large multiplier effect. Working on Fight for 15 opened those conversations and showed both sides how they are connected.”

The Road Forward

If there is clearly a strong basis for a symbiotic relationship between Black Lives Matter and FF15, significant obstacles still remain.

Labor needs to make a decisive break with security politics — the tendency to address social problems with police and courts instead of public services.

SEIU’s campaign to organize private security is one example. Called “Stand For Security,” it equates private security with safety and calls for professionalizing private security with more rigorous training. It neglects private security’s role in the transformation of public space into the “branded zones of consumption” associated with gentrification.

Stand for the Security, in short, normalizes security politics. It isn’t the behavior of a union interested in contributing to the fight against police brutality, but rather in reducing organized labor to a narrow interest group.

A real challenge to the penal state would also extend to the “coercive unions” that represent police, border patrol, and correctional officers. These unions often show a different kind of political independence, breaking with the Democratic Party machine to support reactionary causes, like victims rights groups who promise to expand the penal state. Here, SEIU should follow the example of UAW Local 2865, which recently called on the AFL-CIO to expel the International Union of Police Associations.

“Our imagination is foreclosed to these questions,” one SEIU organizer said. “It’s one of our biggest weaknesses. We haven’t confronted what police and prisons mean in a class society.”

According to another SEIU insider, the process started by the Racial Justice Task force was just beginning to reach Stand for Security. “We’re just starting to move a set of conversations with the members of each of the locals that represent security officers. It’ll take some time to move through that process. They’re not ready to put folks forward publicly.”

The Black Lives Matter movement faces its own challenges as it tries to parlay moments of rebellion and dispersed actions into a sustained, potentially revolutionary movement.

A diffuse and heterogeneous movement, the radicalism of BYP 100 could be crowded out in Black Lives Matter by other voices less concerned with economic justice and the nexus between antiracist organizing and class struggle.

With the political establishment aligning around criminal justice reform, another danger is that the upsurge will be funneled into demobilizing channels that only yield palliatives, that all the movement will be able to win is more body cameras.

A more meaningful and deliberate alliance — one that goes beyond union leaders showing up at Black Lives Matter’s actions, and vice versa — could help both movements meet the challenges before them. SEIU’s Racial Justice Task Force is promising. If it leads to a sincere commitment to fighting racism and challenging to the penal state, it could deepen SEIU’s partnership with Black Lives Matters organizations and signal a break with the union’s implicit security politics.

Making explicit the connections between low-wage work and the carceral state, moreover, could increase rank-and-file militancy and make it more difficult for the international to negotiate an unsatisfying settlement with McDonald’s and other corporate targets.

At the same time, Black Lives Matter organizations need the financial support that organized labor can provide. The only alternative is liberal foundations, who are institutionally incapable of funding radical causes.

The most progressive labor unions were critical in the fight against Jim Crow. Today labor is a smaller and weaker force. A deliberate alliance could propel both FF15 and Black Lives Matter forward, setting them off on a more radical course than either movement could reach on its own.