After Almost a Decade, Fight for $15 Has Made Progress — But It’s Not Enough

A national “Fight for $15 and a Union” action yesterday saw thousands of McDonald's workers walk out of their jobs against low pay and disrespect on the job. The decade-long campaign has seen acts of heroism by low-wage workers — but it hasn’t yet been enough to win.

An organizer for Fight For $15, speaks during a rally in Houston, Texas. (Brandon Bell / Getty Images)

Kenyatta Cochran, thirty-nine, has been working at a McDonald’s in Detroit for three years and makes $10 an hour. “That’s not enough to feed my family,” she told Jacobin yesterday morning, just before heading out to picket with her coworkers.

Cochran led a walkout of cooks and cashiers at her McDonald’s yesterday, and more than a dozen of her coworkers joined her as part of a national action by McDonald’s workers organized by the “Fight for $15 and a Union” campaign, supported by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The day’s action had two simple demands: $15 an hour — “at a minimum,” Cochran adds — and a union.

The Detroit McDonald’s workers were joined in their walkout by McDonald’s employees in Flint, Kansas City, Milwaukee, St Louis, Orlando, Tampa, Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco, Durham, Fayetteville, Houston, Miami, and Chicago.

Cochran has a one-year-old daughter, Olivia, who she describes as “the love of my life.” She says, “I have to make decisions right now, whether I’m going to buy her diapers or put food on the table, and that’s not fair.” She must pay a babysitter when she’s at work, and for transportation back and forth from McDonald’s and the babysitter’s commute since she doesn’t have a car (and Detroit’s public transportation is patchy at best).

The workers need to stand together, Cochran says, adding, “We feel disposable, we feel replaceable, and that’s not fair to us. We’re underpaid. We’re not respected. We’re not protected.” Cochran has been terrified of getting COVID-19 or bringing it home to her family but she’s had no choice but to work through the pandemic, since they need the money. Her sister, who she lives with, got COVID and Cochran couldn’t isolate herself and her daughter; they can’t afford separate housing. “That’s how hard it is,” she says. “Ten dollars. It’s unacceptable.”

“So that’s why we’re out here,” Cochran emphasizes. “We’re fighting for $15. We’re fighting for that union. So we can have a voice.”

The situation of fast-food workers who have stayed on the job certainly gives the lie to the “worker shortage” employers are complaining so much about. McDonald’s and other companies have complained publicly that they can’t find workers. A viral Tik Tok showed a sign at a McDonald’s drive-through apologizing for delays caused by short-staffing: “No one wants to work anymore.”

Some McDonald’s franchisees have blamed unemployment on stimulus checks, but economists and industry analysts have found little evidence for that. Rather, they say, between the low pay, sexual harassment, and disrespect workers endure, many were already shunning the industry. The fear of contracting COVID-19 has only amplified that reluctance. This whining about an employee shortage by the bosses is absurd and disingenuous, considering they have not attempted the simple solution proposed by workers participating in yesterday’s McDonald’s walkout: raising wages.

“It’s not like McDonald’s can’t afford it,” says Kenyatta Cochran. As she points out, the company netted $5 billion in profits last year. Its shareholders got $5 billion in dividends for doing absolutely nothing, while Cochran works hard and struggles to feed her baby. Without workers like her, of course, there would be no dividends, but it’s going to take a lot more organizing for Cochran to get her fair share.

One of the reasons companies like McDonald’s pay so little is that it’s very hard for workers living so precariously to take the risk of fighting back. While workers with other options are shunning McDonald’s, those who must work in fast food right now are desperate to make ends meet. Cochran said: “Everybody’s afraid to walk out, because this is the only thing we can do right now, we’re trying to make a living for our children. We’re scared because we don’t have that union to back us up.”

These “Fight for $15” fast-food actions have been rightly criticized by organizer and author Jane McAlevey, among others, for focusing more on media-friendly drama than on building lasting organization. After all, the walkouts have been going on for nearly a decade and fast-food workers still don’t have unions, though some companies have raised their entry-level wages.

SEIU spends millions on a PR firm, BerlinRosen, which is good at what it does (I talked with them for this report and they were helpful) but also represents some of New York City’s more appalling real estate firms. Other labor commentators have pointed out that contrary to the language the campaign uses, these actions are not “strikes,” which entail workers withdrawing their labor until the employer meets at least some of their demands. Strikes are harder to organize than one-day walkouts but more effective if the workers are ready.

All these criticisms are fair. But one advantage of a media-driven campaign against a well-known brand like McDonald’s is that other workers hear about it. Many of the workers walking out on Wednesday were not even affiliated with — or organized by — the official “Fight for $15 and a Union” campaign. Actions like this can inspire workers to organize their own shops, especially with the growing prominence of the $15 demand and increasing recognition that workers that need unions.

As well — with $15 and the PRO Act on the national policy agenda — the walkouts serve as a reminder to all workers that President Joe Biden and the Democrats need pressure to deliver on their campaign promises. Highly visible actions like this have helped to make these demands part of the political culture; they’re probably one reason, though Bernie Sanders and the success of local living wage campaigns are undoubtedly bigger factors, that raising the minimum wage to $15 and union organizing rights became part of the mainstream Democratic party’s platform. As well, the public corporate campaign against McDonald’s helps contribute to an atmosphere in which more companies are publicly criticized for underpaying their workers and not allowing unions.

Then again, the message McDonald’s sends by paying workers like her $10, Cochran says, is, “Y’all disposable. Y’all replaceable. But me and my daughter are not replaceable. We are not.”