Fight for $15 an hour continues after Tuesday’s national day of disturbance

CWJ panel discussion in September 2014 on workers’ rights. — photo by Adam Burke
CWJ panel discussion in September 2014 on workers’ rights. — photo by Adam Burke

Thousands of workers marched in the streets of over 340 cities and 20 airports across the country on Tuesday demanding a living wage of $15 an hour and the right to a union during a national day of disturbance. In Iowa, that fight continues. Although a handful of counties have worked to increase the local minimum wage, the state minimum wage has remained stagnant at $7.25 an hour since it was last upped in 2007. With Republicans in control of the governor’s office and both chambers of the Iowa Legislature, activists say a statewide increase in 2017 will be a challenge.

Tuesday’s demonstrations mark the fourth anniversary of the Fight for $15 movement, where activists gathered in New York City to launch the first strike of its kind in 2012, after the Occupy Wall Street movement failed to live up to many of its expectations a few years earlier. Workers in retail, healthcare, food service, maintenance and other areas have joined the “growing labor movement known as the Fight for $15,” to quote the Washington Post.

As a result of the growing popularity of the movement, four Iowa counties have raised the minimum wage to over $10, including: Johnson, Linn, Polk and Wapello. Groups such as Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (Iowa CCI) have called these county measures a “step in the right direction,” but added that it still falls way short of what many consider to be a living wage.

A grassroots movement with over 40 years of progressive activism under its belt, Iowa CCI started their Fight for $15 campaign in April 2015 and helped organize the first statewide Fight for $15 strike on Jan. 28. Organizer Bridget Fagan-Reidburn said the movement has only gained in strength in the past few years.

“I’m astounded by the amount of people who are striking — and risking arrest — to fight for a living wage,” Fagan-Reidburn said. “While a lot of people were disappointed on election night and the days that followed, there was a silver lining. In states where raising the minimum wage was on the ballot, even in Arizona where Trump won, the minimum wage won handily.”

International President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Mary Kay Henry, head of one of the major unions backing the Fight for $15, credits the movement for raising wages for 22 million workers.

“Every time voters are called to pass wage increases on the ballot they support raises, as they did in Maine, Arizona, Colorado and Washington in 2016,” she said in a union press release published Tuesday.

Along with increased wages, the Fighters for $15 are raising awareness for other issues facing workers. For example, in Des Moines, the Polk County Board of Supervisors tacked-on provisions when raising the minimum wage, including a “youth wage” where teenage workers only receive 85 percent of the minimum wage and freezing tipped wages at $5 an hour.

In Eastern Iowa, another group of working-class organizers founded the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa (CWJ) in November 2012. CWJ members, who include individuals from a coalition of religious, community, labor and immigrant organizations, address issues in eastern Iowa, such as working conditions, civil rights, education access and affordable housing, and have helped workers recover stolen wages from employers.

A recent study by the Iowa Policy Project (IPP) called wage-theft in Iowa an “invisible epidemic,” estimating that roughly $600 million is stolen in from workers each year and “another $120 million in unpaid sales, income and payroll taxes annually,” according to the report by Iowa Policy Project Senior Research Consultant Colin Gordon.

The Iowa Policy Project defined wage theft as an employer breaking the law or a contract to rob an employee of legally owed wages, which can include simply not paying employees,breaking rules protecting tipped workers, payroll deductions and misclassifying employment.

Perhaps the biggest challenge confronting the movement in the Hawkeye State is the Republican Party’s control of governing bodies — the governorship and both the Iowa House and Senate. In 2015, the Iowa Senate, then under Democrat control, approved a bill that would have raised Iowa’s minimum wage to $8.25 — still lower than $15 or any of the four county-based measures that increased wages to over $10 an hour. However, the bill died without ever being debated in the Republican-controlled House.

In October, before the Nov. 8 election, Gov. Terry Branstad did indicate that he would be willing to look at a minimum wage bill, but that any increase would likely be well under $15 and could potentially keep the statewide minimum at $7.25 but block individual county efforts to raise local minimum wages.

“It’s been widely reported that the Republicans and the Branstad administration want to pre-empt the local ordinances that have been implemented or are going to be implemented in Polk, Linn, Johnson and Wapello Counties,” Fagan-Reidburn said.

At the national level, President-Elect Donald Trump has said wages were already “too high,” but also continually shifted his position on minimum wage throughout the campaign.

Raising the wage and stopping pre-emption are among the chief focuses of Iowa CCI’s annual “Rally and Lobby Day” at the state capitol, planned for Jan. 24 next year.

“Today folks are also sending a message to the new administration that they’re not going anywhere,” Fagan-Reidburn said. “No matter who’s in the White House, we won’t go away. I think it’s an important message the incoming administration needs to hear.”

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