Iowa’s Fight for $15 readies itself for an uphill battle


Illustration by Josh Carroll
Illustration by Josh Carroll

In a state that recently has been failing to live up to its progressive legacy, Iowans have joined the Fight for $15 movement, a national campaign launched by low-wage workers in New York City in 2012. The fight has a long history, including notable roots in Iowa, where workers at a Mason City McDonald’s broke through and unionized, however briefly — among the few groups to do so.

Politico called 2016 “the year of the minimum wage increase,” with 7 states and 18 cities and counties — including three Iowa counties — raising wages. The three Iowa counties joined Johnson County, which passed its minimum wage ordinance in 2015. But those four ordinances might come under fire during the Iowa legislative session as Republican legislators and Gov. Terry Branstad have voiced support for an effort to preempt county measures and enforce a uniform state minimum wage.

Rafael Morataya, director of the Iowa City-based workers’ rights group, the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa, said poverty wages have created a crisis for families and communities.

“We see it every day in the lives of our members who work full-time, often two or three jobs, for highly profitable corporations, but still struggle to provide the most basic human needs for themselves and their families,” he said in an email.

The demands for a living wage being advanced by the Center for Worker Justice, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and other progressive groups are not unreasonable, according to research from the non-profit research group The Iowa Policy Project, which was founded in 2001 to conduct research and analysis on state policy issues. Iowa’s minimum wage rose to $7.25 in January 2008 and has not budged one cent higher since that time. According to one Iowa Policy Project document from 2016, “no state minimum wage has lingered at $7.25 longer than Iowa’s,” and it doesn’t meet the cost of living needs even for a single adult, let alone an individual with children.

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement started its Fight for $15 campaign in April 2015, helping to raise the minimum wage in Polk County, and now fighting for a statewide living wage bill of $15 an hour. But despite recent gains, many activists have said they fear it will be an uphill battle as they take the fight to the state capitol this year.

“I’ve seen the movement only gain in strength — by people and industries added to its movement –and the wins gained across the country,” Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement organizer Bridget Fagan-Reidburn said.

Among the most vocal members of this broad coalition are workers in the fast food industry, who have charged employers with a number of violations against workers, including (but not limited to) wage theft and retaliation for speaking out, which is illegal. This includes workers at McDonald’s, a company frequently singled out for its low wages.

Source: The Cost of Living in Iowa 2014, The Iowa Policy Project
Source: The Cost of Living in Iowa 2014, The Iowa Policy Project

The strange birth of the most successful restaurant chain in history is the subject of the film The Founder (which opened in December 2016, and will be in wide release on Jan. 20). The film stars Michael Keaton as CEO Raymond Albert “Ray” Kroc, who acquired the company from brothers Dick and Mac McDonald. By 1959 over 100 McDonald’s restaurants had opened, a number which exploded to 1,000 in less than a decade. Estimates show that by 1972 sales exceeded $1 billion.

In the late ’60s, McDonald’s executives hired labor management consultant (and former labor organizer) John Cooke, who trained managers to detect efforts to unionize and organized “flying squads” of managers to travel the country and stop union drives. In 1974, when Des Moines-born Fred Turner took the helm as CEO, he continued Kroc’s policy of opposition to collective bargaining in Ronald McDonald Land. McDonald’s reportedly stopped over 400 union drives, and they were not the only company engaging in such activities.

Union membership in the U.S. has declined since reaching a peak of roughly 20 million members in 1979. This decline coincided with efforts by other companies and industries to adopt anti-union tactics, as well as other changes that accompanied modernization.

“In 1970, over 27 percent of all workers in the U.S. were members of unions,” Professor David Colman wrote in his book A History of the Labor Movement in the United States. “Over the next two decades however, union membership declined drastically as many of the labor movement’s most powerful unions suffered serious setbacks as a result of these forces.”

The restaurant industry has been notoriously difficult to organize, Morataya, of the Center for Worker Justice, said.

“[It is] fissured with many confusing layers of control, such as franchise systems, which make it difficult to hold the ultimate employer accountable,” he said. “Employers exercise a lot of discretion in scheduling decisions, often changing workers’ hours and schedules from week to week, which is sometimes used as a form of retaliation against workers who organize. The industry includes seven of the ten lowest-paid occupations, which contributes to high turnover among employees and make it difficult to form stable organizations.”

The United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) tried recruiting workers from the food service industry in the ’70s, but were largely unsuccessful. A group of McDonald’s workers in Lansing, Michigan, attempted to organize their store, resulting in the workers being fired and the store shutting down. In more extreme cases, as in San Francisco, employees were sometimes subjected to polygraph tests (so-called “lie detector tests”) and interrogation from management about union activities.

Unionization efforts were largely unsuccessful until some workers in northern Iowa stood up for their rights. In 1971, employees at a Mason City location voted to join the UFCW, making it the first McDonald’s union in the U.S. — in a state “rarely recognized for its progressive past,” to quote Media Control: News as an Institution of Power and Social Control author Robert E. Gutsche Jr. Although the union only lasted four years, it was a symbolic breakthrough at a time when McDonald’s was not used to losing.

Employees at other restaurants continued attempts to organize in the ’80s and ’90s. In 1998, McDonald’s workers in Macedonia, Ohio, went on strike. They didn’t unionize, but succeeded in getting better pay and treatment.

Given some of the major blows to the global economy in the 21st century and changes within the fast food industry, labor strategies and the way workers around the world communicate have changed. But McDonald’s workers carry on fighting for improved wages and have been involved in the recent Fight for $15 efforts.

“The Fight for $15 has really spoken to the urgency of this moment, with bold actions and demands, and I think that’s why it has grown so quickly and had so much success shifting the debate on a national (and even global) scale,” Morataya said.

Activists said they fear the Fight for $15 will likely be stonewalled by Iowa Republicans, who control both chambers of the Iowa Legislature as well as the Governor’s Office. In a December press release, the Center for Worker Justice urged activists and those impacted by minimum wage not to be discouraged and to continue fighting for living wages in the face of an Iowa Legislature that “threatens to attack the much needed raises won by hundreds of Iowan workers.”

Many activists said they plan to keep marching forward, understanding that the gains currently enjoyed by workers were not achieved without struggle.

“We continue to just raise up our voice,” said Mazahir Saleh, president of the Center for Worker Justice, said at a January press conference in Iowa City. “We deserve this raise, please keep it.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]

Minimum Wage Ordinances

Johnson County

Sep. 2015 Johnson County Board of Supervisors passed ordinance
Nov. 2015 First increase: $8.20
May 2016 Second increase: $9.15
Jan. 2017 Third increase $10.10

Future wage hikes would be tied to the Consumer Price Index.

Linn County

Sep. 2016 Linn County Board of Supervisors passed ordinance
Jan. 2017 First increase: $8.25
Jan. 2018 Second Increase: $9.25
Jan. 2019 Third Increase $10.25[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]

Wapello County

Sep. 2016 Wapello County Board of
Supervisors passed ordinance
Jan. 2017 First Increase: $8.20
Jan. 2018 Second Increase: $9.15
Jan. 2019 Third Increase: $10.10

Future wage hikes would be tied to the Consumer Price Index.

Polk County

Oct. 2016 Polk County Board of Supervisors passed ordinance
Apr. 2017 First Increase: $8.75
Jan. 2018 Second Increase $9.75
Jan. 2019 Third Increase: $10.75

Workers younger than 18 must be paid at least 85 percent of the minimum wage.

Future wage hikes would be tied to the Consumer Price Index.
[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Mike Kuhlenbeck is a journalist, ex-fast food worker and National Writers Union (UAW Local 1981, AFL-CIO) member based in Des Moines, Iowa. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 213.

Eleanore Taft contributed to reporting.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Thoughts? Tips? A cute picture of a dog? Share them with LV »

The Future is Unwritten

You look to Little Village for today’s stories. Your sustaining support will help us write tomorrow’s.


$10/mo or $120/year
The cost of doing this work really adds up! Your contribution at this level will cover telephone and internet expenses for one month at the LV editorial offices.


$20/mo or $240/year
$240 is enough to cover one month’s costs for sending out our weekly entertainment newsletter, The Weekender. Make a contribution at this level to put a little more oomph on your support and your weekend.


$30/mo or $360/year
(AUTO-RENEW) connects eastern Iowa culture with the world. Your contribution at this level will cover the site’s hosting costs for three months. A bold move for our boldest supporters!

All monthly and annual contributors receive:

  • Recognition on our Supporters page (aliases welcome)
  • Exclusive early access when we release new half-price gift cards
  • Access to a secret Facebook group where you can connect with other supporters and discuss the latest news and upcoming events (and maybe swap pet pics?) with the LV staff
  • Invitations to periodic publisher chats (held virtually for now) to meet with Matt and give him a piece of your mind, ask your burning questions and hear more about the future plans for Little Village, Bread & Butter Magazine, Witching Hour Festival and our other endeavors.