'Gives Me Hope': How Low-Paid Workers Rose Up Against Stagnant Wages

Feb 26, 2020
Originally published on February 26, 2020 3:16 pm

Kim Thomas felt drawn to being a home health aide after caring for her own ailing mother. Human dignity, she says, can be simple, like a bath and a favorite snack.

When Thomas first started visiting homes to care for patients, she made $7 an hour. That was in North Carolina about 16 years ago. Her pay inched up over time, to $10.50. To try to make ends meet, she sometimes would work through the night, dozing in patients' homes.

That's when Thomas, 55, discovered and joined the Fight for $15 movement, which had galvanized workers around the U.S. to march and rally for higher pay.

Initially, in 2012, it started with mainly fast-food and retail workers. But within years, the campaign drew in low-wage workers from all over, including those with jobs in airports, child and health care, even universities. It grew into one of the largest waves of labor activism in recent history.

And it was unusual. Though rallies were funded and organized by labor unions — including the prominent Service Employees International Union — the tens of thousands of workers who showed up did not belong to a union, nor could they join one.

"Walking off the job, you're taking on your boss head-on, and that sounds like some pretty scary stuff, right?" says fast-food worker Terrence Wise, shown here at a 2013 strike in Kansas City, Mo. "But I always thought, what am I more afraid of? Taking on my boss or being homeless again with my three little girls?"
Courtesy of Fight for $15 and a Union

The demonstrations grabbed headlines as they gained momentum across the country. Sit-ins, arrests for civil disobedience and call-outs like "Hold the burgers, hold the fries, make our wages supersized" made the evening news. Their chants and posters started melding with other movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. High-profile politicians like Bernie Sanders began joining the rallies.

The campaign started to see results as over half of U.S. states and more cities went on to raise minimum wages, a few of them to $15. This, in turn, helped propel an extraordinary change in the U.S. economy: A few years later, wages started growing faster at the bottom than the top. The National Employment Law Project, which advocates for low-wage workers, estimates that new state and local wage laws gave some 22 million workers a collective raise of $68 billion.

"I was just talking to a friend recently, like, 'bro, we would still probably be making 7, 8 bucks an hour if we never stood up and fought,' " says Terrence Wise, 40, who's now with McDonald's. He has testified before Congress and spoken at the White House as one of the faces of the movement.

Wise was working two jobs — at Burger King and Pizza Hut — in Kansas City, Mo., when the Fight for $15 arrived there. It was one the first few cities where low-wage workers rallied within months of the original 2012 strike of New York's fast-food cooks and cashiers. Within years, demonstrations ballooned to over 200 cities.

Police surround striking McDonald's workers sitting in an intersection in Los Angeles, demanding a $15 per hour wage and union rights during nationwide 'Fight for $15 Day of Disruption' in November 2016.
David McNew / Getty Images

The timing proved instrumental. The economy was recovering from the Great Recession and unemployment was falling, which meant that employers were finding it more difficult to draw workers. And even though corporate executives were getting bonuses, low-wage workers had not seen raises in years.

The federal minimum had been stuck since 2009 at $7.25 an hour, where it remains today. Businesses have long argued that higher wages risk hurting workers overall because their cost forces employers to weight cutbacks on hours or even staff.

Eventually, some of the nation's largest employers including Target, Walmart and Amazon made splashy announcements about lifting their lowest wages. Amazon and Walmart even began advocating for a higher federal minimum.

Economists including Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell have acknowledged that higher minimum-wage laws on the state and local level played a role: Pay grew faster in places that raised their minimums, Powell said in Congress this month.

"But really it's much broader than that," he added. "A bigger factor really just is very low unemployment and a strong labor market, high job creation, that's the main driver."

Nonetheless, workers in the Fight for $15 attribute their pay increases to their movement. Rosa Calderon, 49, is one such worker who thanks the labor organizing for recent pay bumps she and her son both got at McDonald's in Santa Clarita, Calif.

"Before, I used to have to share an apartment with another family," Calderon told NPR in Spanish, "but now I have my own apartment for my own family."

But the marches haven't stopped. That's because for all the states that did raise their pay minimums, many didn't. Neither did Congress. The campaign did not spur a surge of unionizing. The value of $15 is worth less and less every year. Workers say they still join the campaign to push for the right to unionize, to get collective bargaining for better pay and benefits.

Service workers march at Newark Liberty International Airport in November 2016, asking for $15 minimum wage.
Julio Cortez / AP

"I don't want to live payday to payday — that's not a life to live," says Ronald Franklin, 49, a former U.S. Navy veteran who's now a warehouse and ramp agent for a contractor at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. He says he commutes for about three hours to work and makes $14.10 an hour.

Health aide Thomas says she lives "a promise-to-pay to promise-to-pay" life, by covering what she can when bill collectors call about her cellphone or car insurance payments.

Home health aide Kim Thomas says she hopes "North Carolina, South Carolina and some of the southern states ... will see that paying people a minimum wage or paying a livable wage is two separate things."
Courtesy of Service Employees International Union

Thomas now cares for the sick and dying as a hospice aide in South Carolina, starting her days around 4:30 a.m., visiting up to a dozen people a day. For many, she's the first person they see, helping them get up, shower, dress and eat.

"I truly feel like this is where god wants me to be," Thomas says, and later adds: "When I started hearing how many states are actually winning the $15 an hour, it gives me hope."

She says she now makes $13 an hour — still fighting for the elusive $15.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Back in 2012, some McDonald's employees in New York refused to work one morning. They had no idea they were launching an economic revolution. They kicked off a citywide wave and then nationwide strikes by low-wage workers demanding $15 an hour. And they got pay increases in dozens of states and cities. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports on the legacy of this labor movement.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Kim Thomas is often the first person her patients see on a given day. She's a hospice home health care aide, waking up around 4:30 in the morning to start her rounds - sometimes, up to a dozen people to wake up, bathe, dress and feed.

KIM THOMAS: I'm like an alarm clock. They know, oh, Kim's here. It's time to get up (laughter).

SELYUKH: It's not a job for the faint of heart - cleaning vomit and blood from her clothes, getting to know people who might soon die. Thomas felt drawn to her profession after caring for her own ailing mother. Human dignity, she says, can be simple, like clean sheets and a favorite snack.

THOMAS: I felt like I could give other people an opportunity to care for them the way I cared for my mother. And I'm sorry I'm getting a little emotional, but it's just - I truly feel like this is where God wants me to be.

SELYUKH: She started in North Carolina making $7 an hour, then 8.25, stacking as many hours as she could, sleeping in patients' homes. Aides like Thomas are in high demand, but they're not paid a lot. After years, Thomas finally got a raise to $10.50 an hour.

THOMAS: I was like, wow. This is like - you know, I thought I was making bank, but I wasn't.

SELYUKH: That's when she heard about a movement called Fight For 15 - as in dollars an hour - soon joining meetings and marches.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: What do we want?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #1: Fifteen.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: When do we want it?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #1: Now.

SELYUKH: This was 2015. And by then, rallies like these had already grown into one of America's biggest waves of labor activism in recent history. At first, it was fast food and retail, organizing with the help of the Service Employees International Union. But soon, the strikes drew low-wage workers from all over - airports, child care and health care, even universities - backed by a union but not part of one.

TERRENCE WISE: Walking off the job, you're taking on your boss head-on. And that sounds like some pretty scary stuff, right? But I always thought, what am I more afraid of - taking on my boss or being homeless again with my three little girls?

SELYUKH: Terrence Wise was working at a Burger King and a Pizza Hut in Kansas City, Mo., when the Fight For 15 arrived there. It had spread from New York to Chicago to St. Louis, then Detroit, Milwaukee, Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #2: I believe that we will win.

SELYUKH: The demonstrations kept grabbing headlines with sit-ins and arrests for civil disobedience. Rallies ballooned to over 200 cities. The economy was starting to improve from the recession. Corporate executives were getting bonuses, but low-wage workers had not seen raises in years. The federal minimum was stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009.

WISE: Work hard. Stay out of trouble. That's what my mom told me. Pull yourself up by the bootstraps. Everything will be fine. That's such a false narrative because it's some of the hardest working people who are still not getting by.

SELYUKH: Wise would become one of the faces of the movement, testifying in Congress and speaking at the White House. Politicians were paying attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: The minimum wage is going up in Rhode Island...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Michigan.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Colorado.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Nebraska.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Oregon.

SELYUKH: Twenty-six states and more cities went on to write new wage laws, raising minimums to nine or 10 or the full $15. Eventually, some of the largest employers - Amazon, Walmart, Target - made splashy announcements, lifting their lowest wages.

IRENE TUNG: This wave of minimum wage raises is the largest in history.

SELYUKH: Irene Tung with the National Employment Law Project says though activists have been stymied in raising the federal minimum wage, state and local efforts boosted paychecks for some 22 million workers. Collectively, these raises are worth almost $70 billion. A few years later, an extraordinary thing happened. Wages began growing at the bottom faster than at the top. Economists, including the Federal Reserve chairman, say the new higher minimums played a role. Pay did grow more in places that raised their minimums.

APARNA MATHUR: But I don't want to downplay the role that an improved economy has played as well.

SELYUKH: That's Aparna Mathur, a labor economist at the American Enterprise Institute. She and many economists point out that historically low unemployment made for great timing. Businesses argue that the cost of higher pay forces them to consider cutting back hours or even layoffs. But a decade of economic growth makes companies compete harder for workers.

ROSA CALDERON: (Speaking Spanish).

SELYUKH: Rosa Calderon thanks the Fight For 15 for changing her life for the better. She's from a suburb of Los Angeles and has been in fast food almost a decade now. Both she and her son work at McDonald's and recently saw their wages rise.

CALDERON: (Speaking Spanish).

SELYUKH: She says her family could finally afford to move out of an apartment they had shared with another family. The Fight For 15 was an unusual labor movement. It was backed by union organizers. It galvanized thousands of workers. To this day, they are not unionized. Terrence Wise says that's one of the reasons they are still fighting - for a union, better benefits; in some places, still for that $15 an hour, which is worth less every year.

WISE: I was just talking to a friend recently like, bro, we would still probably be making seven, eight bucks an hour if we never stood up and fought.

SELYUKH: For all the states that did raise their pay minimums, many didn't; neither did Congress. Remember health aide Kim Thomas who cares for the sick and dying? She's now making $13 an hour, still fighting for the elusive 15.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN LÖFFLER'S "MYIAMI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.