Victory in Los Angeles buoys hopes of local 15 Now supporters

Paul Ahrens, a business representative for IATSE Local 44 in Southern California, offers details on the 15 Now victory in Los Angeles during a forum on the movement in St. Paul.

Paul Ahrens, a business representative for the Stagehands union in California, offers details on the 15 Now victory in Los Angeles during a forum in St. Paul.

 

Workers taking collective action and communities organizing for political change form the groundwork of 15 Now, panelists said Wednesday during a forum on the nationwide movement to raise wages.

The discussion was the second in a new series of monthly educational events hosted by the East Side Freedom Library in St. Paul, co-sponsored by the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation’s Community Connections Committee.

Panelists included low-wage workers, union organizers and local activists in the 15 Now campaign, which advocates for $15 minimum-wage laws at the local level.

The East Side Freedom Library hosts a forum on 15 Now.

The East Side Freedom Library hosts a forum on 15 Now.

Already, 15 Now has achieved victories in Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago and, most recently, Los Angeles. Organizers are pushing a similar measure in Minneapolis, and if they succeed, St. Paul likely would be next.

Several unions are backing the 15 Now campaign, both in rhetoric and with resources – even though most union members already earn more than $15 per hour. Why?

“It’s the right thing to do,” Machinists union representative Rick Ryan said.

Paul Ahrens, a business representative for IATSE Local 44 in Southern California, said organized labor in Los Angeles “really came together around (the $15 minimum wage) in a big way.” The wage increase stands to benefit an estimated 800,000 workers in the city.

But political organizing alone isn’t enough to win a $15 minimum wage, panelists agreed.

Ahrens credited the heavy lifting in Los Angeles to “feeder movements” like OUR Walmart, fast food workers’ Fight for $15 and other groups organizing low-wage workers.

15 Now panelists include Cantare Davunt of OUR Walmart, Rick Ryan of the Machinists union (center) and Kip Hedges.

15 Now panelists include Cantare Davunt of OUR Walmart, Rick Ryan of the Machinists union (center) and Kip Hedges.

Such groups are alive and thriving in the Twin Cities too, former Walmart worker Cantaré Davunt said. Davunt was fired last winter, she believes, as a result of her support for OUR Walmart, a nationwide campaign to improve wages and working conditions at the retail chain.

“Without taking political or organizing action, we end up having to beg or hope they’ll give us decent pay,” Davunt said. “Meanwhile, too many workers can’t afford to take those risks to make our lives better.”

Low-wage workers at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport have taken collective action to make gains at work, winning paid sick days and, potentially, a $10 minimum wage by August. So, too, have janitors at big-box retailers across the Twin Cities, organizing with the local worker center CTUL.

The challenge for 15 Now, local activist Kip Hedges said, is building a coalition around these organizations, bolstering it with support from the labor movement and the progressive community, and turning that collective strength into political change.

“The ghost of 15 is kind of dancing around all these things,” said Hedges, a former Delta baggage handler who was fired for publicly supporting 15 Now. “It will push forward the effort to get $15 in Minneapolis and St. Paul.”

The next Community Connections forum at the East Side Freedom Library, scheduled for June 24, is on the topic “Common Sense Economics.” To learn more about the series, or about the St. Paul RLF’s Community Connections Committee, contact Vicki Beebe at vbeebe@stpaulunions.org or 651-222-3787, extension 20.

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