Fight for $15 putting upward pressure where it’s needed – on wages

Fast food strikers and supporters rallied during a one-day strike in Minneapolis last April.

Fast food strikers and supporters rallied during a one-day strike in Minneapolis last April.

Currents across the country created a wave of support for $15 as a just minimum wage last year, with fast-food workers in New York and airport workers in Seattle scoring high-profile victories in the so-called “Fight for $15.”

But the rising tide is lifting wages for local workers as well, including some who carry union cards.

Several contracts recently negotiated by Minnesota unions demonstrate how $15 per hour is becoming a new threshold for wages – not only among unorganized fast food workers, but also among people working in banks, nursing homes, local government and beyond.

The idea of $15 as a minimum wage has “crept into the consciousness” of working people, SEIU Healthcare Minnesota President Jamie Gulley said.

Employers are taking note too.

St. Paul Federal Credit Union unilaterally established $15 as its base wage last fall, resulting in raises of $1 to $3 per hour for several employees. Tom Glatt, CEO of St. Paul Federal, acknowledged that “talk on the national level” about $15 per hour was a catalyst for the financial institution’s decision.

The buzz around $15 began when fast-food workers in New York staged strikes for $15 and union rights more than two years ago. The spark quickly spread quickly to all corners of the U.S., including the Twin Cities.

“It was laughed at when it first started,” Gulley said. But since then, cities like Los Angeles and Seattle have established $15 minimum-wage laws, and New York state lawmakers passed a measure last September requiring fast-food restaurants in the city to pay $15 by 2018.

No one’s laughing anymore.

“Now workers are bringing the same demands to their union meetings and saying, ‘If fast-food workers can get $15, why can’t I get $15?’” Gulley said. “That’s what is so great about the demand.”

In December 2014, more than 200 people joined a march in support of establishing $15 as a minimum wage at MSP Airport.

In December 2014, more than 200 people joined a march in support of establishing $15 as a minimum wage at MSP Airport.

Winning $15 in contracts

Members of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota were among the first locally to seize on the momentum of the Fight for $15 and incorporate it as a demand at the bargaining table.

Last February, members who work in hospitals across the Twin Cities and at the Mayo Clinic won contracts guaranteeing full- and part-time workers make at least $15 per hour within their first six months on the job.

Other bargaining units have claimed similar victories since then:

• In separate negotiations last fall, Hennepin County and the University of Minnesota reached new contracts with six locals of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees that establish $15 minimum wages.

AFSCME Local 34 President Jean Diedrich, a leader in negotiations with the county, called the $15 minimum wage “one of the big wins,” particularly for clerical workers. “Anyone who begins employment with Hennepin County (in 2016) will do so knowing that they will earn at least $15 per hour,” she said.

• Hospitality workers at Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport, newly organized members of UNITE HERE Local 17, saw their wages increase by up to $4 per hour and into the $15 range as a result of their first union contract, which also provides comprehensive health benefits, according to the union.

• St. Paul Federal Credit Union didn’t wait for contract negotiations to establish a $15 starting wage for members of Office and Professional Employees Local 12, which represents 16 to 19 tellers, member-services representatives, loan officers and accounting employees.

“Our contract states they can pay higher (wages) if they want to,” Local 12 representative Lance Lindeman said. “I was surprised, to say the least. I know ($15 per hour) is significantly more than a lot of other banks or credit unions in the Twin Cities pay their employees.”

Glatt, the credit union’s CEO, said investing in “the folks who are the face of the credit union” is money well spent.

“We may be ‘small’ in terms of asset size for a financial institution, but I would put our workers up against any institution of any size as far as delivery of quality service goes, so we didn’t want to lose any of our people to any other employer because of money,” Glatt said.

• Direct-care workers in nursing homes across the state are seeing wage gains as big as $5 per hour as they negotiate new union contracts in the wake of a legislative victory last year that reduced funding disparities between urban and rural care centers.

Sonja Lemire, an SEIU member who has worked at Parkview Care Center in Buffalo for the last 38 years, said her unit recently negotiated a contract that raised wages for all nurses and nursing assistants by $2 in 2016.

“That’s astronomical for us, tremendous,” Lemire said. The bump in pay makes the starting wage $14.86, or “almost to that $15 an hour mark,” she added.

Lemire said union members worked together to push the reimbursement increase through the Legislature, and now they’re working locally to make sure the funds trickle down into workers’ paychecks.

“Employees across the state are seeing the Fight for $15 is real, and a lot are doing their part,” she said.

352A ‘wageless’ recovery

Whether small or large in scale, wage increases for any group of workers are reason for celebration, as slow wage growth has been dragging down the U.S. economy since the start of the 2008-09 Great Recession.

Economist Lawrence Mishel, president of the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute, wrote in a recent blog post that from the beginning of the economic recovery in 2009 to 2014 (the most recent year for which data was available), the income of median working-age households dropped by almost $3,000, from $63,532 to $60,462, when adjusted for inflation.

“This followed the earlier period from 2000-07 where income fell 3.4 percent,” Mishel wrote. “So, we’ve had 14-15 years of pitiful income growth. No wonder people are not feeling the recovery.”

Most economists agree annual wage growth between 3.5 and 4 percent is ideal, but few workers – union or non-union – this side of Wall Street are realizing those kinds of gains.

Generating an upward push from the low-wage sectors of the economy probably would help, and that’s one reason organized labor has thrown its support behind Fight for $15 campaigns, low-wage worker centers and efforts to pass local minimum-wage ordinances, including in St. Paul and Minneapolis.

“Unions are experiencing a difficult time making (wage) gains in collective bargaining,” Gulley said. “The thinking in SEIU was we needed to have a fight over wages that was broader than just the labor movement and across the whole economy.

“Every victory shows that it’s possible – cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and others are making these huge gains. It just shows it is possible if you’re organized.”

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