Kip Hedges: Labor has a big stake in St. Paul’s fight for $15

Former Delta baggage handler Kip Hedges was fired for speaking up in favor of $15 for all workers.

There’s no question, the labor movement is under severe attack. The Janus decision is only the latest example of damage inflicted on workers by the billionaire class of the United States and their political allies.

How can we rebuild? How can we, as a union movement, be relevant to millions of workers who know little of unions? Because of nearly four decades of defeats, retreats and attacks on labor, many of these workers have never been in a union and don’t have family members or friends who have been in unions.

The fight for a $15 minimum wage must be part of any fightback strategy. Why? First, because using 15 as part of a union organizing strategy can pay real dividends. At MSP airport the demand for $15 was a key part of the Service Employees International Union’s ability to bring 700 aircraft cleaners and cart drivers into the union. Like many positions that had once been career jobs, outsourcing had turned these into minimum-wage jobs. When SEIU Local 26 became a champion of $15 for all airport workers, aircraft cleaners started to pay real attention to the union.

Another string of impressive organizing victories came when United Food and Commercial Workers Local 653 used the demand for $15 to win union representation for hundreds of grocery workers at Minneapolis food co-op stores.

Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL), a Twin Cities worker center, has been at the forefront of the Fight for 15. It has effectively organized to bring hundreds of mostly immigrant workers into the labor movement. This is, in no small part, because workers saw CTUL fighting alongside them for higher wages and dignity even before they were in a union.

The second reason why 15 must be part of rebuilding the union movement is because we must break out of our isolation. The labor movement was at its strongest when we took on fights that benefited the entire working class, like the 8-hour day, unemployment insurance, workers compensation, social security and an end to child labor. By leading these fights, unions brought many unorganized workers into the labor movement.

Too often we have moved away from the philosophy of solidarity, the idea of social movement unionism. Instead of fighting for Medicare for All, the fight becomes for better health insurance for just our members. Instead of fighting for real increases in Social Security, we fight just for our pensions or an increase in company contributions to our 401(k).

We know from years of experience how this ends up. Our employers are able to isolate us from other workers and then pick us off. If the working class as a whole is drowning, it’s only a matter of time before the rising waves wash union workers away as well, no matter how skilled we are or how secure we feel.

If we are able to attract and become relevant to young workers, workers of color, immigrant workers and workers on the low end of the pay scale, then unions actually have a bright future. The fight for 15 is a key part of that future.

Here in St. Paul we expect that the City Council will be voting on an ordinance to raise the minimum wage by late November. We still face a fight over carve-outs like a lower minimum wage for tipped workers (often called a tip penalty), an expanded youth training wage and a lower minimum wage for personal care attendants and other workers. We are demanding One Fair Wage for all St. Paul workers, no carve-outs or exemptions.

Unions and union retirees have been at the center of the Fight for 15 in St. Paul. Union members always show up strong at 15 rallies and turn out for public listening sessions. There will be another opportunity to have an impact on Saturday, Aug. 4, during the next minimum wage listening session sponsored by the city. It’s scheduled from 9 to 11:15 a.m. at the Metropolitan State University Student Center, 690 East Seventh Street.

Please come to support One Fair Wage of $15 for St. Paul!

– A former baggage handler fired by Delta for his support of 15 for all airport workers, Hedges remains active in local organizing campaigns, including the 15 Now campaign and the union drive at Delta Air Lines.

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