In Wake of $15 and Sick Days, Organize for More!
by Patrick O’Donoghue
This last weekend has seen two major new workplace laws for Twin Cities workers.
First, on Friday June 30th, Minneapolis became the first city in the Midwest to pass a $15/hour minimum wage. The wage increase to $15/hour will be staggered over several years, starting with businesses of 100 employees or more (including many franchises) to pay $10/hr on January 1st, the first of six pay increases ending in $15/hr by July 1, 2022. Small businesses have their own staggered schedule that reaches $15/hr on July 1, 2024.
Meanwhile, on Saturday July 1, new paid sick leave mandates came into effect in Minneapolis and Saint Paul requiring businesses with over 24 employees to provide paid sick days, which will accrue at a rate of one hour for every 30 hours worked, up to 48 hours per year. The sick days carry over from on year to the next, but have a cap of 80 accrued hours. The sick days can be used to care for oneself or a family member, or to deal with domestic abuse and stalking. For businesses with under 24 employees, the new sick days do not come into effect until January 1st.
These two laws represent significant gains for workers. Low wage workers will now be entitled to a larger share of the value our labor creates, and higher paid workers will find themselves in a stronger position fighting for raises with a higher minimum wage. Workers across the cities will now be able to take care of themselves and their loved ones instead of working while sick. This will limit situations where food service workers endanger their customers by being forces to work while ill, as was one of the main grievances in the IWW’s campaign at Jimmy Johns. Just as crucially, workers being allowed to use sick days to deal with domestic abuse and stalking gives breathing room for survivors of abuse, which will especially benefit women and LGBTQ workers. Of particular importance, as well, is not only how these laws immediately benefit workers, but how we workers can build stronger organization on the job, in the new playing field these laws create.
The Fight So Far
The new laws come after years of struggles to pressure legislators, by organizations like 15Now, Socialist Alternative, and many of the local AFL-CIO unions. Opponents at city hall and the state legislature tried at various times to keep the minimum wage off the ballot, to postpone the issue until a consensus was reached with Saint Paul or the suburbs to raise their wages together, and, as the bill grew close to passing, to pre-empt it at the state level with legislation that would ban local governments raising their minimum wage. Ultimately, though, these efforts were defeated, and the bill passed, with only Councilman Blong Yang voting against the higher wage. The paid sick leave bill also survived a repeal attempt.
Across the country, 15Now’s legislative push has been accompanied by Fight for 15, a movement of unions, mostly Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and workers centers such as Centro de Trabajadores Unidas en Lucha (CTUL) demanding a $15/hr wage at fast food chains and recognition of a fast food worker’s union. While the IWW is not officially part of Fight for 15, the $15 wage demand has been part of our organizing from warehouse workers to fast food campaigns. While 15Now has been pressuring cities to set new minimum wages, the goal of Fight for 15 has been to win those same gains in franchises across multiple cities, through collective bargaining. At the same time, Fight for 15 and other shop floor campaigns aim not only to win wage increases, but also to build a union presence that could push for more gains in the future.
The victory of 15Now does not mean that the struggle in the workplace is done. Now, more than ever, it’s important to organize and fight on the job, both to enforce the new labor laws, and to push beyond them for bigger gains.
Pushing for More On the Shop Floor
One of the main problems with relying on labor law, is that enforcement is slow even when workers do have the resources to file a grievance, and the penalty is often only a slap on the wrist. For example, in 2011 during the IWW campaign at MikLin Enterprises’ Jimmy Johns franchise, six pro-union workers were fired for blowing the whistle on the public health threat posed by sick workers making sandwiches because they did not have sick days. The six workers took their case to the National Labor Relations Board, but it took five years for the Board to rule the firings illegal and order Jimmy Johns offer them their jobs back in 2016- a decision that was then reversed this last weekend.
Even when the case was initially won, the workers had moved on to other jobs- and the victory was then, later, taken back. Now, all that Jimmy Johns has to do is put a sign in their stores explaining that they harassed a worker, and promise not to do it again.
The NLRB’s enforcement is slow and weak enough that for Jimmy Johns and other businesses, breaking labor law and retaliating against workers is worth it. Stories like this are typical when workers go through the NLRB- and even more commonly, labor law violations aren’t challenged by workers in court at all. The Saint Paul sick leave law has a “private right of action” that entitles workers to their attorney fees if they sue their employer for retaliating against them for using their earned sick time. The Minneapolis law, however, lacks this protection, discouraging workers from going to court.
Meanwhile, some companies intend to obey the letter but not the spirit of the new sick day laws. The three Cub Foods Supervalu stores in St Paul already allow a week of paid sick leave after a year on the job- a concession that grocery workers fought for in their contracts through the United Food and Commercial Workers. When the sick day law was passed, the chain planned to simply call this vacation “sick leave”, and not give any additional sick days. In effect, they planned to respond to workers earning sick days by cutting their existing paid time off. UFCW Local 1189 objected immediately. Supervalu has since changed their policy, keeping the vacation time and adding the sick time on top of it. The UFCW is meeting with grocers around the city about implementing the new sick days. The union was able to act promptly to stop Supervalu from skirting the new labor laws. UFCW showed us all an important fact- City Hall can legislate, but workers and our unions have to be the real source of power over our jobs.
To enforce the new labor laws, we need more than the slow courts to dole out light fines on bosses that violate our rights. In shops with legal protections, and even in shops with a negotiated union contract, enforcement through action on the shop floor is the most immediate and effective way for workers to protect our interests. For example, the IWW’s presence at UPS in the Twin Cities has included package handlers enforcing the Teamster contract and labor law through actions like phone zaps, marches on the boss, and “blowing the whistle” with literal whistles when contract violations were spotted. Actions like these stopped illegal firings, settled Unfair Labor Practices, and won workers their holiday bonuses provided in the contract. As we Wobblies say, “Direct action gets the goods”.
The new labor laws don’t just win gains for workers that need to be enforced. Just as importantly, they shift the playing field for workers to push for even higher wages and better conditions. The Brookings Institute, writing about the “ripple effects” of a minimum wage increase, notes that although nationwide just 2.6% of workers are paid minimum wage, a full 29.4% of workers are paid equal to or less than 150% of minimum wage in their state- between $9.50 and $14.25 in Minnesota. The Institute predicts that as the minimum wage is pushed up, it will also push up the wages of these “near minimum” waged workers, as jobs that paid above minimum wage before the increase raise their wages to stay above the minimum- a worker currently making $14.00/hr when the minimum is $9.50, will expect to still make above minimum wage when the minimum wage is $15/hr. Studies of wage increases from 1972 to 2012 show this ‘ripple effect’ raising wages in lowest-earning 20% of workers, with the greatest gains in lowest-earning 5%. With a minimum wage increase from $9.50 to $15/hr over the next 7 years, the pressure in on for employers to raise wages. For workers, this gives us an opportunity to make the demand for higher wages for all lower-paid workers, and to demand similar wage raises for middle-waged workers in the same companies. For example, when IWW and Teamster warehouse workers at UPS began demanding a $15/hr starting wage for package handlers making $10.25/hr, they combined this demand with a $5 pay increase across the board, in order to unite higher paid workers with the low paid package handlers. The successes and setbacks of that drive are lessons that workplace organizers can learn in the coming years.
The new paid sick leave law gives workers an opportunity to organize not only around enforcement of the law and protection of existing paid time off, but also around other grievances that low wage workers face. The paid sick leave, in addition to being a benefit for workers, is potentially a tool for shop floor action. One of the tactics of workplace struggle is the sickout- the use of sick days to withdraw our labor and slow or shut down production. This can be effective when workers are banned from going on strike, or do not want to commit to a full strike. This lower-risk form of ‘strike’ can win significant gains, such as when the Detroit Public School teachers staged rolling sick outs in protest of plans to withhold wages from school district employees due to the threat of bankruptcy. These ended with the pay restored and the unelected emergency manager stepping down.
Sick out strategies have been risky for workers without paid sick days, as even one sick-out action will result in loss of pay and can easily result in firings. Under the new law, however, workers across the Twin Cities have access to paid sick days, allowing workers to use the sick out strategy as part of workplace disputes with less risk to their finances and job security. This is especially true in Saint Paul, where if an employer retaliates against employees for using sick days, they must foot the legal bill of any successful lawsuit that results. Many thousands of low paid workers now have the ability to withdraw our labor with much less risk to ourselves, tilting the balance of power on the shop floor a little more towards us- if we organize and use it.
The legislation in Minneapolis and Saint Paul have made concrete gains for workers. But, our power as workers doesn’t come from City Hall, whatever concessions City Hall gives to workers’ movements. It comes our organization, in our workplaces, our neighborhoods, and in the streets. Every day, bosses are going to be trying to find ways to repeal, work around, and take-back the new minimum wage and sick leave. If we want to keep, enforce, and push beyond the bills, we need power on the job.
If you’re interested in organizing at your workplace, and accessing the Industrial Workers of the World’s networks of organizers, trainings, and experienced unionists, contact the Twin Cities IWW at firstname.lastname@example.org .