Fight for $15 in Chicago, May 15, 2014, part of a global protest against the McDonalds Corporation's labor practices.
Robert Sunderlin works as a shift leader at a Hardee’s in Loves Park, Illinois, and makes $9.70 per hour. He has worked at the Hardee’s for about five years and says he hasn’t had a raise since two years ago. Although he and other managers receive health benefits, Sunderlin says no one beneath the managerial level receives insurance; and while he is offered a 401(k) retirement plan, he doesn’t make enough money working there, he says, to salt any away.
In a conversation with The Progressive, Sunderlin, who says he joined the Fight for $15 because he became tired of being the victim of wage theft, described the organization’s next moves in the Trump presidency. The Fight for $15 movement aims to expand the push for higher minimum wages into new regions, with the eventual goal of a national $15 per hour minimum wage. The organization is also working to widen its membership beyond the fast-food industry, where it began, and to organize more workers into unions so they can gain benefits and job security along with higher pay.
But under a new Republican administration and a solidly GOP Congress, the group knows it will be playing defense.
Its first battle in the Trump era was to rally to defeat Andrew Puzder, Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor. Puzder heads the non-union CKE Restaurants, parent company of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., and has suggested that machines are more efficient workers than people, as well as sharply criticizing the movement for higher wages.
Puzder withdrew his nomination on February 15, after mounting opposition, a much-delayed nomination hearing and allegations of wage and hour violations, health and safety violations, discrimination and sexual harassment.
“He doesn’t stand up for the rights he would be in charge of protecting,” Sunderlin points out. “He doesn’t believe we deserve health care, and he doesn’t believe the minimum wage should be raised—or even stay at the same wage. He is completely wrong for the job.”
Not just fast food workers, but a number of Republican Senators apparently agreed with that assessment. At least a dozen decided to withhold their support for the nominee.
“I had enough,” Sunderlin says, explaining why he joined the Fight for $15. “I was done being taken advantage of, and I believe that I have a responsibility to stand up and let others hear my story in the hopes that others would come forward with their own experiences of having their rights violated. I've seen it happen to many people in this industry, and it won't stop until we stand up and fight for our rights. We have to be heard.”
“I had enough. I was done being taken advantage of, and I believe that I have a responsibility to stand up and let others hear my story.”
During the Obama Administration, the Fight for $15 movement led strikes in more than 150 U.S. cities and helped spark a string of raises for lower-wage workers that will roll out between now and the early 2020s. Through a flurry of ballot initiatives and local ordinances, the minimum wage was hiked to $15 in states from California to New York, as well as in Seattle and other cities. Other cities and states have approved more modest but still significant boosts, including $13 per hour in Chicago and $12 per hour in Colorado and Arizona.
Fight for $15 members have been organizing rallies across the country and speaking out to the media to tell their stories, particularly among Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. employees.
“Thousands of people across the country are dealing with the same thing, with Andy Puzder as their boss,” Sunderlin says. “I work forty-plus hours per week, and I can’t support myself in my own home. I had my water shut off for two weeks last month. No person working forty hours per week should have to ask for government assistance, or help from family.”
Sunderlin figures Illinois could be a next logical target for a higher statewide wage. A move to $12 would be progress, but it is not the end of the road, since, with inflation, “in five years there will be people suffering again and not making enough money to live.”
Fight for $15 will continue spreading its message to low-wage workers outside the fast-food industry, including airport workers who have lost union protection and now struggle to make ends meet. The movement has been building ties with immigration rights and racial justice organizations, since many fast-food and other lower-wage workers are people of color. And unions remain essential. “Union rights are all encompassing,” Sunderlin says. “Many workers still are not able to take advantage of a doctor’s appointment, or don’t have the health care to begin with.”
Sunderlin knows he and other organizers are fighting an uphill battle, but he is undeterred: “We will not stop, no matter who’s in office, who’s controlling Congress. It doesn’t matter. Our fight is the same. We might have a harder time, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to fight any less.”
Ed Finkel is a freelance writer based in Evanston, Illinois, who writes about public policy issues like education, healthcare, and the legal system.