Fight for 15 shines spotlight on harsh daily realities for low-wage workers

Fast-food workers, university workers, students, janitors, retail workers, and airport
workers rally on April 15, 2015, near the University of Minnesota to demand a $15/hour
minimum wage.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Recipient of the 2015 Paul Davidoff Award from the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning for his book Degraded Work

The list of cities and state opting for double-digit minimum wages seems to grow by the week. The New York State Assembly is considering a statewide wage floor of $15. If it doesn’t happen in New York, it will happen somewhere else: After decades of bewildering silence on the issue, income inequality has become both a dominant political topic and—even more surprising—good politics for elected officials counting votes.

The Fight for $15 campaign stands out for converting a seemingly outlandish political goal into common sense, and doing so in the short space of three years. Yet to take the next step to improve lives and match the reality of work with our collective expectations of it, Fight for $15 will need to succeed at the much harder task of naming and responding to the many workplace inequalities that low-wage earners suffer in addition to poor hourly pay. The campaign and the workers driving it have recognized this from the beginning, but the task they face is tremendous: Convincing policymakers and members of the public who haven’t worked a low-wage job in the past decade who are unlikely to believe the problems entry-level workers face.

This problem can be seen most readily in the growing practice of just-in-time scheduling. When I was conducting fieldwork for Degraded Work in the mid-2000s, a small number of the workers I interviewed told me of their frustration with arbitrarily cancelled or shortened shifts. A butcher in a Chicago supermercado explained that on slow days, or during a storm, he’d be sent home a few hours early, then told to report ahead of time the next day. This unpredictability constantly upended his attempts to arrange childcare and keep a second job, but there was nothing he could do about it. Aggregating his experience with related details about “three strikes” dismissal systems, punishment for taking bathroom breaks, and other micro-level degradations on the job, I reached the conclusion that employer experiments with labor control were proliferating.

Today, nothing about this arrangement could be classified as experimental. In the years following the recession of 2007-2009, employers insisted on erratic scheduling as a matter of policy. Job seekers began reporting that “open availability” (the ability and willingness to work any shift, on any given day) was a prerequisite for landing a retail job. Human-resources software packages now alert managers to dismiss workers early when weather or sales amounts compare unfavorably to benchmarks. The havoc this unleashes in workers’ lives is extraordinary. But more to the point, it’s complicated: Some workers spend hours taking public transit to the job, only to be sent home before the shift starts. Others forego sleep and reliable child care in an attempt to hold multiple jobs. And just about everyone finds that the uneven weekly cash flow means there’s no way to stave off debt, much less dig out from under it. While low wages have a single measure, scheduling and the dozens of other problems workers face on the job are context-specific and heterogeneous, and they have a lot to do with hamstringing life after the shift ends. Attempts to describe them cannot come close to the simplicity of fighting for $15. This is a real problem. We have good data on wages and on hours, at least for a person’s primary job. We can say some things about people looking for more hours. But the measures of erratic scheduling’s toll on human beings come from interviews. And even by the standards of interview data, they’re narratively complex – seemingly designed to resist the compact measurement that makes policy problems legible.

As Fight for 15 pivots to the problem of scheduling, it also faces the challenge of stepping outside of professionalized discourses about work. Pay remains the simplest, most elemental measure for a job. It’s an especially good measure of the compensation of professional work, which generally has regular (albeit, often long) hours, health insurance, dental plans, and retirement packages. But for low-wage workers, everything is negotiable all the time, including actually collecting the pay promised for work. The lived experience of work differs so much for professionals and low-wage workers. Beyond the challenges of numerical expression and narrative simplicity, raising support for reforms to job quality faces the challenge of conveying a workplace that few of the professions who make or legitimize policy have experienced.

There is hopeful precedent for giving voice to problems like these. During the fieldwork for Degraded Work, I worked a lot for a Chicago Worker Center whose members organized impromptu delegations to press construction contractors to pay wages they had wrongfully withheld. We called the problem “robo de salarios.” Today, wage theft is a recognizable social problem, a plague understood to be much more systematic and amenable to legislation than our efforts to chase down a few unreliable construction contractors would have indicated. It’s a source of legal claims, and a way to organize workers.

None of this is to suggest that Fight for $15’s wage victories were easy, or that it has paid scant attention to these problems. They weren’t, and it hasn’t. But one of the many benefits to the campaign is that it allows us to look beyond wages, to the many other important things that unions do and need to do today.

Marc Doussard is assistant professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. He is author of Degraded Work: The Struggle at the Bottom of the Labor Market, which has received the 2015 Paul Davidoff Award from the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning. He has worked with community and labor organizations in Chicago and elsewhere since 2000.

“Well-researched and illuminating.” —Labor Studies Journal

“A remarkably detailed book, Degraded Work challenges one of the dominant theories for urban inequality in North America and challenges readers to do something about inequality in their own city. Perhaps Doussard’s greatest accomplishment is to challenge what his readers believe and what they are doing with their lives or careers, without being confrontational. His analysis shows considerable depth and detail, but he presents it with humor, and without pretense, so it is accessible to experts and laypeople alike.” —Economic Geography

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