Fifteen Minutes of Feminism: The Feminist Fight for $15 (with SEIU President Mary Kay Henry)

With Guests:

Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents over 2 million members throughout the United States and Canada. She is the first woman to lead the union, and was named one of TIME magazine’s most influential people of the year in 2020. She’s also helped spearhead the Fight for $15 movement, which is advocating for a livable wage for workers internationally in hundreds of cities.

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In this Episode:

In this episode, we’re delving into the fight for a $15 minimum wage. Even before COVID, Americans in all 50 states were facing severe economic struggles, making it difficult to afford rent, mortgage, childcare and basic needs. The pandemic has made economic disparity exponentially worse. Admittedly, then, it may be hard to understand why discussion of minimum wage is controversial at all. So why is a livable minimum wage so important to feminists and labor organizers everywhere? And how can a living wage boost the U.S. economy?

Background Reading:

Transcript:

00:00:11 Michele Goodwin:

Welcome to “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” at Ms. magazine. This is a show where we report, rebel and you know we tell it just like it is. On today’s show, we have another special 15 Minutes of Feminism segment for you. This time, we’re delving into the fight for a $15 minimum wage. Why in the world is this so controversial, especially in light of the fact that people are struggling to make ends meet, pay for their rent, mortgage, all of the things that come with childcare and having a family, or just simply taking care of themselves?

Why is it so important to feminists and labor organizers everywhere? How has the pandemic worsened economic inequality, and who’s been most harmed during this period of COVID, and looking at an unequal wage across lines of race and sex? Now, helping us to sort out these questions, and to set the record straight, is our very special guest. We are joined by Mary Kay Henry. Mary Kay is the president of the Service Employees International Union, which represents over two million members throughout the United States and Canada.

She’s the first woman to lead the union, and was named one of TIME magazine’s Most Influential People of the Year in 2020. She’s also helped spearhead the fight for the 15 dollar minimum wage movement, which is advocating for a livable wage for workers internationally, in hundreds of cities. Mary Kay, thank you so very much for joining me, and the important work that you are doing. So, to just get us started, can you tell me about the beginning of the Fight for 15, where and why did it start?

00:02:00 Mary Kay Henry:

Well, there were 200 courageous fast-food workers in New York City who had the boldness to demand 15 dollars an hour, and a union, from the most profitable multinational fast food corporations in the world. And when they walked off the job, they were initially ridiculed, Michele. People made fun of the demand, thought that, hey, you’re just a burger-flipper, why are you worth 15? Because they were earning 7.25 an hour, the federal minimum wage at the time, in New York City.

00:02:35 Michele Goodwin:

In New York City.

00:02:36 Mary Kay Henry:

Yeah. Yeah.

00:02:37 Michele Goodwin:

A place where condos are going for 40 million and 70 million dollars.

00:02:40 Mary Kay Henry:

Exactly. Exactly, and having to decide whether they walk three miles to work or if they spend money on a MetroCard is insane. And so, that movement spread to Chicago, and then St. Louis, and Kansas City, and then over 300 cities in the U.S., and then around the world. Workers were inspired that U.S. workers had had it, and were demanding more for themselves and their families. And as you can imagine, Black and Brown women were at the front of that walkout, in both New York City and in every city.

It’s really been the courage and tenacity of Black and Brown women who were able to hold their coworkers, and have the courage to walk out the front door of a store, which is not an easy step to take.

A fast food strike in Los Angeles in December 2014, led by SEIU local chapter 99. (Wesley Pinkham / Flickr)

00:03:27 Michele Goodwin:

No, it’s not, and these are fundamentally matters of human dignity. These black and brown women, many of them mothers, and if not mothers, caretakers for other people in their lives. So, what we’ve learned is that this movement has won over $150 billion in raises for 26 million workers since 2012, including 18 million women and 12 million workers of color. That is really astonishing.

So, this movement started, it looks like, around 2012, and nearly a decade later, many argue that 15 dollars isn’t even enough for a living wage, and that especially in metropolitan areas, a much higher minimum wage is needed to keep people afloat. What’s your response to that?

00:04:18 Mary Kay Henry:

I’m really excited by that, as the tension is going up and not being pulled down, because 12 years ago, when these workers demanded it, there was, frankly, a disparagement of whether their work had value, and whether they were “worth that.” And now that we are having the debate, and saying 15 isn’t enough and pulling it up, I think that’s a key indicator of the success of the movement.

00:04:46 Michele Goodwin:

Yeah, I really appreciate your saying that, and I want to drill just a little bit more deeply on these questions, because there are people that think, well, really, this is about 15- and 16-year-olds, and why should we be paying that amount to 15- and 16-year-olds? These are kids that are in high school, and this is just money to spend on their cell phones, or to buy sneakers with. So, can you unpack … really, I mean, there are people who are really …

00:05:13 Mary Kay Henry:

I know, Michele.

00:05:14 Michele Goodwin:

… disconnected from understanding who the folks are that are doing this work, and some of it is within essential-work categories. Can you unpack a little bit more who we’re really talking about?

00:05:26 Mary Kay Henry:

Yeah, I have to say, when I hear that, I want to grab a megaphone and say, come on into the 21st century.

00:05:32 Michele Goodwin:

No kidding.

Mary Kay Henry. (Courtesy)

00:05:33 Mary Kay Henry:

These jobs were never done by just 15- and 16-year-olds. There’s been intergenerational poverty that communities of color and white, poor, rural communities have been locked in, and these jobs have been the only jobs that they’ve been able to feed their families and raise their families on for generations. And so, the Fight for 15 movement pulled the covers back on the average age being 28.

And as you said earlier, a lot of moms and dads who are trying to make ends meet and do the very best they can, by working 80 and a hundred hours a week in two and three of these crappy jobs being stitched together, so they can provide, hopefully, as you can imagine, better … they’re driven, in my experience, by a better future for their children.

00:06:22 Michele Goodwin:

And you know what data’s also showing us, polling data, is that those who earn less than 15 dollars an hour are more likely to be women. So, there is also this sex gap there, where there’s the presumption that still in America, the head of a household, the person who’s bringing home the money, happens to be the men in the family. And that’s really disconnected from the fact that there are lots of single women that are supporting their kids, and may not be receiving any kind of child support whatsoever.

00:06:52 Mary Kay Henry:

Absolutely, and that’s why the fast food women have inspired the home care women. That job, as you know, is 90 percent women, 67 percent women of color who care for elderly and people with disabilities in their homes. That job was written out of labor protections back in the ‘30s.

00:07:13 Michele Goodwin:

Wait, wait, let’s just pause there, Mary Kay, let’s pause, sometimes we have to do that. We got to pause. You just said, no labor protections for what category of people?

00:07:25 Mary Kay Henry:

For Black and Brown and immigrant women…

00:07:27 Michele Goodwin:

Who are working in caregiving.

00:07:30 Mary Kay Henry:

Correct, both in childcare and in elder care. That’s right. Thank you for pausing me, Michele. That is a significant … and it’s another job that has never been valued, and you’re just a domestic worker. You’re not making a difference, and the pandemic, I think, really shifted the public’s value on caregiving, because we understand now as a nation how vital it is to everybody else, being able to go to work with peace of mind that their little one or their parent or aunt or grandmother is being cared for in the way that you would want.

A December 2014 march in Los Angeles for a $15 minimum wage. (Wesley Pinkham / Flickr)

00:08:12 Michele Goodwin:

And especially given the growing population of aging, the growing aging population in the United States, the demand for care in that area just can’t be overstated. And certainly, what COVID has revealed are underlying infrastructural and institutional inequalities in our society.

So, what’s the holdup? So, we know that there has been legislation that has circulated in Congress in order to raise the minimum age. Where is this now?

00:08:48 Mary Kay Henry:

Well, it’s in the debate that is happening on Build Back Better. President Biden and Vice President Harris have always seen this work as valuable, and put it in their campaign when they were running, and then in the 400 billion-dollar investment for elder care and 500 for childcare, and we now know that that’s been squeezed down by the current politics of the Congress. But we are two weeks away from the House passing a historic investment in jobs that are done primarily by Black and Brown women, both in elder care and in childcare.

And we are looking to back those women, and help them make a demand on how those funds turn poverty jobs into living-wage jobs, and the ability of those women to have a permanent organization where they can advocate for themselves, their families, and the people that they serve.

00:09:47 Michele Goodwin:

But it also seems that one of the struggles that’s taking place in Congress is not one of just Republican resistance in the Senate, but that there are also some Democratic senators who also have been a bit of a wedge or an impediment to moving this forward, Kyrsten Sinema, Joe Manchin, and some others. What’s to make of that?

00:10:09 Mary Kay Henry:

You know, I’ve been shocked at their resistance, because in the case of West Virginia, there are 40,000 in-home care jobs that are going to be needed in West Virginia just in the next 10 years.

00:10:22 Michele Goodwin:

Forty thousand, wait, wait, this is another pause, 40,000 in the state of West Virginia.

00:10:27 Mary Kay Henry:

Yes. Yes, and it’s because, what you said earlier. Our population is aging at a rate that is faster than the workforce that is being attracted to do this job. And that’s why it’s so critical that we raise wages and create good jobs in this sector, and deal with the growing demand that elders and people with disabilities will have, because they want to live with independence and dignity at home.

00:10:54 Michele Goodwin:

Well, dignity is really so much at the forefront of this, is at the core of the issues, and it seems to me that as we grapple with issues today, very often, you know, one does a little bit of navel-gazing. But if you reach beyond the navel, you can see that these issues go back deep, and they’re kind of, like, at our toes. So, what we see today are really reflections, ramifications of times longer. And so, we are talking about the feminist Fight for 15, and I know that we have mentioned that it’s been moms, a lot of Black and brown moms, who’ve been leading the way.

But if we just put that feminist lens on here, and just think about what this would mean transformatively in terms of fair wages, deserved wages for women, what might that future look like?

Mary Kay Henry (second from left) joins labor organizers in Iowa fighting for a $15 minimum wage. (Courtesy)

00:11:41 Mary Kay Henry:

Well, I think it means for the 64 million people, again, overwhelmingly women, that do service and care work, in fast food, in retail, in childcare, in elder care, in the biggest part of the U.S. economy, that once and for all, we can make this work, the foundation of the most multiracial working class, whose children will have economic mobility in the next generation.

And that’s the promise of the Fight for 15 leadership, both in fast food, raising wages for four million fast food workers, in home care raising wages in creating good jobs, in the home-care sector, and then two million more childcare workers as well. And imagine, if we could raise wages for eight million, what the impact would be on the other 60 million doing this work.

00:12:33 Michele Goodwin:

Well, that’s really just tremendous. Per Business Insider, just a quote here, raising the minimum wage would also ease the strain on social safety net programs. A study from the University of California at Berkeley found that low wages cost taxpayers more than 100 billion dollars a year. What’s that about?

00:12:55 Mary Kay Henry:

Well, it’s that corporations in this country have figured out how to rig the system and pay low wages that require their workers to get food stamps, Medicaid, housing assistance…

00:13:09 Michele Goodwin:

Oh, Mary Kay, wait, wait, wait, just one more time, I am so sorry. This has been a program where I’ve had to say, let’s stop, stop, stop, because again, you know, people will think, well, okay, fine, got the job, they are at fill-in-the-blank fast-food place. Isn’t that enough? Don’t they get health insurance? Don’t they have benefits? Don’t they have that 401k plan, if only they stayed, right, and that they could elevate to the level of manager. And you’re saying no. What do you mean by that?

00:13:42 Mary Kay Henry:

Yeah, no healthcare, no paid sick time. Like, during COVID, workers were forced to work sick, or if they were…

00:13:50 Michele Goodwin:

What? No sick time? No sick…?

00:13:52 Mary Kay Henry:

No paid sick time, no, yeah. Mostly no paid vacation, in most stores. It’s just been the wage, and as you know, Michele, this cruel scheduling system, where you think you’re on the schedule, and you can be called an hour before and called off, because they have an algorithm that predicts the customers, and people’s schedules then vary from 20 to 40 hours per week, which makes, as you can imagine, childcare and trying to go to any school impossible.

00:14:26 Michele Goodwin:

Virtually impossible, and you also mentioned, then, needing to further buttress that minimal wage, minimum wage with other kind of government assistance, such as food stamps.

00:14:41 Mary Kay Henry:

Right, and this is the issue where, imagine American taxpayers spending 100 billion, as you just said, when McDonald’s posted a profit in the pandemic of $5 billion, and returned money to their shareholders twice last year, but didn’t seek to raise wages, and the hazard pay they may have paid for two weeks, they cut off after they stabilized their workforce. And it’s just been cruel and unusual punishment, that these very profitable corporations have weeded out with workers throughout the pandemic.

00:15:20 Michele Goodwin:

So, we’re in the second year of the pandemic, and you’re talking about two weeks of hazard pay, then cut off. Again, the sort of things that you can’t make up, at all. So, we are coming towards the end of our program. This is our 15 Minutes of Feminism program, and people really enjoy being able to get such important and deep content in such a well-packaged kind of way, so thank you so much for carving out time to be with me, and just two last questions.

I’m going to get to our silver-lining question, which our audience really appreciates, but before I go there, and we’ve talked about this a bit in the show, but how has the pandemic made the need for a livable minimum wage particularly urgent?

00:16:09 Mary Kay Henry:

I think the nation is awakening to how essential workers exercising their power in powerful ways by striking, forming unions and standing up to bad bosses has really created a exclamation point on the level of racial and economic inequality that existed pre-pandemic, but that we can’t turn our eyes away from now. And minimum wage is a foundation to that, people understanding that’s a way to correct the injustice, and as you said at the top, 15 is now seen as not enough, that wages really do have to go up in order for people to afford housing, food and care for their children in major metropolitan areas all across the country.

In May of 2021, ahead of McDonald’s annual shareholder meeting, workers in 16 cities went on strike for a $15 minimum wage. On Thursday. (@SEIU / Twitter)

00:17:01 Michele Goodwin:

Well, right. I mean, one sees even data saying that, really, if we want to provide dignified wages for folks, that we should not be talking about 15. We should not even be talking about 16 or 17, but in major metropolitan areas, we should be talking about 20, 25, more.

00:17:18 Mary Kay Henry:

That’s right. That’s right.

00:17:19 Michele Goodwin:

Yeah. So, in closing, and there’s so much more that we could talk about, including what this means for children of parents who are making minimum wage, and what that means in terms of their lives and their dignity, for people who are doing their very best in society, what this means in terms of schooling, and having a real fair shot and opportunity, but I digress. All right. In closing, silver linings. I mean, perhaps the silver lining is that there is the Fight for 15. What’s the hope that underlies where the movement is headed?

00:17:54 Mary Kay Henry:

Well, the hope is the incredible gains that the movement has made to this point. You talked about the 150 billion, that 29 million people are now at 15 and demanding more. And I see the hope in the movement that’s led by women all across the service and care sector—home care, childcare, fast food—as being able to raise wages and create living-wage jobs with dignity, for women of all races, and that when that happens, it will transform the lives of their children and their families, and that we think we get this done by uniting the demand for 15 with the demand for a union, because those women’s power can be collectivized in a union to make lasting change in every aspect of their lives, from criminal justice, to immigration justice, to clean air and clean water, in addition to the wages, hours, and working conditions that are fundamental to people’s economic security.

00:19:01 Michele Goodwin:

Mary Kay Henry, it is my pleasure to have had you on our show. Thank you so very much for joining me.

00:19:08 Mary Kay Henry:

Good to be with you, Michele.

00:19:10 Michele Goodwin:

Thank you.

Guests and listeners, that’s it for today’s episode of 15 Minutes of Feminism in our On the Issues with Michele Goodwin platform. I want to thank my guest, Mary Kay Henry, for joining us and being part of this critical and insightful conversation. And to you our listeners, I thank you for tuning in for the full story. We hope you will join us again for our next episode of 15 Minutes of Feminism, where we will be reporting, rebelling, and telling it just like it is, and it will be an episode you will not want to miss.

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This has been your host, Michele Goodwin, reporting, rebelling, and telling it like it is. On the Issues with Michele Goodwin is a Ms. magazine joint production. Kathy Spillar and Michele Goodwin are our executive producers. Our producers for this episode are Roxy Szal, Oliver Haug, and Nassim Alisobhani. Our social media intern is Lilian LaSalle. The creative vision behind our work includes art and design by Brandy Phipps, editing by Will Alvarez and Kyle Goode, music by Chris J. Lee, and that social media assistance from Lilian LaSalle. Thank you for tuning in.