Unions no longer have the power they once did. Mary Kay Henry, international president of the 2-million member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), knows that better than anyone. But rather than only doubling down on old ways –organizing employer by employer and bargaining contract by contract in the hopes of lifting stagnant wages and dues-paying membership–SEIU has also embraced a new model.
“Our union made a decision that we can’t just be about our members. We have to think about all working people,” Henry told Co.Exist in an interview for Fast Company’s Most Creative People of 2015 list.
That strategy began for SEIU in 2012, when non-union fast food workers decided to go on strike in New York City, and the union, along with other local civil rights groups, made the decision to sponsor the protests. Since then, its assistance–including, financial, logistical, and moral support–has continued as the grassroots “Fight for $15” movement has spread around the country and broadened to include many of the nation’s lowest-paid workers, from retail employees to home health aids.
This is a significant and necessary departure on the collective bargaining focus of the last hundred years requiring changes in how SEIU operates. As an Los Angeles Times columnist put it in December, with private sector unions and now public sector ones increasingly decimated by anti-union laws, it has become easier to raise wages for 100,000 than it is to unionize 4,000. (A U.S. Supreme Court decision related to home health care workers last year, for example, took 100,000 members from SEIU, Henry says.)
“We’re throwing as much resources, time, talent, and energy as we can to getting behind these incredibly inspiring movements of workers that are more organic than we’re generally comfortable with. They don’t exactly have a plan up on the wall.” Henry has had to work to motivate local leadership to take to the grassroots approach: In addition to funding (Henry declined to specify the dollar figure), SEIU provides support for protesting workers through its strategic expertise, its worker halls around the country, and even its members’ couches.
Henry estimates that, so far, 7 million workers have seen their wages increase since the first 2012 strikes; states and cities have passed laws to increase wages and some major employers that previously paid minimum wage have as well. As the Fight for $15 movement has rung up successes, there has been a shift in attitude that benefits all workers, Henry notes: “Each one of these victories, large and small, have added to the growing movement and belief that [$15 an hour] is not outrageous.”
This shift in the national dialogue has benefited and energized SEIU’s union members, who are mainly part of the service sector economy, from health and child care workers to bus drivers and security guards. For instance, last year, SEIU Local 99 negotiated $15 an hour pay contract for 23,000 low-paid cafeteria workers and janitors in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Taking a cue from the movement, SEIU’s Adjunct Action project is working to organize poorly-paid adjunct faculty at universities–demanding $15,000 per course, far above today’s going rates. But, tellingly, they’ve also supported a much broader grassroots arm of the campaign, called “Faculty Forward,” aimed at more generally shifting public opinion.
Fight for $15 is also demanding much more than a pay raise. The right to form a union is also a key point of the protests, and wins on this point could ultimately result in more dues-paying SEIU members. But in the end, there’s a recognition that it might be easier to change the laws than it is to negotiate a union contract.
“The big challenge we see is keeping momentum going so that the incremental successes can lead to a big breakthrough. We really want to make this a part of the 2016 presidential debate,” Henry says.