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A growing group effort to help low-wage workers

On a drizzly afternoon in mid-June, about 1,000 low-wage workers and their supporters marched down Boylston Street, trombones and drums creating a jubilant soundtrack. Adjunct professors walked alongside fast-food workers, religious leaders with retail staffers, construction union officials with waiters.

Home health aides waved signs that read, “Hold the burgers, hold the fries, make our wages supersize.”

The march was part of “Fight for $15,” a campaign to lift up low-wage workers that has spread across the country, spurring unprecedented collaboration between unions, worker centers, community organizations, and faith-based groups.

Propelled by public outrage over corporate greed and income inequality, the effort to improve the lives of the working poor is reshaping and reinvigorating the labor movement, cutting across lines of geography and self-interest that have divided these groups.


The result: a powerful grass-roots force.

Unions are offering expertise in collective bargaining and organizing, as well as deep pockets. Worker centers, which assist immigrant and low-wage workers, are tapping into ongoing relationships with struggling employees to identify needs and rally support. Community groups emphasize how better-paying jobs can help stabilize families, neighborhoods, and cities.

“We’ve seen a turnaround in terms of public sympathy for workers,” said Russ Davis, executive director of Massachusetts Jobs With Justice, a coalition of labor, community, and faith groups. “They know that it’s not good for the United States as a country, as a society, to have this vast increasing underclass of people.”

More demonstrations are planned in Boston this week, in observance of Labor Day, as home care, fast-food, and other low-wage workers push for higher wages and unionization.

For unions, which have seen membership dwindle to less than 7 percent of the US private sector workforce from 35 percent in 1980, it’s an opportunity to swell their ranks, said Janice Fine, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Getting access to low-wage workers is key, she said, not only because it provides opportunities for organizing but also because it revives the image of unions as fighting for all workers, instead of the narrow interests of a few.


“For unions to grow, the broader community needs to see unionization as a moral issue,” she said. “Championing the cause of low-wage workers sets unions back into the moral light they once had.”

But some in the business community say the movement is just a ploy by the Service Employees International Union to collect more dues.

“It would be wrong to allow the SEIU and its affiliates to hide behind an altruistic plea for higher wages when what they really want is a shortcut to refill their steadily dwindling membership ranks and coffers, ” said Steve Caldeira, president of the International Franchise Association, a trade group in Washington

The Fight for $15 campaign was born in 2012, when fast-food workers demonstrated in New York with the help of the SEIU and other local coalitions. It grew into a phenomenon, with hundreds of demonstrations across the country, and worker campaigns joining forces across industries.

The movement is fueled by rising economic disparity. If pay had kept up with productivity gains since 1979, the majority of Massachusetts households would make at least $10,000 a year more than they do now, according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center , a left- leaning think tank in Boston. Instead, the gains went to the top earners.


Meanwhile, many high-paying jobs that were lost during the recession were replaced by lower-paying ones. Companies also employ more contract and part-time workers to cut their costs.

Massachusetts political leaders, including Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and US Senator Elizabeth Warren, both Democrats, have focused on income inequality, highlighting the cause of low-wage workers. Social media have spread word of protests, rallies, and boycotts, building broader support.

“Unless we come together, we’re not going to win,” said Roxana Rivera, New England district director of 32BJ Service Employees International Union, which recently held a rally for Logan Airport workers attended by more than 25 organizations.

“We hit rock bottom with the recession, in a sense,” she said. “That really made it very clear, as we came out of it, who was doing really well and who was not.”

In the past, community and faith-based groups concentrated on issues like housing, crime prevention, and schools. But as unions declined and wages stagnated, these organizations turned more of their attention to helping workers.

A few years ago, Community Labor United, a Boston advocacy group, had community organizers join union leaders to knock on Boston security guards’ doors to convince them to unionize, which they did, said executive director Darlene Lombos.Last year, the nonprofit got transit unions and riders groups across the state to join forces, resulting in a state funding increase and a cap on fare hikes.

Raise Up Massachusetts, a coalition of 100 labor, community, and faith groups, collected more than 368,000 signatures to get paid sick time and a minimum wage increase on the ballot this fall — all through volunteer efforts. The campaign helped push the Legislature this summer to approve the highest statewide minimum wage in the country, $11 an hour by 2017.


Other victories for low-wage workers have accumulated across the country. The Massachusetts Legislature also passed a domestic workers’ bill of rights to improve conditions for housekeepers and nannies. Seattle raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour. The National Labor Relations Board recently ruled McDonald’s can be considered a joint employer with its franchisees, which could hold the corporation responsible for wages and working conditions in all restaurants in the chain.

As the movement gains momentum, workers from different industries are becoming more united and vocal. Maureen Sullivan, once a full-time faculty member at Boston University, became an adjunct sociology professor at the school after she was laid off in 2012. With no benefits, and only one BU class to teach, Sullivan joined the Fight for $15 effort, helping to lead protesters down Boylston Street in June.

“Why am I identifying with fast-food workers?” she said. “We are the same.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.