Fight for $15 Rally
Washington Square Park
Rochester, New York
April 14, 2016
Remarks of Bruce Popper
Vice-president, 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East
An opportunity has been missed. An opportunity has been missed to reduce suffering in one of the nation’s greatest concentrations of poverty, the City of Rochester, New York. An opportunity has been missed to raise the wages of over one third of Monroe County’s workforce. An opportunity has been missed to relieve the misery of hundreds of thousands of working people in Buffalo, Syracuse, and rural Upstate New York. An opportunity has been missed to give our community’s working families real economic opportunity.
$12.50 more than four years from now is not $15.00. So the Fight for $15 continues here and elsewhere across Upstate New York. It enters a new phase that starts today.
What lessons do we learn from the opportunity missed ?
First, we have a better understanding of who our friends are, and who they are not. We expect opposition from the usual suspects – big corporations, business alliances, and Republican legislators. But we also expect those who profess progressive values to hang tough. Some of them did not.
Second, we ignored the lessons of history in the struggle between working people and their oppressors – namely, that nothing is given without struggle.
Not too far from where we stand today, Frederick Douglass said: “The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
The National Labor Relations Act was passed in response to an uprising of workers, not the other way around. The first minimum wage law, Social Security, unemployment insurance, and a host of other worker protections were enacted in response to massive protests, not the other way around. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were achieved in response to a more than decade old protest movement, not the other way around.
In our time, fast food workers organized all across New York State. Over a period of years, they protested. They went on strike. They seized an opportunity and won a pathway to the $15 minimum wage. That victory was achieved in response to their uprising, not the other way around.
It is instructive to look at who won the $15 minimum wage in New York. It was the workers who were the most organized, many of them already in strong unions. They included home health aides, child care workers, janitors, hotel workers, and retail clerks. Literally hundreds of thousands united. Their power was concentrated in New York City, and that is where we won.
We in Rochester, New York were naive to think that we could ride their coattails to victory. We were naive to think that we too could win without the low wage workers of our region being heavily organized and rising up.
“The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress,” not by their liberal friends. We need allies in this struggle but first and foremost, we need the workers. We ignored the lessons of history. We ignored the lessons of the fast food fight.
So, where we go from here?
Well, sisters and brothers, that answer is pretty obvious. We must turn our undivided attention to organizing low wage workers into a powerful enough force to win what the workers of New York City won. Only by building strong organizations of workers can we hope to win. Indeed, we must invent a new labor movement; one that is all inclusive; one that embraces diversity and community. We must inspire action. We must unite across racial, gender, age, and other divides. We must be mindful of the lessons of history – past and present. It doesn’t happen the other way around.
Now let’s get to work.