By Stephen Herzenberg, Third and State
“This is what democracy looks like.” Even though this chant originated with the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO), which haven’t yet led to major reforms, the phrase nonetheless captures the idea of a social movement that has crystallized its demands and has a better chance to succeed because of it. Other examples include the right to vote in the civil rights movement, or the fight to legalize gay marriage, a simple modern demand that culminates a fight for equality in all its dimensions.
One challenge in the U.S. fight for economic justice since inequality began to yawn wider in the 1970s has been the lack of a simple demand that either working people or elites thought could bring back the middle class. Having such a demand fuels social movements because it gives members of the movement confidence — conviction — that there is a way for the world to give them what they want. It also fuels social movements because it gives the broader society a way to let the protesters get a win.
The fast food workers engaging in one-day strikes across the country may be on the verge of crystallizing a simple demand to which their low-wage employers could accede — and, in the process, cracking the code to the next U.S. middle class.
Today’s story on these strikes in The New York Times says that the organizers aren’t actually clear yet on the path to victory. The demand is a $15-per-hour wage — a ticket to the middle class. But will progress result from a higher minimum wage, local living wage requirements for big chains, or companies themselves raising wages to get off the front page? (This is where you say in your best pompous pundit voice, “Well, ah, um, cough, good question.”)
Because these protesters have a practical, confident vision of the end point they want — an economy that pays lower-wage workers a middle-class wage (so what if Big Macs cost 50 cents more) — they have a good chance of finding the mechanism that can get them there and keep them there (or forcing the rest of us to figure out the mechanism).