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The Fast Food Strikes Are Working

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Watch the California Matters episode on fair restaurant wages here.

Two years ago, 200 fast food workers walked off their jobs in New York City. For anyone who walked past that day, no doubt they felt it was simply vociferous run-off from the recent Occupy movement, that their demands would be forgotten as soon as they returned to work the next day.

But they weren't.

Thursday marks the eighth instance since that initial New York walk-out that fast food workers have gone on strike, each time the demand for "$15 and a union" coming from a few extra mouths. This one's taking place in 190 American cities and include the highest number of strikers yet. While some may look at these two years of sporadic strikes as evidence this method just isn't working, the reality is actually the opposite. The strikes are, indeed, working. And not just for fast food workers.

It's important to realize that every strike has had a narrative attached to it. Last time out, it was that the strikers were using bolder tactics, leading to arrests. This time, the story is that the strikes aren't just focusing on fast food employees. Instead, folks like airport employees and convenience store workers are also in the mix. Even some home care workers in Cleveland are joining in. Throughout the all, the same demands ring out: "$15 and a union, $15 and a union."

While the unionizing demand bumps up against all sorts of logistical problems due to the amount of institutions we're talking about here -- let alone the complications of trying to organize a union for workers of just the various fast food chains -- the $15 minimum wage portion is slowly being accomplished.

On Tuesday, the Chicago City Council voted near-unanimously (44-5) to approve a minimum wage hike in the city to $13 an hour by the year 2019. During last month's national elections, voters in five states (Alaska, Arkansas, Illinois, Nebraska, and South Dakota) overwhelmingly chose to increase the minimum wage within their state's borders. (It's worth pointing out that Illinois is the sole blue state of that quintet.) While those recent hikes won't bring the hourly wage to the $9-plus point that California, Oregon, and Washington all enjoy, they are still movements in a direction towards a significant raise of the minimum wage.

The timing of the strikes and the hikes are not simply coincidental. The former informs the latter.

It's relatively easy to track cause and effect here. The strikes continue making headlines every few months as more and more workers demonstrate, forcing the news to cover the strikes, so the message is spread, and folks become more and more curious. This is why people have Googled more and more about "minimum wage" over the past two years.

As Jordan Weissmann put it in Slate back in September, the fast food strikes have become "the most successful American labor movement in recent memory." He goes through the litany of advancement on the minimum wage front since the strikes began:

Over roughly the past two years, 13 states have increased their minimum wage, as have 10 city and county governments, according to a tally by NBC News. Seattle voted to raise its citywide minimum to $15 an hour by 2018; San Francisco residents will vote on whether to do the same in November. The mayors of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago have all backed a $13 wage floor. The president has come out in favor of a $10.10 national minimum.

Which is all to say: Don't be surprised if the national minimum wage ultimately does hit $15 an hour sometime in the next few years. And when it does, just remember that it was those first 200 strikers -- and all of the workers that followed in their footsteps -- that made it all possible.

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