Fight For $15 Wisconsin Seeks to Build on Milwaukee Successes

Fight for $15 is building on successes in Milwaukee to increase the minimum wage and strengthen unions across the state.

[Photo: Person holding fist in air in front of $15 minimum wage sign.]
If Democrat Tony Evers is elected governor, organizers will push for him to fulfill his promises to workers. Spencer Platt/ Getty Images

Precious Crawley is a 26-year-old parent of three who lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She works full-time at McDonald’s making $7.50 per hour, and part-time at a Family Dollar Store for $7.75 per hour. Working for minimum wage, says Crawley, “means struggle. It means work harder, do more, which I am always doing.” That’s why, Crawley said while canvassing on a rainy Sunday in Milwaukee, she joined Fight for $15 Wisconsin’s efforts to organize workers across the city for a $15 minimum wage and the right to establish and join unions, which are critical to securing wages and benefits.

“I deserve it, I believe in it, and I am fighting for $15.00. We need better pay, unions, and healthcare. I support any candidate who is going to raise the wages to $15.00 an hour and give us the right to form unions.” Fight for $15 Wisconsin sees organizing in Milwaukee as key to reversing the dramatic decline of unions in the state.

The federal minimum wage of $7.25 is nowhere near what might be considered subsistence wages, never mind a “living wage.” Assuming a 40-hour work week for Crawley, earning $7.50 an hour yields an annual income of $15,600, leaving a family of four like hers far below the federal poverty line. “Right now, I [have] got to pick between what I’m going to buy my kids that they need or how much I’m going to put on my light bill. I shouldn’t have to debate that [with] two jobs. I don’t want to struggle like that.”

In fact, Crawley’s struggle is emblematic of those faced by a large share of women of color in Wisconsin, who are far more likely to work more than one job and still live in extreme poverty. According to a State of Working Wisconsin 2018 report released in August by COWS, a nonpartisan Wisconsin think tank, “One in five workers currently holds a poverty-wage job with few benefits.” But Wisconsin ranks near the top for states with the worst racial disparities, and women of color are far more likely than any other groups in the state to be in poverty. Black women in the state are three times more likely than white men to work at lower-paying jobs, and Latino employees earn 43 percent less than white employees. More than 675,000 Wisconsin workers earn less than $11.95 an hour. About 11.6 percent of white men and 19.8 percent of white women make less than $11.95 an hour, while 22.8 percent of black men and 35.6 percent of black women earn less than that.

Fight for $15 Wisconsin is supporting Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers, for whom Crawley is canvassing. Crawley says, “I was down for it because I know what he’s about. I support him because he supports us,” she says, “I feel like if Evers gets into office, by raising the minimum wage the cost of living will be a bit more affordable.”

Evers is running against GOP incumbent Gov. Scott Walker, who is notoriously anti-union and opposes raising the minimum wage. In early 2011, a newly-elected Walker, who received massive amounts of campaign support from the ultra-right billionaires Charles and David Koch, worked swiftly with the Republican-controlled legislature to pass what is known as Act 10, the “Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill.” The bill deeply undermined public sector unions in part by virtually eliminating collective bargaining and drastically curtailing the retirement, health insurance, and sick leave benefits provided to public sector employees. Act 10, combined with a so-called right to work law, decimated union organizing in the state. 

For Crawley as for millions of others across the country, the fight for better wages is tied to a lack of access to affordable quality health care—and it is literally a question of life and death. Walker steadfastly refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and was one of the original governors to join a lawsuit against it. In a deliberate attempt by the Walker administration to foil sign-ups under the ACA’s first open enrollment in 2013, an estimated 38,000 people in the state lost health-care coverage. Since then, the rate of uninsured persons in the state has fallen, but at least 300,000 Wisconsinites remain uninsured, at least 40,000 of whom are children. Moreover, health-care premiums and co-pays have risen sharply.

Crawley’s daughter was diagnosed with cancer, and she has found herself with thousands of dollars in bills she can’t pay. “She had the surgery, my baby had cancer on her face and it was eating through her bone,” she told me while canvassing. “I thought we had insurance and after they sent her home, we got these bills. It was just too much. Where am I going to get this type of money from? I’m barely paying my rent and I already got two jobs. You want me to send half my body to one place and half my body to the other place to work and pick up two more jobs? That’d be four. I can’t do that.”

Crawley and another organizer, Reyna Gengler, spoke about the untreated depression they see as they canvass voters. It’s something with which they both struggle.

“Walker,” Crawley asked rhetorically, “how hard you going to make it for us before people just get to killing themselves?” She suggested that the lack of benefits directly affects workers’ mental health. “Taking all your benefits and … stuff that you need to survive. That’s depression. And depression leads to suicide and all of that, giving up. That’s why I’m a fighter. I’m the opposite. I don’t give up. I don’t give in either nor do I settle. I’m fighting for $15 and a union. I support … candidates who support us and support raising wages and the right to form unions, better schools, better community.”

Gengler said that because many can’t afford rent, she was finding people “piled up in homes, sometimes two to three families.” While canvassing, she has also spoken to many people directly affected by the state’s health-care policies.

“I’ve talked to a lot of parents at the doors, even women in their fifties can’t get their prescription medications,” Gengler said. Gengler talked about meeting people who not only can’t afford needed medications but also skip going to the doctor entirely.

That is why unions are key to progress in Wisconsin and elsewhere. Fight for $15 Wisconsin is betting that a 2016 labor agreement with the owners of the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team may one day be seen as the turning point in the downward spiral of real wages and union bargaining power in the state.

In May 2016, the owners of the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team signed an agreement with the Alliance for Good Jobs requiring arena employers to enter into agreements to guarantee a free and fair path for workers to organize a union. Service workers at the new arena will earn a minimum of $12 per hour, with escalation clauses promising a minimum of $15 per hour by 2023. The arena opened in August of this year and was built with $250 million in taxpayer funding.

The agreement was the first step in efforts by workers’ rights groups like Fight for $15 Wisconsin to organize low-income voters in other sectors of the city, and eventually statewide. Last month, for example, more than 25 cooks and cashiers were arrested along with local elected and community leaders during a strike by more than 200 Milwaukee fast-food workers demanding the right to a union at McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and other fast-food chains. Crawley was part of the McDonald’s strike. And before Labor Day, Milwaukee-area fast-food workers and community leaders rallied to demand a “Bucks-style” agreement of a $15 wage floor, hiring hall, and union rights in the fast-food industry. These efforts are all meant to build power among long-disenfranchised communities.

Electing Evers and other candidates dedicated to workers’ rights is one part of the long-term strategy for Fight for $15 Wisconsin. Before the election on November 6, the campaign plans to knock on 270,000 doors and engage more than 225,000 via digital and social media efforts across the state to commit to vote. “The canvass is targeting infrequent voters of color whose turnout dropped significantly in 2016,” says Fight for $15 Wisconsin in a press release, “The effort could build a movement beyond the 2018 election to hold politicians in Midwest states accountable to voters’ demands.”

If Evers is elected, those same organizers will push for him to fulfill his promises to workers. Crawley tells me that after the election, she intends to “keep fighting, going through Tony Evers” to make a higher minimum wage, health care, and union protections a reality.

CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to clarify how many doors the campaign plans to knock on by November 6. This piece was updated again on November 7th to clarify details of the agreement with the Milwaukee Bucks.