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‘Fight for 15’ protesters prepare to flex their political muscles

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M. Spencer Green/AP

(Read caption) McDonald's workers and supporters rally outside a McDonald's, Wednesday, April 15, 2015, in Chicago. Fast-food workers calling for $15 an hour, are picking up some more allies Wednesday. Airport workers, home care workers, Walmart workers and adjunct professors are among those set to join in the fight for $15 protests across the country, in what organizers are calling the biggest ever mobilization of workers in the US.

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The "Fight for $15" began nearly three years ago as a smattering of workers in fast-food and retail protesting for higher wages and better treatment. In the years since, it has morphed into a multifaceted campaign against a wide range of social injustices: wage fairness, yes, but also racism, corporate accountability, and workplace safety, among  others.

The fresh round of strikes rolling through over 230 cities worldwide Wednesday, according to organizers, have come to include the entire gamut of people in low-wage jobs, including domestic workers, child care professionals, airport workers, and adjunct professors. Additionally, “The two-and-a-half-year-old Fight for $15 will go to college, with protests expected by students from 200 campuses,” reads a Tuesday release from BerlinRosen, a public relations firm that has helped organize and promote the protests. “Activists organizing around #BlackLivesMatter will join in as the ties between the racial and economic justice movements deepen.”

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The Tax Day strikes, held on a day chosen for both its numerical significance (4/15) and as a nod to research showing that underpaid workers rely heavily on taxpayer-funded assistance, also involved some political maneuvering – an area where the “Fight for $15” has found a fair amount of success. A coalition of groups in Washington, D.C., including area food-service unions and religious groups, announced an initiative to get a $15-an-hour minimum wage on a city ballot. In several other cities and states, the push for wage hikes has already borne fruit: a $15 wage is a reality in Seattle, and cities from Boston to San Francisco have hiked their minimum wages. Elsewhere, prominent politicians including New York Mayor Bill di Blasio and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, have publicly supported wage increases in their cities. 

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Just around the corner, however, the movement faces the biggest test of its political clout thus far: the 2016 election cycle. The movement's continued visibility could put pressure on certain candidates to publicly support its goals. “Primaries are really great time for social movements,” says David S. Meyer, a professor of sociology and political science at the University of California in Irvine who studies large protest movements. “They can get the candidates to really distinguish themselves and make promises early on.”

He argues that the demand for higher wages will continue to be most effective in smaller elections, like primaries and races for mayor, where two members of the same party are running against each other.

The bigger question, though, is whether the movement can have an impact nationally, and, more specifically, whether Hillary Clinton’s positioning as a champion of the American worker will translate into an endorsement of a $15 an hour minimum wage on the federal level. Already, she has faced calls from leading progressives, including college friend and former Clinton adviser Robert Reich, to strengthen unions and support the $15 wage. (Mr. Reich led a walkout at an Oakland, Calif., McDonald's restaurant Wednesday.) 

Some argue that a failure to do so could hurt her chances to inspire the Democratic base. “Any reluctance by Mrs. Clinton to say whether she explicitly supports the goals of the Fight for $15 campaign – or even how far toward them she would hope to come as president – could curb enthusiasm for her candidacy among progressives and low-income workers at the very moment she’s officially engaged,” Noam Scheiber wrote in the New York Times Monday.

But the lack of formidable competition for Clinton so far in the Democratic primary could give her more freedom to decide how she wants to tackle the inequality issue, more so than she might have had if the Fight for $15 had existed during the competitive 2008 primary – and it probably won’t be by advocating for $15 an hour.

“She might say, ‘The plight of these workers is a national shame, but let’s focus on issues like sick leave and better subsidies for health care and [better support] for parents,’ " Mr, Meyer predicts. "Hillary will try to talk about that stuff but offer remedies that are more explicitly targeted at middle class people, because they are more likely to vote.” 

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Indeed, despite victories on the local and state level and minimum pay raises from a growing roster of companies including Wal-Mart and TJ Maxx, an increase in the federal minimum wage has been a nonstarter so far. Until that changes, the best strategy for the movement may be to expand upon those local victories and keep the rallying cry of $15 an hour consistent, especially as other causes piggyback onto the protests. “The advantage of the $15 campaign is it’s very easy to understand,” Meyer says. "People with other causes are picking up the banner and interpreting it for their own purposes but not taking it away from the low-wage workers."

That consistent, yet wide-ranging message could keep the Fight for $15 fresh until it eventually becomes a more formidable national possibility.