Demonstrators in Oakland, California, demanding an increase in worker wages.
Demonstrators in Oakland, California, demanding an increase in worker wages. Noah Berger/Reuters

Award-winning lawyer Mary Joyce Carlson joined forces with global labor movements to pressure multinational companies for fair working conditions.

Mary Joyce Carlson has spent most of her life fighting for fair labor practices. She is an attorney for the Fight for $15, a movement to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour. While that platform may have once seemed a dream, through the dogged work of Carlson and others, it has turned into real policy in cities across the country. Carlson’s fight is not limited to the United States; she has developed partnerships in other countries to unite workers across national borders and apply global pressure to multinational companies.

On Tuesday, Carlson will be accepting the 2018 George Barrett Award for Public Interest Law from the Sidney Hillman Foundation to recognize the role she has played in advocating for workers all over the world. CityLab spoke to Carlson about the fight for wages domestically and internationally, successful organizing tactics, and how globalization has affected the labor movement.

How have you seen issues in labor practices evolve over your time in the field, both in the U.S. and abroad?

Labor is in general under attack. There’s been a tremendous increase in the consolidation of corporate power and a weakening of unions in almost all countries—even those where there have been strong labor unions. If you’re an attorney who is dedicated to working people and [their] causes, you protect wages because such a large percentage of the workforce is not organized. [Without the protections of unions] problems that would have been solved through collective bargaining are now solved with mass action and the use of other employment laws such as wage and hour laws and anti-discrimination laws.

What do you think are some of the most successful tactics Fight for $15 used that other groups in the U.S. could learn from?

The most successful tactic I think in Fight for $15, is one that’s been successful for labor for a long time: the strike. Workers in the fast food industry have achieved an enormous amount since strikes began in 2012.

Since the first group of fast food workers went on strike, $15 per hour has been adopted as the official Democratic party platform. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer have signed on to a bill calling for $15 per hour minimum wage; $15 has been passed as the minimum wage in Seattle, New York, California. The movement has also affected private sector employers: On their own, Facebook, Etna, Wells Fargo, and Duke University instituted a path to $15 voluntarily, because of the Fight for $15 movement and progress in politics and the progress in the public sector.

Alongside the European Public Service Union and the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions, you used a global strategy to pressure McDonald’s into enacting better labor practices in Europe. What results did that yield, and could similar tactics have success here?

The European system is quite different from the system in the U.S. In terms of working conditions, one that affects the workforce in Europe is what’s known as a zero hours contract, which guarantees the worker no work, and if the worker fails to appear [if suddenly called in] they can be removed from the job. The European parliament has a committee on workplace issues for Europe, and we filed a petition and asked to have hearings and an examination of zero hours. Hearings were held, there were quite a few findings around it, and one of the results was, at least in Britain, McDonald’s announced it was rescinding its zero hours contract—or it would only offer it to employees who wanted the flexibility of that contract.

I don’t know if that’s replicable in the U.S., because the current Congress has very little interest in hearing testimony on problems facing workers in the U.S. I think the concern for the lives of workers is very low in this country.

Has the interconnectedness of our world made it easier to put pressure on companies, and could that be applied to other companies?

Recently, on May 1st in Britain, there was a second strike of McDonald’s workers for 10 pounds [per hour, approximately $13.50 USD] brought by the baker’s union. Following that strike, which was highly publicized, I think McDonald’s will pay attention to some of the problems of its fast food workforce in Britain. U.S. fast food workers know about that strike. Now, what’s necessary is for workers to be connected and active in all the countries where a global company may operate.

Companies always say “we abide by the rules of the country we operate in.”At least Western Europe countries, with the exception of Britain, have a much stronger set of labor codes and regulations than the U.S. There are more incentives for compliance in Europe, and yet there are problems there like there are here. To the extent that workers pressure a company in all parts of the world [and] learn from each others’ tactics, I think the determination of workers does result in a company becoming more responsible to its workforce in all parts of the globe, and that would include here. But I don’t believe it’s necessarily related to globalization or a change in policy at the governmental level—I think it’s related to the strength in the organization that the employees can bring to the campaign or to the struggle.   

State preemption laws, where state legislatures pass laws that override those of cities, have been a primary roadblock to raising the minimum wage. Can you talk a little bit about the case going on in Birmingham right now?

The [Fight for $15] movement in Birmingham was quite active, and the city council was attempting to respond to the needs of poverty work in their city. It is quite a phenomenon when people to go work every day and yet they still live in poverty. They’re unable to pay a normal rent in this country, and have to make choices between transportation and food. Birmingham knew about that phenomenon and attempted to change it. At the time they passed a $10 an hour raise, there was no preemption in Alabama, and they had every reason to believe their wages would go into effect. Almost immediately after legislation was passed, the state enacted a preemption law. It was voted into effect with all African American legislators voting against it.

Since at that time Birmingham was the only city that had passed [a minimum wage raise] and is a primarily African-American city, the vote was aimed at Birmingham. The Fight for $15, along with other groups in Birmingham, filed a lawsuit against state of Alabama saying it was violating the Equal Protection Clause and section two of the Voting Rights Act—that preemption was unlawful and racially motivated. A district court judge dismissed the case, and we recently had an argument in the circuit court asking that the case be reinstated and remanded.

The case hinges on the argument of racial discrimination, and the fact that Birmingham is a majority black city with a state legislature that is predominantly white. If you win the case, how could you use that precedent in other cities where the racial component may not be that clear?

I don’t know about its usefulness is a non-minority city, but it would be an important precedent. Frankly, cities in this country that are blue, with progressive politics, are cities that are inclined to raise wages and enact fair scheduling laws. Cleveland, Ohio, which is a minority city, also attempted to pass a minimum wage law and was preempted from doing so. In those types of cities, and there are many of them, the case would have significance. It’s also worth noting, in Colorado the legislature repealed preemption. There’s already a movement aside from this to get rid of preemption laws that prohibit local solutions to address local needs of the population.

What tactics are you considering to combat preemption laws if the court doesn’t rule in your favor?

We’ll have to think about what to do depending on the circumstances, but there are groups across the country strategizing on this because it is such an artificial barrier, and a stall to making progress locally on behalf of people who are really in need of a raised wage, or fair scheduling act, or a stronger housing or workers commission that would address a lot of workplace issues for local people.

There was a young man who spoke at a press conference in Birmingham who works two minimum-wage jobs in order to take home $300 a week, and out of that he pays $125 to a caregiver for his disabled mother. And that leaves him very little money for transportation for food, for gas, for utility bills.

The $7.25 minimum wage is simply a poverty wage.

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