The president of the union that helped make a $15 minimum wage a reality at Amazon and Costco reveals how automation could be good news for fast-food workers

Workers protesting outside a McDonald's restaurant on November 10, 2015, in Miami.
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Workers protesting outside a McDonald’s restaurant on November 10, 2015, in Miami.
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Joe Raedle/Getty Images

  • The Fight for 15 has gone from a pipe dream to the law of the land in New York and California over the past seven years, with the backing of the Service Employees International Union.
  • The SEIU’s president, Mary Kay Henry, says that Fight for 15’s goals remain the same – a $15 minimum wage and a union – but that the movement is addressing new issues, such as sexual harassment and automation.
  • “I think we should welcome automation,” Henry told Business Insider. “But, workers need to be a part of the design and the transition. That’s what fast-food workers have said.”
  • Henry is one of Business Insider’s 100 people transforming business in 2019.

When the first Fight for 15 strikes began with a protest in New York City in 2012, even the union helping organize the fast-food workers wasn’t convinced they would succeed.

“My imagination and my dreaming in support of those New York fast-food workers who had the courage to do this was not a widely held belief,” Mary Kay Henry, the president of Service Employees International Union, recently told Business Insider.

Over the past seven years, Henry has seen Fight for 15 transform from a pipe dream to one of the most powerful movements in the retail and restaurant business. New York and California have passed $15-minimum-wage regulations, as have massive retailers such as Amazon and Costco.

Read more: Jeff Bezos called for Amazon’s competitors to raise their minimum wage. Here’s how retail rivals like Walmart, Target, and Costco stack up on worker pay.

Mary Kay Henry, the president of Service Employees International Union.

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Mary Kay Henry, the president of Service Employees International Union.
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Henry Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty

In Henry’s view, the growth of Fight for 15 and the SEIU’s work with fast-food workers – few of whom can unionize because of modern franchise laws – was driven by the employees.

“It wasn’t a decision we made,” Henry said. “Fast-food workers responded to our community organizing in a way that captured people’s imagination.”

As the 2020 election approaches, Fight for 15 and the SEIU’s first priorities are the same as they were in 2012: $15 minimum wage, in “every corner of the country,” Henry says, and the opportunity for every American to unionize. Because of the rise of contract labor, the gig economy, and fast food’s franchise system, Henry estimates that only about 42% of the American workforce could feasibly join a union.

The Fight for 15 is also taking on some new battles. Fast-food workers have been protesting against sexual harassment on the job. And, while many workers have expressed concerns about being replaced by robots, Henry proposes a new approach to dealing with automation.

“I think we should welcome automation,” Henry said. “But, workers need to be a part of the design and the transition. That’s what fast-food workers have said.”

Henry pointed to Germany, where unionized workers have worked with companies and the government to transition away from fossil fuels. The process hasn’t always been smooth, but Henry says it can provide a blueprint for how workers and the government can work together to address massive economic shifts.

“Right now, the way automation is being introduced in the workplace is kind of the wild, Wild West. And, the strong will survive,” Henry said. “We don’t think those are the rules that should govern the introduction of automation.”