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Back in 2012, some McDonald's employees in New York refused to work one morning. They had no idea they were launching an economic revolution. They kicked off a citywide wave and then nationwide strikes by low-wage workers demanding $15 an hour. And they got pay increases in dozens of states and cities. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports on the legacy of this labor movement.
ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Kim Thomas is often the first person her patients see on a given day. She's a hospice home health care aide, waking up around 4:30 in the morning to start her rounds - sometimes, up to a dozen people to wake up, bathe, dress and feed.
KIM THOMAS: I'm like an alarm clock. They know, oh, Kim's here. It's time to get up (laughter).
SELYUKH: It's not a job for the faint of heart - cleaning vomit and blood from her clothes, getting to know people who might soon die. Thomas felt drawn to her profession after caring for her own ailing mother. Human dignity, she says, can be simple, like clean sheets and a favorite snack.
THOMAS: I felt like I could give other people an opportunity to care for them the way I cared for my mother. And I'm sorry I'm getting a little emotional, but it's just - I truly feel like this is where God wants me to be.
SELYUKH: She started in North Carolina making $7 an hour, then 8.25, stacking as many hours as she could, sleeping in patients' homes. Aides like Thomas are in high demand, but they're not paid a lot. After years, Thomas finally got a raise to $10.50 an hour.
THOMAS: I was like, wow. This is like - you know, I thought I was making bank, but I wasn't.
SELYUKH: That's when she heard about a movement called Fight For 15 - as in dollars an hour - soon joining meetings and marches.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: What do we want?
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #1: Fifteen.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: When do we want it?
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #1: Now.
SELYUKH: This was 2015. And by then, rallies like these had already grown into one of America's biggest waves of labor activism in recent history. At first, it was fast food and retail, organizing with the help of the Service Employees International Union. But soon, the strikes drew low-wage workers from all over - airports, child care and health care, even universities - backed by a union but not part of one.
TERRENCE WISE: Walking off the job, you're taking on your boss head-on. And that sounds like some pretty scary stuff, right? But I always thought, what am I more afraid of - taking on my boss or being homeless again with my three little girls?
SELYUKH: Terrence Wise was working at a Burger King and a Pizza Hut in Kansas City, Mo., when the Fight For 15 arrived there. It had spread from New York to Chicago to St. Louis, then Detroit, Milwaukee, Seattle.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #2: I believe that we will win.
SELYUKH: The demonstrations kept grabbing headlines with sit-ins and arrests for civil disobedience. Rallies ballooned to over 200 cities. The economy was starting to improve from the recession. Corporate executives were getting bonuses, but low-wage workers had not seen raises in years. The federal minimum was stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009.
WISE: Work hard. Stay out of trouble. That's what my mom told me. Pull yourself up by the bootstraps. Everything will be fine. That's such a false narrative because it's some of the hardest working people who are still not getting by.
SELYUKH: Wise would become one of the faces of the movement, testifying in Congress and speaking at the White House. Politicians were paying attention.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: The minimum wage is going up in Rhode Island...
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Michigan.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Colorado.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Nebraska.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Oregon.
SELYUKH: Twenty-six states and more cities went on to write new wage laws, raising minimums to nine or 10 or the full $15. Eventually, some of the largest employers - Amazon, Walmart, Target - made splashy announcements, lifting their lowest wages.
IRENE TUNG: This wave of minimum wage raises is the largest in history.
SELYUKH: Irene Tung with the National Employment Law Project says though activists have been stymied in raising the federal minimum wage, state and local efforts boosted paychecks for some 22 million workers. Collectively, these raises are worth almost $70 billion. A few years later, an extraordinary thing happened. Wages began growing at the bottom faster than at the top. Economists, including the Federal Reserve chairman, say the new higher minimums played a role. Pay did grow more in places that raised their minimums.
APARNA MATHUR: But I don't want to downplay the role that an improved economy has played as well.
SELYUKH: That's Aparna Mathur, a labor economist at the American Enterprise Institute. She and many economists point out that historically low unemployment made for great timing. Businesses argue that the cost of higher pay forces them to consider cutting back hours or even layoffs. But a decade of economic growth makes companies compete harder for workers.
ROSA CALDERON: (Speaking Spanish).
SELYUKH: Rosa Calderon thanks the Fight For 15 for changing her life for the better. She's from a suburb of Los Angeles and has been in fast food almost a decade now. Both she and her son work at McDonald's and recently saw their wages rise.
CALDERON: (Speaking Spanish).
SELYUKH: She says her family could finally afford to move out of an apartment they had shared with another family. The Fight For 15 was an unusual labor movement. It was backed by union organizers. It galvanized thousands of workers. To this day, they are not unionized. Terrence Wise says that's one of the reasons they are still fighting - for a union, better benefits; in some places, still for that $15 an hour, which is worth less every year.
WISE: I was just talking to a friend recently like, bro, we would still probably be making seven, eight bucks an hour if we never stood up and fought.
SELYUKH: For all the states that did raise their pay minimums, many didn't; neither did Congress. Remember health aide Kim Thomas who cares for the sick and dying? She's now making $13 an hour, still fighting for the elusive 15.
Alina Selyukh, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN LÖFFLER'S "MYIAMI")
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