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This year, bright spots for workers came from below

Progress on the minimum wage and labor rights was made at the local level — and it’s starting to bubble up

December 31, 2015 2:00AM ET

Unions continued a fight for their lives in 2015, and will no doubt continue to do so for years to come. The Supreme Court is currently poised to hear a case that could significantly weaken one of the movement’s last remaining strongholds: public sector unions. And there’s little help to be found in Congress: Republican majorities refuse to raise the minimum wage — much less pass pro-worker legislation to allow workers to more easily organize collectively.

Given the gridlock and fierce ideological partisanship that pervades Washington these days, it is not surprising that many of the most positive developments from this year have happened at the local level. Although progress on the local level can sometimes seem small or disjointed, innovations in cities and states are together beginning to shape a national agenda for how to confront inequality, restore the American middle class and refashion the increasingly tattered workplace contract offered by many American employers. From the Fight for $15, to winning campaigns for paid sick leave, to local ordinances banning abusive scheduling on the part of employers, 2015 brought some signs of hope.

2015 was a banner year for the fight for a $15 an hour minimum wage. In May, Los Angeles took the extraordinary step of becoming the largest city in the nation to approve a $15 minimum wage, to be phased in over five years. The vote raised wages for some 800,000 people, and came on the heels of similar decisions in San Francisco and Seattle. Pressure in cities then spread to the state level. In July, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo finally caved to grassroots demands by agreeing to a $15 minimum wage for fast food workers, and in November he extended it to all state employees. Elsewhere in 2015, Rhode Island hiked its minimum wage in June, and in October ballot initiatives for a $15 minimum wage in states across the country were launched. We may wind up looking back at 2015 as the year when the $15 minimum wage went from being an improbable demand to a rapidly spreading reality.

Local activists are also fighting to determine what other baseline standards of employment in the American economy should be. For example, in June, Oregon became the fourth state in the nation to guarantee paid sick leave to people at businesses with 10 or more employees. Then, in August, Pittsburgh passed its own law guaranteeing workers paid time off for illness. It joined Tacoma, Washington; Philadelphia; Bloomfield, New Jersey; and Chicago, as cities that have all established such protections in 2015. Campaigns for paid sick leave laws are currently underway in at least 26 states and 17 cities.

In addition to paid sick leave, communities also began passing job protections for new parents in 2015. In April, Boston began guaranteeing six weeks of paid parental leave to city employees. It was followed by Minneapolis in May, Cincinnati in September, and Portland, Oregon, in December. That same month, King County, Washington, home to Seattle, announced it would be guaranteeing a remarkable 12 weeks of paid parental leave to public workers. Prominent technology companies such as Netflix, Microsoft, and Amazon followed suit, launching voluntary paid parental leave programs for their employees. Facebook now requires that its contractors pay workers at least $15 an hour, giving a significant boost to janitors, security guards, and food service workers who serve company employees.

If there is hope for labor’s revival, it will come from the movements that are striving to defend working people in cities and states throughout the country.

Finally, beyond paid leave and minimum wages, a number of cities have begun to set limits on short-term scheduling, a policy that companies use to force employees to work fewer, shorter, and more flexible shifts — often requiring them to be on-call for time they may not even get paid for. The result for workers is that their lives are increasingly on the hook to the boss, and they are unable to attend to the daily necessities of family and home. To curb this trend, ten states proposed fair scheduling laws in 2015. In San Francisco, the city’s Retail Workers Bill of Rights went into effect in June. And Indianapolis advanced its own version, which requires employers to give schedules two-weeks in advance.

What these small battles have shown us is that changes in federal policy often reflect movements from below. Local fights have been setting the national agenda, with presidential candidates now forced to acknowledge their positions on wages and working conditions. Moreover, in 2015 President Obama issued a raft of executive orders intended to expand workplace protections, such as a paid sick leave law for federal contractors and new regulations that will make overtime accessible to far more workers. Many of these took their cue from gains being passed at the municipal level.

Echoing local demands, President Obama recently remarked, “If you work hard in America, you should be able to take care of those you love, which means having sick leave and parental leave and affordable child care, and predictable schedules that give your family some stability.”

It will be even more important that the labor movement continue to exert pressure from below in 2016 because the Supreme Court is increasingly acting in ways that are making the old models of organizing untenable. In June, the court accepted a case from California that might cripple public sector unions by allowing claimants to receive union benefits without paying their fair share of dues. If the court rules against the unions, labor in the public sector could experience dramatic decline similar to what has been witnessed in Gov. Scott Walker’s Wisconsin.

No doubt, conservatives at the national level present dire challenges to American workers and their unions. But if there is hope for labor’s revival, it will come from the movements that are striving to defend working people in cities and states throughout the country — movements that, in 2015, provided some useful guidance on how to win.

Amy B. Dean is a fellow of the Century Foundation and a principal of ABD Ventures, a consulting firm that works to develop innovative strategies for organizations devoted to social change. She is a co-author, with David Reynolds, of “A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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