The following was written by Keith Kelleher, president of SEIU* Healthcare Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Kansas.
Breakfasts with my friend, progressive icon Jon Kest, were always lively. We'd talk about organizing, progressive politics and life. But when we met at a Brooklyn diner three years ago, even I couldn't believe what he wanted to discuss this time: an audacious plan to win raises and union rights for 200,000 fast food workers in New York, and help spark a movement calling for $15 an hour for hundreds of thousands of home care, child care, airport and other underpaid workers across the United States.
If you don't know Jon, he was one of New York's - and the nation's - premier community, political and labor organizers until his life was tragically cut short by liver cancer in December, 2012.
We didn't know about his diagnosis that morning. But we did know that we were on the ground floor of a potentially transformative movement. Jon and his staff at the New York Communities for Change (NYCC) in New York, and Madeline Talbott and her staff at Action Now in Chicago, working with SEIU, had been experimenting with organizing underpaid fast food workers in New York and Chicago.
I was somewhat disbelieving when Jon unveiled the idea of helping fast food workers in New York organize and take action on a grand scale to help win historic raises. I organized fast food workers in Detroit in the 1980s. The work was hard and victories were few and far between. Although Jon and I worked in different regions, our experiences were similar: the hard working men and women in those jobs were excited and highly motivated by the idea of forming a union to win better wages that would support their families.
Still, the odds seemed long.