Leaders of the labor-financed “Fight for $15” campaign say they have improved the lives of millions of workers at the bottom of the nation’s pay scale, helping to raise the minimum wage in California, New York State and a host of cities.
Now, four years into their crusade, the movement’s leaders are signaling a determination to expand their reach beyond the urban working poor, who were among the chief beneficiaries of their earlier efforts. Among their new targets: working-class Americans frustrated by an economy that is no longer producing the middle-class jobs they or their parents once held.
Many of these workers voted for Donald J. Trump.
“A whole bunch of us out there are not doing well,” Scott Courtney, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union and one of the chief architects of the Fight for $15 campaign, said in an interview last week.
“In red states, blue states; black, brown, white — people are hurting,” he said. “Sixty-four million of them don’t make $15 per hour.”
As part of the push, thousands of workers turned out in dozens of cities on Tuesday to demand a $15 wage, better working conditions and the right to unionize. Thousands of airport workers, including baggage handlers, cabin cleaners and wheelchair attendants, loomed at the center of the protests, demonstrating and even walking off the job at some of the nation’s busiest airports, like O’Hare International in Chicago.
Leaders of the Fight for $15 highlighted the symbolic importance of the airport workers, whose jobs decades ago paid a living wage. More recently, the jobs have become a source of financial hardship as outsourcing to nonunion contractors has taken its toll — a dynamic arguably central to Mr. Trump’s election.
In other cases, blue-collar workers have lost high-paying union jobs at factories and replaced them with lower-paying jobs at nonunion factories or e-commerce fulfillment centers.
“We’re shining a light on a part of the economy that used to be living-wage work,” said Mary Kay Henry, the president of the Service Employees International Union, which has spent tens of millions of dollars on the Fight for $15 campaign. “They’re joining with fast-food workers, child care, home care, which have never been living wage work.”
Organizers said that in addition to extending the movement to a different profile of job, they believed the Fight for $15 campaign had to become more disruptive to achieve a new round of victories. The campaign had already planned Tuesday’s protests before the election, but leaders say the imperative for sowing chaos became all the more urgent after Mr. Trump’s victory.
For example, the idea of workers striking at airports, as opposed to just protesting there, came about after the election.
“When Trump is able to spin an entire news cycle about ‘Hamilton’ instead of other issues that matter to working folks, it’s that much harder for us to bring attention to the everyday struggles of families trying to put food on the table,” said Jonathan Westin, director of New York Communities for Change, a grass-roots organizing group that helped start the current campaign.
In Chicago, hundreds of demonstrators representing labor unions, churches and community groups converged at O’Hare. Stretched along the walkway between Terminals 2 and 3, the protesters chanted, sang, beat drums and blasted trumpets.
In Los Angeles, several thousand workers turned up to protest around noon on a major airport access street, including Ashley Adams, 25, who had been arrested earlier at a rally outside McDonald’s on accusations of stopping traffic and disturbing the peace. “We really need to fight for this,” said Ms. Adams, who takes orders at a pizza restaurant and makes a bit more than $8 an hour. “I want to see my baby grow up being able to afford basic things and survive.”
Elsewhere across the country, protesters, including Uber drivers, cooks, cashiers and hospital workers, thronged at fast-food restaurants and public spaces. In Lower Manhattan, workers marched on Broadway starting at Zuccotti Park, where Occupy Wall Street protesters camped in 2011. Three City Council members — Mark Levine, Antonio Reynoso and Brad Lander — were among the protesters arrested at a sit-in, along with Francisco Moya, a state Assembly member.
Protests outside a McDonald’s restaurant in Detroit led to 40 arrests, according to WDIV, a local TV station. Local media outlets also reported dozens of arrests in Cambridge, Mass.
There is no question that the incoming Trump administration presents obstacles to the Fight for $15 movement. In recent years, the Service Workers and other unions helped change labor law doctrine as it relates to employers like contractors or franchisees that have a relationship with larger, more profitable companies.
Thanks to a 2015 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board, employees of a contractor or franchisee who form a union are more likely to be entitled to bargain with these larger parent companies — a critical development since the parent companies have been known to cut ties with contractors or franchisees whose workers form a union.
Under Mr. Trump and his future appointees to the labor board, this so-called joint employer doctrine is almost certain to be undone, making organizing fast-food workers through traditional means nearly impossible.
In other ways, however, the Fight for $15 movement is very much built for the Trump era, having never relied excessively on the Washington power structure to sustain itself.
Many of the movement’s successes came in cities and states, where its pressure helped enact new minimum wage laws, and with individual employers whom the movement helped persuade to lift wages voluntarily.
Allstate, the insurer, recently announced it would raise its entry-level wage for all corporate employees in the United States to at least $15 per hour. Facebook, which had some contract workers who made less than $15 per hour, lifted them over that rate. Service sector giants like McDonald’s and Walmart have increased their lowest wages by modest amounts in the last two years.
“If a messiah was going to save us, that person is in the White House right now,” Mr. Courtney said.
“By himself or herself, no president can make this happen.”
Some labor experts say that an essential insight of the Fight for $15 campaign was to turn the conventional labor model on its head in many respects. Rather than first organizing workers into a traditional union and then bargaining for wages and benefits, the campaign has effectively bargained for wages first — through protests and public relations offensives aimed at voters, politicians, and corporations — and hopes to build new worker organizations in after these successes.
Janice Fine, an associate professor of labor studies at Rutgers University, said one possible animating principle for the organizations that emerge from the Fight for $15 could be enforcement of minimum wage laws, and other laws affecting paid leave and scheduling, once they are enacted.
None of these innovations — whether the uniquely public form of bargaining or the creation of worker organizations focused on enforcement — require the assent of officials in Washington or the blessing of federal labor law.
Not all of the recent gains for workers are the doing of the Fight for $15 and other advocacy efforts, of course. Some of the changes, particularly in the private sector, simply reflect employers’ need to raise wages to fill jobs in a tightening labor market.
Critics argue that while the Fight for $15 has engineered significant wage increases for many workers, the movement will be harder pressed to notch victories in the future.
“They used low-hanging fruit to create a sense of momentum, but it was always limited” to certain states and jurisdictions, said Michael Saltsman of the business-backed Employment Policies Institute.
Mr. Saltsman said he expected a backlash to the recent minimum wage increases as “the bill starts to come due for the policies over the next year,” by which he meant the possibility of layoffs and the outright failure of businesses as wage increases take effect.
Other critics have pointed out that whatever the gains for workers, the tens of millions of dollars the Service Employees have poured into the campaign has netted the union little in the way of new members (although existing members have been beneficiaries of the recent wage increases).
But Ruth Milkman, a sociologist who studies labor at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, rejected that analysis. She said unions simply had a different calculus than corporations, which are more focused on the bottom line, and called the Fight for $15 campaign “the single most important initiative on the labor front in the last few years.”
Referring to the tens of millions of dollars that the union spent on the recent presidential election, Ms. Milkman added, “I suppose they could have given more to Hillary Clinton, but that might have been a worse investment.”
Ryan Schuessler, James Arthur Holt and Daniel Victor contributed reporting.
A version of this article appears in print on November 30, 2016, on page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: Fight for $15 Shifts Focus.