Low-wage America is marching for justice

Trish Kahle reports on a day of walkouts and protests aimed at low-wage businesses in the city's downtown--the latest in a series of similar actions around the country.

Low-wage retail and fast food workers on the march in Chicago during a day of walkouts and protests (Bob Simpson)Low-wage retail and fast food workers on the march in Chicago during a day of walkouts and protests (Bob Simpson)

HUNDREDS OF low-wage fast-food and retail workers walked off the job and into the Chicago streets on April 24, only two weeks after fast-food workers in New York City held another similar walkout and amid an ongoing national campaign against the retail giant Wal-Mart.

In Chicago, workers at more than 40 workplaces, including McDonald's, Subway, Macy's, Sally Beauty Supply, Victoria's Secret and Whole Foods Market, organized rolling strikes that swept across the city from 5:30 a.m. until 10 p.m. This was the latest workplace action called by the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC)--also known as Fight for 15 (its central demand is that Chicago's minimum wage be raised to $15 an hour).

The organization of fast-food and retail workers took its campaign public last November with a series of banner drops and sit-ins aimed at upscale retailers in the Loop and Magnificent Mile.

The April 24 day of strikes and protests focused again on the demand for a $15 an hour minimum wage, but there were also calls for an end to discrimination and intimidation against workers for organizing.

Raising the minimum wage would almost double the income of many fast-food and retail workers in Chicago, where the current minimum is only $8.25. The Living Wage Calculator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology website estimates that a wage of about $20 an hour is needed for Chicago's working families to meet their needs.

Workers struck on April 24 at great personal risk because the minimum wage in Chicago is a poverty wage. "We can't survive on $8.25!" workers chanted as they marched from store to store in the Loop, where an estimated $4 billion passes through the cash registers annually.

Esly Hernandez, who works at a Dunkin Donuts just north of the Loop, has a 4-year-old son with special dietary needs. "If he doesn't eat the right foods, his health declines," Hernandez said. "$8.25 barely pays my bills. I live paycheck to paycheck. I have to choose between lights and food. And my kid needs to drink Pediasure, and it's too expensive.

Even workers with slightly higher wages, like the workers who walked out at Whole Foods, where base pay is $10 an hour, struggle to get by. Many of these workers are younger and childless, but they are being crushed by massive student debt. During the march through downtown, Whole Foods workers chanted: "$10 an hour? No way! Our student loans don't go away." One worker put it this way: "I have $15,000 in student debt. How can I ever pay that off? I can't even pay my bills making $10.50 an hour."

Meanwhile, Esly, the Dunkin Donuts worker, wants to go back to school to study political science or human rights, but fear of crippling debt and exclusion from welfare programs like SNAP prevents him from pursuing a bachelor's degree--something the children of CEOs of fast-food and retail businesses will never have to worry about.

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WORKERS SPOKE passionately about the harsh exploitation at all the worksites where walkouts occurred. One Forever 21 worker put it this way: "They're bringing in $110,000 a day at this store. They can afford to pay us more. I will not accept a dollar raise. We demand $15 an hour."

One of the most common excuses for the low-wage nature of retail work is that these are "unskilled" jobs. Tanesha Manuel, who works at Nike, begged to differ. "They say we're unskilled, but we aren't," Manuel said. "We're doing jobs that aren't even on our job description every day. We're multi-tasking all day, making sure customers get the Nike experience."

Whole Foods workers from the Lincoln Park location, which was recently named the best store in the company, asked why if they were among the best grocery workers in the country, they were still treated like machine parts to be swapped out at random and paid poverty wages.

Chris Thomas, another Nike employee from the Nike Town location in the so-called Magnificent Mile--a long strip lined with luxury retailers that pay their employees poverty wages--took a step back to understand why there are so many low-wage jobs today.

"When I started back in '08," he recalled, speaking to the crowd at the protest, 
"I started at $10.15, and after three years, I made $11.17 an hour." The crowd booed--but that wasn't the worst part of the story.

"We were told we were doing great as a company, and as employees," Thomas said. "But on April 20 of last year, they laid us off. I was one of the lucky few to be rehired [to work in the renovated location]. I wasn't feeling so lucky when this $50 million a year profitable company told me they'd rehire me, but for less than I'd ever made before. A trend in America is that wages don't rise with productivity. Nike is an example of this."

Workers at Nordstrom Rack had a similar story. They received a $1 an hour raise, but management decided to take it away. Now, the workers--who are almost all women--are being forced to fight for something that was already given to them.

Esly Hernandez pointed out that while there might have been an increase in low-wage work, it's certainly nothing new, and that people who occupy these jobs that cut off economic opportunity tend to be those people who are the most oppressed and marginalized politically, and socially as well. As Hernandez said:

When I first arrived from Mexico, my mother worked double time. She worked so much to support me and my brother that I grew up without her. She had to work that hard just so I could go to school. Now I have a 4 year old. I want to fight for $15 so I can make sure he doesn't have to go through the same problems I did.

Another critical issue for WOCC workers is safety on the job. Silvia Garduno, who works at a Sally Beauty Supply location in the Loop, said the company disregards employee safety altogether. "We don't have a good safety camera," Garduno said. "It doesn't even record! We don't even have a security guard, even when it's just me in the store."

Whole Foods workers pointed out a racist policy that forbids speaking Spanish in front of English-speaking customers as an issue of workplace safety.

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THE STRIKE was an important training ground for a new generation of labor militants, as Whole Foods cashier Matthew Camp said. "We have to relearn the lessons of what it takes to wrangle concessions from the bosses," Camp said.

Silvia Garduno, a leader in the Sally's walkout, which completely shut down the store for the day, said initially that she had been unsure about joining WOCC, but was convinced by one of her co-workers Myra. "I never thought I would do something like this," Garduno said. "I've just had enough. At first, I was iffy, but if you think about what we put up with every day...we need to keep putting our foot down, keep demanding what we deserve."

Rudy, another worker from Nike Town, said the key was solidarity: "We all need to support each other. That's the only way we're going to win."

Solidarity fairly buzzed in Chicago's air during the day of protests.

McDonald's workers at Union Station, the first to walk off at 5:30 a.m., led a march to a nearby Subway, chanting, "On strike, can't keep us down. Chicago is a union town!" When they reached the Subway, the entire staff walked out--they were greeted with thunderous cheers and hugs.

Fast-food workers stayed out on the picket line with Whole Foods workers past 10 p.m., even though they had to be at work by five the next morning. The Whole Foods workers, who didn't start their demonstration until 8 p.m., were marching with fast-food employees starting at 5:30 a.m., uniting around the battle cry, "An injury to one is an injury to all."

The demonstration got another boost at noon, as workers rallied in front of Victoria's Secret on Michigan Avenue. Hundreds of Chicago Public Schools students who had walked out of classes to protest school closings and standardized testing marched to meet the workers. Students filled the crowd with energy and enthusiasm, saying they would fight for $15, too.

Other unions were present at the demonstration as well. Service Employees International Union members flooded the afternoon protest that shut down the "Rock-and-Roll McDonald's" off the Magnificent Mile--the busiest McDonald's location in the world. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and Graduate Students United (GSU) at the University of Chicago sent members.

Andrew Yale, a graduate employee and GSU organizer, connected the struggles of retail workers with what graduate employees face. The two groups, Yale said, are fighting for the same things: "a living wage, benefits and a workplace where they don't have to fear injury, unpredictable hours and getting fired for taking collective action." He continued, "The militant action these workers are taking reflects the courage it's going to take to rebuild the labor movement. They're right at the forefront with the teachers."

As workers regrouped after the picket at the Rock-and-Roll McDonald's, word came that parents and students were occupying Dewey Elementary against Chicago Public School's racist school closing crusade. The crowd cheered and began chanting, "Education is a right, not just for the rich and white."

CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey was on hand to help escort workers back to their jobs the next morning. The CTU and WOCC have linked their struggles, understanding that the same communities are disproportionately affected by Chicago's apartheid education system and the perils of low-wage work and poverty.

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EVEN AFTER an incredibly long day, WOCC workers felt empowered and excited about continuing to organize. Silvia Garduno explained what it was going to be like to return to work the next day: "They're going to be mad. Yell at us like they normally do, but I'm going to keep on fighting. I have more confidence in myself now, more of a voice for myself than I ever have before."

In fact, according to organizers, there were no reports of anyone who participated in the day of protest being disciplined or fired when they returned to work.

Esly Hernandez looked ahead to the future: "This has to go national, move to all the big cities. People are struggling. Fighting is the only way we'll win."

The struggle of low-wage workers is spreading. Krystal Collins, who works at Macy's, said she was inspired by the New York strikers. "After seeing those workers in New York say they weren't going to take it anymore, we were inspired to go on strike," Collins said. "Right here in Chicago."

Even a mainstream media outlet like NBC News was forced to admit: "Wednesday's strike in Chicago is remarkable because it shows just how contagious this kind of labor unrest has become."

The strikes have spread geographically, and workers are taking inspiration from each other's actions. "The tactics that have given Wal-Mart such a headache are spreading to other big department store brands," wrote Ned Resnikoff.

The strikers enjoy strong public support. An informal MSNBC poll showed that more than 70 percent of visitors to its website supported the low-wage workers and their demands. Throughout the day, shoppers on the Magnificent Mile gave strikers thumbs-up, as managers scrambled to cope with the walkoffs.

Speaking to a crowd of hundreds in front of his workplace, Esly Hernandez summed up the attitude of the day, "I'm fighting for $15 because if you don't fight for what you deserve, who's going to do it? I'm fighting for what's right!"