A global city fights for 15

Bob Simpson reports from Chicago on a demonstration of low-wage workers mobilized for fair wages, union rights and respect on the job.

I am here to remind America that it is a crime to live in this great nation and to receive starvation wages. At McDonald's $8.25 an hour, what I make is about $400 every two weeks. With that salary, I have to choose between rent and food. Rent and light...But this isn't just about me. This about my grandkids and my great grandkids. If McDonald's has its way, my great grandkids will make $8.25 in the year 2050.
-- McDonald's worker Doug Hunter

Marching through Chicago during a Fight for 15 day of action (Bob Simpson | SW)Marching through Chicago during a Fight for 15 day of action (Bob Simpson | SW)

IT WAS a chilly drizzly, 5:30 a.m. in Chicago as a handful of Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC) activists loaded batteries into bullhorns, sorted out picket signs and made sure the now familiar Fight for 15 red plastic rain ponchos were ready.

WOCC is the organization for the Fight for 15 movement in Chicago. They were preparing for the planned 6 a.m. rally at the Rock 'n' Roll McDonald's, the flagship store in the city.

It was May 15, 2014, the day of a global strike and protest against the McDonald's Corporation for its selectively applied exploitative labor policies. In countries with strong unions and a high level of working-class solidarity, a job at McDonald's means reasonably decent wages and benefits. But not everywhere. And definitely not here in the U.S.

WOCC members are acutely aware of this which is why they say "Fight for $15 AND a union." Victories won can be taken back again without strong worker organization and constant vigilance.

Soon, a sizable number of people were gathering within the small plaza in front of the Rock 'n' Roll McDonald's. Located in the trendy Near North tourist area close to the Hard Rock Cafe, it is an unusually large and architecturally unique McDonald's. Although named after a music born of youthful rebellion, it is run as a tight-fisted dictatorship. One Rock 'n' Roll McDonald's worker said they treat the employees there like "animals."

At first, McDonald's security feigned friendliness and told people they could stay in the small plaza as long as they did not carry signs. Those could only be carried on the public sidewalk in front of the store.

But when a smiling mariachi band tried to play for the growing crowd carrying nothing but their instruments, McDonald's security pushed them and everyone else on to the now-crowded public sidewalk. Fortunately, the overhang over the plaza extended to that narrow public space, giving the strikers, their allies and the media partial protection from a now windblown, cold, heavy rain. Spirits remained high as workers sang and chanted.

Forcing the media to cover themselves and their equipment against the elements was probably not the best way for McDonald's Corporation to get sympathetic coverage. Neither was the disingenuous official statement from their Oak Brook, Ill., headquarters: "The events taking place are not strikes. Outside groups have traveled to McDonald's and other outlets to stage rallies."

Calling their own striking workers part of an "outside group" was both disrespectful and untruthful. But the bad weather and the now unsmiling McDonald's security did not deter McDonald's workers like Adriana Alvarez from speaking out at the early morning press conference:

We're here to show McDonald's and everyone else that we are not going to put up with it anymore. This is global. Not just in the United States. Not just in Chicago. Everywhere. One hundred-plus cities and 30 countries. We're ready. I'm here because I have a 2-year-old son. I want to give the world to my son, but I can't on today's minimum wage, so I need a living wage of $15 an hour.

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I am proud to see A.T. Kearney has recognized the City of Chicago has a top global city of today and tomorrow...With our access to international transportation, central location between the coasts and pool of skilled workforce talent, businesses across the world realize all of the extensive opportunities Chicago has to offer as the city continues to shape the direction of the world in the coming years.
-- Mayor Rahm Emanuel

Chicago is often called a "global city," and as Mayor Rahm Emanuel is fond of saying, a "world class" one at that.

Rahm's vision of Chicago as a global city is a greatly enhanced version of a downtown that already exists--only with more glittering office towers and luxury condos. Where even more expensive cars cruise streets bordered by ornamental shrubs and colorful flowers. Where still more smartly dressed, affluent, mostly white people peruse the fancy shops lining the Magnificent Mile and its side streets. Where armies of business leaders and well-heeled tourists from across the planet will come to marvel at this Emerald City on the Lake.

You can read about this vision in "A Plan for Economic Growth and Jobs," a report commissioned by Mayor Emanuel himself. Buried deep within its 58 pages is this astonishingly frank statement: "While the Plan for Economic Growth and Jobs will contribute to increased opportunity for individuals and more investment for communities, it is not a plan for poverty elimination and community development."

No kidding, Mr. Mayor. Eliminating poverty is not on your agenda. Neither is fair-minded community development. But what else could we expect from a "leader" whose actual constituency consists of high-rolling hedge fund gamblers, gentrifying real estate speculators, shady mortgage lenders and predatory multinational corporations like McDonald's who ply their money-making trades with a cold-blooded intensity that even Ebenezer Scrooge couldn't match.

Poverty wages are just too damned profitable. The skyrocketing wealth inequality which the McDonald's Corporation and the rest of the Chicago elite favors is dependent upon the continued existence of poverty.

The McDonald's workers who went on strike May 15 have a different vision for the global city that Chicago could become, one that is widely shared by other low-wage workers. While aimed specifically at McDonald's, the strike also sends a message to other large corporations as well as the government: It's time for poverty wages to be raised to a living wage.

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THE DEMAND for a living wage is literally a fight for life. Poverty can kill, sometimes swiftly with a hail of bullets in the shadows of lonely street; sometimes slowly as stress and constant worry wears down an immune system, inviting multiple health problems that overwhelm the body and the city's inadequate public health system.

Are you listening Ronald McDonald?

Chicago's chronic and terrifying street violence is largely confined to the city's most impoverished neighborhoods where unemployment, low wages and racism combine into a perfect storm of social distress. Raise wages. Cut the violence.

Are you listening Ronald McDonald?

Poverty can wound the mind as well, which is why the Chicago Teachers Union teamed with the WOCC to help produce a report called "Fight for the Future: How low wages are failing children in Chicago's schools." From the report:

Students living in or experiencing childhood poverty are much more likely to face significant unaddressed obstacles to classroom learning than their middle- and upper-income counterparts, and this impacts educational outcomes. In fact, data shows that family income is now the most significant predictor of academic success among students in the U.S.

Are you listening, Ronald McDonald?

A living wage and the ability to organize a union without fear, as well as fair-minded investment in distressed communities would go along ways toward eliminating the poverty that is the root cause of so many human tragedies in Chicago.

Referring to a recent partial victory for the $15 an hour minimum wage in Seattle, Jamie, a McDonald's worker from Rockford said: "We're coming together with our coworkers, and we're fighting for the right to join a union and $15 an hour...If they can get it in Seattle, we can get it in Chicago."

The workers of Fight for 15 want not only better wages and benefits, but work schedules which are arrived at through honest negotiation, schedules that would enable them to have more time with their families; more time for relaxation; more time for personal goals and interests; more time to improve their neighborhoods; more time to live a rich and fulfilling life.

They want a global city of safe neighborhoods, good schools, clean and well-maintained parks, decent housing, affordable health care, access to nutritious food and all of the social amenities that come with a living wage enforced by a union contract.

They know such things are possible because they see people in more affluent communities having them at their fingertips.

Their vision of a global city comes with a global working class consciousness, an understanding of the power that working class people have if they unite across racial, regional and national boundaries.

You could see the fierce pride in the eyes of McDonald's worker Jessica Davis as she said: "Just months ago we were just a few workers in a couple of cities. They thought we were crazy. Now we're global. We're 100-plus cities and 30 countries. We are showing McDonald's that we are a force and they can't ignore us any more."

This is not the globalization that Rahm and his wealthy friends have in mind.

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ALL DAY long, individuals and groups came to show their support. With rain still falling in the morning, Action Now!, a community organization with branches on the West and South Sides, came clad in their characteristic blue T-shirts. They brought an enormous blue fist, their bullhorns and their chants as they joined Fight for 15 and marched around the block where Rock 'n' Roll McDonald's is located.

There were people from the United Auto Workers, Chicago Teachers Union, United Food and Commercial Workers, International Association of Machinists, Service Employees International Union, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Jane Addams Senior Caucus, Brighton Park Neighbors and Albany Park Neighbors.

Representing one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the city, the Albany Park contingent proudly marched up Clark Street with the flags of nations that were participating in the global strike action. The flags also represented the many nationalities who live in that North Side neighborhood.

There were the usual friendly waves from passerby, the raised fists and the horn honking. Tourists snapped pictures from their tour buses and from the sidewalk. I decided to take a break around midday from note taking and photography and held up a Fight for 15 sign on the corner. A pair of tourists asked to borrow my sign so one could hold it up while the other snapped a picture for their Facebook friends.

By the time the protest ended at 6 p.m., several hundred people had participated. It was a long day, but spirits were even higher when the rally closed and the group briefly occupied the Rock 'n' Roll McDonalds' plaza in a final act of defiance.

No one underestimates the difficulties that lie ahead within the corrupted political economy of Chicago, where the vast fortunes controlled by global corporations compete with the cry of the people demanding a better life.

Chicago needs more working-class people in union meetings, in the streets, and on the picket lines. We also need more volunteers in insurgent electoral campaigns. Independent-minded elected leaders such as Kshama Sawant in Seattle, and Marc Elrich in Montgomery County, Md., have been instrumental in the fight toward gaining a living wage.

We need to exercise both economic and political power.

Jorge Mujica, an independent socialist candidate for city council who was on the picket line with the McDonald's strikers throughout the day, sums it up pretty well:

We live in a working-class city. It is our labor, our skills, our ingenuity, and our pride that built this city and that keep it running every day. Yet most of us are overworked and underpaid. We face a real crisis--not one of resources or possibilities, but of priorities. Until we create our own political voice, working people will remain locked out of political power.

Whose global city? Our global city!

First published at Daily Kos.