Fighting for 15 and dignity

March 18, 2014

Bob Simpson reports on how Fight for 15 activists in Chicago celebrated International Women's Day--by demonstrating for the rights of low-wage workers.

"Unlike nations which have rational labor policies like sick leave, paid parental leave, affordable child care, vacation time, generous retirement and which protect the right to organize a union, the USA has chosen the opposite course. This has led to some of the worst inequality in the developed world, which because of our rampant gender and racial discrimination, falls heaviest on women, particularly women of color."

INTERNATIONAL WOMEN'S Day (IWD), March 8, was originally inspired by the historic 1909 "Uprising of the 20,000," a garment workers strike of women in New York City, many of them immigrants. They demanded better pay, better working conditions and the right to join a union.

So it made sense that the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC), which leads the Fight for 15 campaign in the city, should celebrate International Women's Day by standing up for the rights of women workers in 2014.

A Chicago McDonald's worker named Carmen Navarrette had been told that she "should put a bullet through her head," because she had requested permission to go home after becoming very ill at work. She is a diabetic and had just been released from the hospital.

Chicago McDonalds workers demand respect for female employees
Chicago McDonalds workers demand respect for female employees (Bob Simpson | SW)

As a result, dozens of WOCC members and supporters marched into a North Side McDonald's on International Women's Day to demand an end to this kind of discrimination and verbal abuse.

On the morning of March 8, a smaller group of WOCC members and allies picketed a North Side Chicago Whole Foods and demanded the reinstatement of Rhiannon Brochat. She was fired after she stayed home with her special needs child when Chicago schools were closed on the worst day of the Polar Vortex.

McDonald's and Whole Foods may seem like very different companies, but their attitude toward women workers is remarkably similar.

THE ACTION at McDonald's on March 8 was scheduled to begin around 2 p.m. at the Rock N' Roll McDonald's, the trendy flagship store located in the touristy part of town, near the Rainforest Cafe and the Hard Rock Cafe. I got there a bit early to take some pictures.

After ordering a cup of coffee inside the McDonald's, I talked with the women from the Jane Addams Senior Caucus, well-known for their militant civil disobedience tactics. They were waiting for the WOCC protest to begin so they could join in.

I stepped outside with my coffee and within minutes a yellow school bus pulled up and I could hear the voices inside singing, "Ole!...Ole!...Ole! Ole! Ole!...Sí se puede!" The bus emptied out as adults and their children joined other WOCC members on the sidewalk for a short rally.

WOCC members were proud to participate in International Women's Day. Rock N' Roll McDonald's worker Carmen Navarrette said in Spanish, "Women are the heart and soul of McDonald's and in honor of International Women's Day, I'm asking you to stop the verbal abuse."

The WOCC women led a march into the McDonald's to confront Francisco Quintana, the manager who had hurled the ugly words about how Carmen Navarrette should go home and kill herself. Armed with human voices, a guitar and a couple of bullhorns, WOCC gave McDonald's quite an earful.

A WOCC member invited Francisco Quintana to come out and face them, pointing out that he too had a mother and saying, "Respect us, please." He decided to display his cowardice instead, and hid out in the back of the kitchen. That began a series of loud chants, "Francisco, come out! We've got some stuff to talk about!" Several of the McDonald's workers behind the counter were smiling broadly as they watched the whole scene play out.

The daughter of a McDonald's worker talked about how her mom comes home crying because "the manager would scream at her and yell mean things. And right now she is pregnant and he makes her carry more than she is supposed to and that's not good for her. But he says he doesn't care."

WOCC was accompanied into the McDonald's by several local politicians including City Council member Bob Fioretti, often mentioned as a possible mayoral candidate against Rahm Emanuel. He helped liaison with the police while we were inside.

When it became clear that Francisco Quintana had no intention of facing his accusers, we were asked to leave by the police and exited chanting "We'll be back! We'll be back!" At another short rally outside, a WOCC spokeswoman delivered a mic-check:

Francisco, we demand an end to the abuse. An end to discrimination. We want to work to advance our families. So they can have a better future. We demand respect. For all our co-workers. And it's our right to organize. Legal status does not matter. When you are united you are protected. You have the power. You have a voice. We want to work. To provide for our families. To have a better future. We deserve and demand respect!

WOCC ended the event by singing "We Shall Overcome" in both English and Spanish.

THAT MORNING of March 8, at the North Side Whole Foods where Rhiannon Brochat once worked, the sidewalks were dangerous and slippery from accumulated ice and slush. Picketers organized by WOCC held up signs and passed out leaflets to Whole Foods customers and passersby. I arrived late because of CTA problems but was soon holding a sign.

Rhiannon Brochat believed that staying home with her child when Chicago schools were closed on January 28 gave her no choice, as she had no child care available. According to Brochat, Whole Foods had just revised their attendance policy to include "inclement weather," but somehow that did not include the Polar Vortex, when temps plunged dangerously below zero.

Matt Camp, a WOCC leader at Whole Foods, had this to say in a statement soon after the firing: "Whole Foods is a company that says it's fighting poverty worldwide. Whole Foods is also a company that says it stands by women as primary caregivers. How can you stand by women and take my coworker and kick her out in the cold?"

Our protest in support of Rhiannon Brochat was only one of 17 rallies planned around the nation coinciding with International Women's Day. The feminist group Ultraviolet has taken up Rhiannon's cause and organized a petition drive that has netted 70,000 signatures.

Led by the ever-energetic WOCC member Brit Schulte, picketers chanted and sang in front of the store for over an hour. With the help of smart phones, which provided all the lyrics, the group sang the traditional verses of Solidarity Forever, plus a special additional verse celebrating working women.

WOCC finished its morning demonstration with a short speech from Brit Schulte about the origins of International Women's Day and their relevance today. Schulte reminded us that International Women's Day is also called "International Working Women's Day" (IWWD) a more accurate name considering its origins.

Last year, Whole Foods had a storewide celebration of International Women's Day, carefully avoiding the IWWD version of the name by making sure "Working" was not in its signage. The celebration consisted of a nail polish swap and spa day with signs "inviting women to treat themselves."

Schulte criticized this by saying, "Are we going to let our working peoples holiday get painted over by the Whole Foods consumerist and gender-normative bullshit. or are we going to celebrate International Working Women's Day by standing with working women and working mothers like Rhiannon who are struggling for respect and fair treatment on the job?" Schulte than demanded that Rhiannon Brochat be reinstated immediately with full back pay.

The abuse that Corporate America threw at Carmen Navarrette and Rhiannon Brochat is typical. Too many companies view women workers as a form of cheap disposable labor, much like the sweatshop owners who provoked the Uprising of the 20,000 over 100 years ago.

Unlike nations which have rational labor policies like sick leave, paid parental leave, affordable child care, vacation time, generous retirement and which protect the right to organize a union, the USA had chosen the opposite course. This has led to some of the worst inequality in the developed world, which because of our rampant gender and racial discrimination, falls heaviest on women, particularly women of color.

On top of all of that economic burden comes the stress of cruel verbal abuse and the threat of arbitrary discipline without fair hearing.

The women of the Fight for 15 campaign want a world where a decent standard of living and respect for all is the norm. Is that too much to ask?

First published at the Daily Kos.

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