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Chicago Fast-Food Workers Begin Fight for $15 an Hour

And a chance to live with some human dignity.
 
 
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CHICAGO—The workers at  Chipotle Mexican Grill on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile quickly and efficiently turn out “gourmet” burritos and tacos with organic and local ingredients for scores of shoppers, tourists and businesspeople strolling this famously tony stretch of Michigan Avenue just north of the Chicago River. The popular chain prides itself on offering “food with integrity” and cultivates a hip, sustainable image.

But a  report released December 4 by the groups Action Now and  Standup Chicago! notes that the two co-CEOs of Chipotle, Steve Ells and Monty Moran, earned a combined $38.9 million in 2011 while Chipotle workers are almost all part-time employees who earn around $9 an hour. This, the report says, means the CEOs roughly earn in an hour what a Chicago Chipotle worker earns in a year.

Such a differential is not unique to Chipotle; it characterizes nearly all the 50-plus publicly traded retail and restaurant outlets in downtown Chicago that the report analyzes. Urban Outfitters CEO Glenn Senk, for example, made $28.9 million total in 2010; and retired McDonald’s CEO James Skinner received a $21 million departure package.

The report pegged average compensation packages for CEOs of the downtown Chicago outlets at $8.3 million in 2011, while the median wage for retail and restaurant workers at these businesses was $9 an hour. This means that the CEOs are earning about $4,000 an hour for a 40-hour week—more than 400 times what their typical employees earn.

The groups recommend raising the hourly wage for retail and restaurant workers in downtown Chicago to at least $15 an hour across the board. They say this would actually create 4,000 new jobs since various studies indicate the extra income earned by such low-wage workers would be reinvested in the local economy, spurring about $179 million annually in new economic activity.

The Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago, a relatively new alliance of retail and restaurant workers from more than 100 employers, has likewise launched a campaign called “ Fight for 15” demanding downtown businesses pay at least $15 an hour for retail and restaurant jobs. Members marched amidst crowds of shoppers in downtown Chicago on  Black Friday, and joined nationwide actions against Walmart.

While the report does not call for a specific mandate or government action, Standup Chicago! policy analyst and research coordinator Elizabeth Parisian told Working In These Times that a city ordinance or other governmental action is “a role that’s always there for the city council or city administration.” The report also calls for businesses to respect workers’ right to unionize, which would likely lead to wage and benefit gains.

While companies often argue that paying higher wages would make them uncompetitive and ultimately mean closures or layoffs, Parisian said the evidence indicates this is not the case, especially in thriving downtown Chicago. “Even if employers were to pass on the entirety of this cost to the consumer, it would only raise prices by 2.6%, a negligible amount that is unlikely to affect consumer spending patterns in any significant way,” the report says.

If Chicago were a country, the report says, its GDP would rank above Belgium, Switzerland and Poland. Restaurants and retail are among the most lucrative sectors in Chicago’s economy, accounting for $14.2 billion in 2011, with $4 billion of that coming from the downtown area that includes the Magnificent Mile.

The businesses studied for the report include relatively upscale clothing stores like The Gap, Bebe, Abercrombie & Fitch and Nordstrom; fast food or cafe chains including Burger King, Panera, Caribou Coffee and Wendy’s; and office, electronics or other retailers including Radio Shack, Staples and Target. The report singles out Macy’s department store, McDonald’s, Chipotle Mexican Grill and TJX Companies as downtown Chicago chains with ample profits and cash on hand, that employ thousands of low-wage workers.

 
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