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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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The report says:

McDonald’s has increased profits from $4.3 billion in 2008 to $5.5 billion in 2011. TJX, owner of TJ Maxx and Marshall’s, saw profits rise in the same period from $881 million to $1.5 billion. Chipotle profits increased over that period from $78 million to $215 million. Meanwhile, the cost of raising all low wage workers in retail and food service downtown to $15 per hour is $103 million, a very small percentage of the billions going through the cash registers each year.

Chicago is home to 18 billionaires and scores of millionaires, while the percentage of people in poverty has grown each year recently, with almost a quarter of Chicagoans living in poverty in 2011. Child poverty is even worse—36 percent of Chicago children were poor in 2011.

The report notes that 10 percent of Chicagoans are employed in retail and restaurant work, and the jobs tend to be part-time, meaning few or no benefits, little job security and highly erratic schedules. Though workers will likely put in full-time hours at holidays and other peak times, they are usually still not eligible for full-time benefits.

The growth of low wage jobs in Chicago mirrors the national picture since the economic crisis and the “economic recovery” that began in 2009.  Nationwide, the report says, low wage jobs represented 21 percent of jobs lost during crisis, but 58 percent of jobs created during the recovery. That means an overall shift to low-wage from solid middle-class work. In Chicago, the proportion of low wage jobs has increased significantly since 2001, a jump from 23.8 percent to 31.2 percent of the total workforce.

The study debunks the idea that low-wage restaurant and retail workers are largely teens and young people who will soon transition out of those jobs. More than half of the city’s low-wage workers are older than 30, the report notes, and in general the workers are older and better educated than in the past. Also a majority of low-wage workers in Chicago are the sole providers for their family—57 percent, compared to 46 percent a decade ago. With the state minimum wage at $8.25 an hour, it’s a chilling statistic.

Under the  Self-Sufficiency Standard, a financial model widely used since its development in the 1990s, a single parent raising a single child would need to earn at least $17.24 in a full-time job to survive without government assistance. The report notes: “When the actual cost of living is not covered by wages paid, the employer is effectively shifting the actual cost of their products and services to the employee and to the public.”

Low-wage workers get stuck in a cycle where they struggle just to make ends meet and lack the resources to pursue training or education or move to another location in search of better opportunities. And since poverty is inextricably linked with higher rates of neighborhood violence, health risks and other debilitating and costly problems, these low-wage workers and the general public pay many hidden costs, including the taxpayer bills for police protection and public health care.

After the report’s release at a church in downtown Chicago, Parisian told Working In These Times she is hopeful that growing awareness of inequities will spur change in Chicago and beyond.

“We’re seeing more and more people comfortable identifying on a class basis and talking about these issues, more and more people are saying ‘I’m a member of the 99 percent,’” she said. “It’s amazing just in the past year-and-a-half to see what’s happened. There’s been a climate change in the city where groups feel much more able to protest, to do visible actions. We have some huge obstacles in the corporate power we face, but we’re also at the point where inequality has gotten so high, people are fed up. It’s either organize and speak out or see everything fall apart.”

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