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Chicago's Fast Food and Other Low Wage Workers Stage One-Day Walk Out

The "Fight for 15" (dollars per hour, a.k.a., a living wage) hits the windy city.
 
 
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Demanding a hefty raise and a fair chance to form a union, workers in Chicago’s growing fast food and retail sectors are to walking off the job this morning. The one-day walkout began at 5:30 a.m. Central Time, and organizers expect 500 workers from a dozen chains to participate. The work stoppage follows similar strikes by New York City  fast food workers and by  Wal-Mart retail employees across the country, and marks the latest escalation in the struggle between an embattled labor movement and two industries that increasingly dominate and define the new economy.

“At the end of the day,” Macy’s employee Krystal Maxie-Collins told Salon, “it feels like I’ve done all of this to help everyone else, to help the store, help the managers, help the customers, but it doesn’t feel like anyone is looking out for me.” Maxie-Collins, a mother of four who works part-time for the state minimum wage of $8.25 plus a commission, said she had initially been hesitant about the strike because of the risk of retaliation. But “what we are fighting for, the reason for doing it, kind of overrode the fear of doing it.” “Usually the things that are worth it,” she added, “you have to sacrifice for.”

Katelyn Johnson, the executive director of the community organizing group Action Now, said she expects a strike that “really shakes up business as usual for downtown.” Organizers expect the strikers to include employees of McDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts, Subway, Sears, Macy’s and Victoria’s Secret. The Chicago strike is spearheaded by Fight for 15, a campaign backed by organizations including Action Now and the Service Employees International Union. SEIU also provides funding for the New York City group Fast Food Forward, which brought 400 fast food workers out on strike three weeks ago. Both Fast Food Forward and Fight for 15 are collaborations between unions and community organizing groups.

A Macy’s official declined a request for comment on the Fight for 15 campaign Tuesday morning. A McDonald’s spokesperson referred Salon to a previous statement saying, “We value and respect all the employees who work at McDonald’s restaurants” and touting “competitive wages,” “flexible schedules and quality, affordable benefits,” and “professional development opportunities” for employees.

Johnson said that Action Now took a leadership role in organizing fast food workers after discovering on door-to-door canvasses about fare hikes that “people were more concerned with their jobs,” and that once fast food workers started holding meetings, “retail workers heard about it and wanted to join the effort.” Like their New York counterparts, the Chicago workers are demanding raises to $15 an hour, and the chance to form a union without intimidation.

That’s a very heavy lift, and the campaign faces what may be impossibly long odds. But the stakes are high, because the future of fast food and retail jobs has far-reaching implications for the U.S. economy. Both industries are among the highest-grossing, fastest-growing and lowest-paying in Chicago, and in the United States. Retail is largely non-union; fast food is almost entirely so. Whether or not these long-squeezed workers can force their bosses to concede some money, and some measure of democracy, will help shape the future of work in the United States.

That’s especially true now. Drawing on federal statistics, the National Employment Law Project last year  found that lower-wage occupations made up just 21 percent of the jobs lost in the Great Recession, but 58 percent of the job growth in the recovery; the same study found that food service, retail and employment services together represented 43 percent of employment growth in the previous two years. U.S. employment increasingly looks more like fast food and retail: service sector work heavy on  emotional labor – the constant requirement to perform a certain personality for customers – and light on job security, benefits or predictable scheduling.

 
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