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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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NELP researcher and attorney Tsedeye Gebreselassie noted that the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data  listed the nation’s top three occupations as retail salespersons, cashiers and “food preparation and serving workers, including fast food.” “Because these are the jobs that are dominant, in our economy,” she told Salon, “the fact that they are very low-wage jobs” is “setting the standards for how some businesses think they can treat their workers.”

And while politicians from both parties tout training and education as a ladder to opportunity, “higher-skilled” jobs’ labor standards are actually on the same downward trajectory as others’. In a 2012  report, the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that from 1979 to 2010, while the number of U.S. workers with advanced degrees nearly doubled, the percentage of workers whose jobs provide decent wages, health insurance, and retirement benefits declined. That was true for workers with college degrees as well as for those without them. The cause, argued authors John Schmitt and Janelle Jones, wasn’t “workers’ skills,” but rather “the loss of bargaining power” at work.

In other words – like the garment sweatshops of a century ago — what makes McDonald’s or Wal-Mart jobs bad isn’t that employees lack degrees. It’s that they lack leverage. The same problem faces workers doing comparatively glamorous work – from fashion models faced with wage theft, to Apple store specialists  without health insurance.

In recent months, non-union employees in fast food and retail have mounted unprecedented challenges to their bosses’ business model. First, building from a year of store-by-store organizing, Wal-Mart store workers staged their  first-ever coordinated strikes in October and November. Then, a week after Wal-Mart workers’ Black Friday walkout, New York City fast food workers  staged a strike of their own; this month, they did again, with twice as many people. (Wal-Mart is not among the companies where Chicago retail workers will be striking Wednesday, but — as I  reported for the Nation — Wal-Mart workers in a hundred-some stores plan to go in groups Wednesday to confront managers about scheduling issues.)

Maxie-Collins said that changing her industry would also change her community: “I work downtown in a beautiful community, but then I come home to a neighborhood where I can’t even take my kids to the park without worrying about a dangerous situation.” She said poverty is to blame for the crime rate that makes her keep her kids inside, because “everyone’s trying to get over on the next person because of what they don’t have, and what they can’t afford and what they can’t do.” NELP’s Gebreselassie argued that poverty wages are also crippling the recovery: “We cannot build a recovery on very low-wage jobs. We have tried it for the last three years, and the recovery has stalled, because people don’t have enough money to spend.”

At a moment when some major unions have virtually stopped striking, these low-wage, non-union workers have taken up strikes, despite a battery of legal, political and economic changes that have increased their risk while reducing their impact. As I’ve  explained, these recent work stoppages share a set of tactics designed to reduce – but not remove – the risk that strikers lose their jobs.

The strike wave’s spread to Chicago offers a hopeful sign for the New York City fast food campaign. While individual fast food stores are managed by franchisees, national CEOs are the real decision-makers in both fast food and retail. Given the financial cost and, more important, the risk of setting a precedent and emboldening a wider workforce, it’s hard to imagine executives for McDonald’s or Macy’s making any significant concessions to workers in any city unless faced with a bona fide national uprising. For that to happen, the strikes would have to go viral, big-time.

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