Cheryl is one of the many Chicago fast food and retail workers that are taking a stand for livable wages and improved quality of life. Cheryl hopes to attend graduate school, but struggles with the burden of student loans and a low wage income.
Hundreds of fast food and retail workers went on strike in Chicago Wednesday morning in a labor action consciously modeled on New York City’s fast food workers campaign and the nationwide Walmart strike which occurred last Thanksgiving. The Chicago strikers -- who include workers from McDonald’s, Subway, Macy’s, Sears, and Victoria’s Secret -- are demanding a wage floor of $15 an hour and the right to form a union.
Retail and food service jobs are typically thought of as entry-level positions, populated by teenagers looking for some extra spending money before moving on. But a recent National Employment Law Project study found that since the 2008 economic crash, the majority of jobs lost have been middle wage jobs (between $13.84 and $21.13), while the bulk of jobs under the “recovery” has been jobs between $7.69 and $13.83. It’s what has been called a “McJobs Recovery,” in which low-wage jobs are increasingly the only jobs available—for teenagers, young adults, middle-aged workers, everyone.
Indeed, at a meeting downtown two weeks before the strike, workers of a wide variety of ages and other demographic profiles gathered. One of three such meetings held to discuss whether or not to strike, nearly 100 workers squeezed into a sweltering room, listening to middle-aged Ecuadorian immigrants telling their stories of working at McDonald’s in Spanish, followed by the kind of white twenty-something cashiers who would likely take umbrage at being pegged as hipsters. An African-American man approaching what’s typically thought of as retirement age told of decades working in fast food and hovering near minimum wage, while a young Urban Outfitters worker said a raise would “make the difference between living and surviving.”
When explaining what a raise to $15 per hour would mean to her, Trish Kahle, a Whole Foods worker, stated simply, “I could have heat all winter.”
While recent efforts to organize low-wage and retail workers seem new, they have historical precedent in the U.S. Vanessa Tait, author of Poor Workers Unions, a history of organizing efforts in low-wage jobs, says previous efforts, like the famous 1937 sit-down strike by women workers at Woolworth’s or lesser-known efforts to organize fast food restaurants in Detroit in the 1980s, were done on a smaller shop-by-shop level—unlike the strikes in Chicago and New York, whose scope involves hundreds of stores and restaurants. “Being able to organize on a unified industrial and geographical level with broad public support makes a big difference: it creates a sense of movement and a greater possibility of victory.”
Standing with a group of protestors in front of the Nordstrom Rack on State Street Wednesday morning, Charde Nabors, 21, said she's fighting for better pay and more opportunities for workers like her.
Nabors works at Sears for $9 an hour to support her two children, ages 2 and 5 months. Nabors says she only works about 20 hours a week, though she has asked for a full-time position.
She has to supplement her income with food stamps, but she's struggling to pay $650 a month for the apartment she moved into after staying with family and living in a hotel.
Nabors is among the hundreds of fast food and retail workers in Chicago that community organizers expect to walk off the job Wednesday in a campaign to push for higher wages.
The Fight for $15 campaign, named for its goal of securing $15 an hour for workers, said it expects McDonald's, Subway, Dunkin' Donuts, Macy's, Sears and Victoria's Secret store in the Loop and Magnificent Mile to be affected.
Many of these targeted, short-term walkout protests have been organized by non-union “alt-labor” groups such as OUR Walmart and the community organizing group New York Communities for Change, which is organizing New York City fast food workers. As noted by The Nation, "the successful example of New York—where only one striking worker was told they were fired, only to be allowed to return after community leaders and other supporters accompanied her back and demanded her reinstatement—seems to have emboldened many of Chicago’s low-wage strikers."
Thursday’s strike is unlikely to be the last of the fast food workers’ labor actions, as the day's events could lead the way for the campaign to grow even larger.