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Low-Wage Workers’ Wildcat Winter Spreads to Chicago

(Photo: Matthew McLoughlin)

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Hundreds of workers and supporters gathered in Chicago’s Cityfront Plaza on Thursday to speak out against the ways that major retail and fast food corporations are weakening the city’s economy with poverty-level wages. Marching along the Magnificent Mile and its throngs of holiday shoppers, the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC) chanted and passed out leaflets supporting their “Fight for 15” campaign for a $15 per hour wage. Coming in the wake of the Walmart workers struggle for better working conditions, these and other low-wage workers now beginning to organize across the country in retail and restaurant industries are becoming a force to be reckoned with as they gain support from consumers and community organizations.

The newly-minted union in Chicago — representing workers from over 100 employers — launched the Fight for 15 campaign to raise the standard of living for the more than 18,000 workers who keep the city’s busiest shopping areas running.

On November 15, WOCC announced its intention to form a union to represent the interests of retail and restaurant workers in the Loop and the Magnificent Mile. The union has until February 14 to file with the National Labor Relations Board for formal recognition. WOCC’s hope is to be able to negotiate directly with retailers for a minimum $15 per hour contract. In less than a month, over 500 workers have already joined the union. During Thursday’s action, a letter from WOCC was delivered to the Greater North Michigan Avenue Association demanding a response to their campaign for better wages by December 22.

Parthenia Barnes, who is on the WOCC steering committee, says the immediate goals are to increase union membership as well as garner public support for the campaign.

Barnes works full-time at Chicago’s downtown Macy’s, making $8.25 per hour. As a single mother of four — and she recently took temporary custody of her nephew — the long hours and low wages make paying the bills and staying involved in her kids’ lives an endless struggle. But Barnes, along with other retail and restaurant workers in Chicago, have had enough.

On Black Friday, WOCC workers joined with striking Walmart workers to demonstrate at various stores and make the case to employers and the public that retail workers need a just, living wage. Hundreds of workers participated in the November 23 actions along the Magnificent Mile and engaged customers in their push for better wages and working conditions.

In addition to public actions, a high-profile report from Stand Up! Chicago, a coalition of community and labor organizations, and Action Now, a grassroots organization for working families, gives credence to workers’ claims that their employers can afford to give them raises. “A Case for $15: A Low Wage Work Crisis,” the first in a series of reports about the widespread effects of poverty in Chicago, details the crisis of low wages for Chicago’s retail and restaurant workers.

“The idea is to give validity to the point workers are making,” said Victor Perez, one of the authors of the report. “We are proving that the cost of giving workers $15 an hour is relatively small compared to the total revenue that companies bring in and what it would cost them to give their workers a raise.”

Retailers and restaurants in the very profitable, high-end shopping areas targeted by the campaign post annual revenues of over $4 billion. To pay workers $15 an hour would cost between $103 million and $130 million — 2.6 to 4.5 percent of total revenue for corporate retailers. Furthermore, researchers found that executive pay for 50 of the publicly traded companies with operations in downtown Chicago was 407 times greater — or $4,011 an hour more — than a typical workers’ wage of $9.80 an hour. The report also found that increased wages would generate $179 million in economic activity and provide relief for already strained public assistance resources that many employers force low-wage workers to depend on.

Catherine Murrell, communications director of Stand Up! Chicago, notes the key role that clergy and community leaders have in supporting the workers’ cause because of how low wages are hurting neighborhoods. “The Fight for 15 is a matter of where people live, not just where they work,” she said.

High crime accompanies high poverty rates, and many of Chicago’s neighborhoods plagued by violence also see the highest rates of low-wage workers. That is one reason why community organizing groups see the WOCC campaign as part of a larger struggle to better the schools, end poverty and decrease violence. Higher wages for service industry workers — at little cost of real wealth to corporate bottom lines — has profound social and economic benefits for families and communities. To stay the course with poverty-level wages, as recent studies show, runs the risk of further social breakdown for future generations.

According to Murrell, low-wage jobs have accounted for the vast majority of jobs gained since 2008. Wages nationwide are now so low that millions of workers are below the poverty line and qualify for public assistance. Will there be nationwide campaigns for worker justice now that low-wage service workers comprise such a significant sector of workforce growth? In Chicago, for example, the share of employees between the ages of 18 and 64 working in low-wage jobs rose to 31.2 percent last year from 23.8 percent in 2001.

While we’ve yet to see a nationally-coordinated campaign for low-wage workers across industries, the local support for the Fight for 15 campaign — which includes religious organizations, traditional labor groups, neighborhood alliances, Occupy offshoots and students — is part of a broader series of efforts to defend working and poor people from ultra-wealthy corporations and government-imposed austerity. The emerging, but limited, labor uprisings — from fast food workers in New York City and Chicago to the Michigan “right to work for less” union protests — are the birth pangs of a re-invented labor movement that is returning to its roots: fighting for the basic livelihoods of workers.

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