PI Original Ellyn Fortino Thursday August 29th, 2013, 7:28pm

Chicago Fast Food, Retail Workers Join National Strike For Higher Wages (VIDEO)

Hundreds of Chicago fast food and retail workers walked off the job Thursday to take part in a national, one-day strike for higher wages and the right to form a union without retaliation. Progress Illinois was there for the morning and afternoon actions.

Hundreds of Chicago fast food and retail workers walked off the job Thursday to take part in a national, one-day strike for higher wages and the right to form a union without retaliation.

Other low-wage workers in more than 50 cities, including Houston, Los Angeles and New York, also took to the picket lines Thursday in one of the biggest coordinated efforts among fast food and retail workers, who are calling for a $15 minimum wage and an end to “unfair labor practices.”

Chicago’s day-long strike kicked off with a 7 a.m. rally at McDonald’s flagship restaurant in River North, 600 N. Clark St., and ended with an afternoon rally at Federal Plaza.

“Such corporations like McDonald’s thrive on exploiting their employees. It’s not fair,” said McDonald’s worker Tyree Johnson, 45.

Johnson has worked at McDonald’s for 21 years, yet he still earns the state’s minimum wage of $8.25 an hour.

“Every time they transfer me to another store, they lower my pay, I have to climb back up,” Johnson said at the morning rally. “I should be making more than $15 [by] now.”

Johnson said he's asked McDonald’s for a raise, but his managers have reportedly told him, “You shouldn’t have joined that union. We’re not giving you no raise.’’

So why stay with the company?

“I’m fighting for $15,” he responded. “I’m a dedicated, educated, never intimidated employee.”

Johnson is one of 275,000 low-wage fast food and retail workers in Chicago, according to the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC), the union that organized the strike.

In addition to McDonald’s, workers from more than 20 national brands, including Bed Bath & Beyond, CVS Pharmacy, Dunkin Donuts, Forever 21 and Wendy’s, participated in the Chicago strike. Community and labor groups such as Action Now, the Albany Park Neighborhood Council, Arise Chicago, ONE Northside, and SEIU* took part in the actions. After the morning demonstration at McDonald's, workers broke off into smaller groups and delivered a letter with their demands to various downtown businesses identified as low-wage employers.

According to WOCC, fast food workers and retail employees in the Windy City earn a median hourly wage of $9.07 and $9.37, respectively.

But that’s simply not enough to get by, organizers said. Many of the workers are also paid minimum wage.

A full-time, minimum-wage worker in Illinois earns an annual salary of $17,160 before taxes. The federal minimum wage, which has not seen an increase since 2009, is $7.25.

A $15 minimum wage would mean a yearly salary of about $31,000, an amount that those with the “Fight for 15” campaign say would cover the workers’ basic needs.

Based on Johnson’s experience at McDonald’s, he said it’s unlikely that the fast food chain would voluntarily raise its employees’ hourly wages to at least $15 any time soon.

But some local fast food and retail employees, however, have seen slight raises and other workplace triumphs following the last two Chicago fast-food and retail strikes on April 24 and August 1. (See our coverage of the strikes here and here.) Read more about those victories here

But even still, the workers said meaningful change for all workers has to come from the state or federal level.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has said he is in favor of legislation that would raise the state’s minimum wage to $10. And back in February, President Barack Obama called for a minimum wage increase to $9 an hour by 2015 in his State of the Union address.

Johnson acknowledged that it’s going to take a while to get to $15 an hour, but he added that he won’t stop fighting until that goal is met.

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D, IL-9), who joined the workers at the morning and afternoon rallies, said the workers' call for a $15 living wage is a "reasonable and simple request."

The congresswoman also made a point to stress that many fast food and retail workers have to turn to government assistance programs due to their low wages.

“We end up subsidizing McDonald’s and all these low-wage employers by providing their workers with assistance,” she said. “They are the takers. These [workers] are the makers.”

Those skeptical of a $15 minimum wage say it could stifle business and lead to worker layoffs. But the congresswoman took that argument to task.

If low-wage workers had a living wage, they would buy more products, which would lead to the creation of “millions of jobs for the rest of the economy,” Schakowsky said.

Here’s more from the congresswoman:

Schakowsky led the group into Rock and Roll McDonald’s to deliver a letter with the workers' demands, including a living wage, respect from their bosses and air conditioning in the kitchen. An organizer read the letter out loud through a megaphone once it became clear that no one from McDonald's management planned to speak with them.

Here’s more from the group reading the letter and scenes from the morning protest:

Andrew Little, 26, an employee at the Victoria's Secret on Michigan Avenue, skipped work today to help deliver those letters to other low-wage employers along the Magnificent Mile and in the Loop.

Progress Illinois checked in with Little at the Federal Plaza rally to hear more about why he's fighting for a $15 an hour wage:

Another retail worker, Tamara Best-Watkins, 27, said even though she works full-time at the Macy's on State Street, her $8.50 an hour wage isn't enough to cover her basic needs.

“I have to work a 40-hour work week just to make ends meet, and then half of the time ends don’t meet,” she said. “I’m in a bind. I’m choosing between whether to pay for food or utilities. Nobody should ever have to make that decision.”

The Macy's employee noted that the Chicago workers and others across the country are not striking merely to get a raise.

“We need to make more money to survive," she stressed. "These wages are holding the whole economy down.”

*The SEIU Illinois Council sponsors this website.

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