PI Original Ellyn Fortino Thursday May 15th, 2014, 5:45pm

Chicago Fast Food Workers Strike For Higher Wages On Global Day Of Action (VIDEO)

Chicago fast food workers hit the picket lines Thursday as part of a massive, worldwide day of strikes for higher wages and the right to form a union without retaliation. Progress Illinois provides a snapshot of some of the day's protests.

Chicago fast food workers hit the picket lines Thursday as part of a massive, worldwide day of strikes for higher wages and the right to form a union without retaliation.

This is the fifth time Chicago fast food employees have gone on a major strike to call for a $15 minimum wage, which is a yearly salary of about $31,000 — enough to cover workers' basic needs, according to organizers. 

"We deserve to live above the poverty line," said Chicago striker Janah Bailey, 21, who works at the McDonald's at Chicago and Damen avenues. "A lot of people like to say that McDonald's [jobs] are stepping-stone  jobs, but when you all do not supply the steps to step up and to step out, then we're stuck."

Chicago was one of at least 150 U.S. cities, including Boston, Los Angeles, Miami and New York, where workers walked off the job Thursday as part of the "Fight for 15" campaign, which gained traction across the country after New York fast food employees staged the first strike against the $200 billion fast food industry back in November 2012.

Now, the movement for better pay and working conditions at fast food establishments has gone global. 

Internationally, May 15 fast food protests took place in 80 cities in more than 30 countries, such as Argentina, Germany and Japan. In all, the global day of solidarity spanned 230 cities worldwide and targeted restaurants such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and KFC. Organizers said Thursday's actions represented the largest fast food strike ever.

In Chicago, a few hundred strikers and their allies participated in a day-long action outside of the flagship Rock ‘n' Roll McDonald’s in the city's River North neighborhood. The protest, spearheaded by the the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC), a union of fast food and retail workers, kicked off at 6:30 a.m. and ran into the evening. Throughout the day, workers rallied and marched around the restaurant, chanting "What do we want? Fifteen! When do we want it? Now!" and "McDonald's escucha: Estamos en la lucha!", rough translation: "McDonald listen! We are in the fight!"

The Chicago fast food strike focused primarily on McDonald's. That's because the majority of fast food union members in the Windy City work at the company, and the restaurant giant is seen as fast food industry leader, explained WOCC spokeswoman Nazly Damasio. If workers can get McDonald's to change its labor practices, other fast food chains could follow suit, according to labor activists. 

A number of strikers said they believe the now global Fight for 15 campaign is getting the attention of McDonald's leaders. They pointed to the fast food giant's recent annual report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, in which McDonald's cites the movement for increased wages as one of its business "risk factors," writing that “the impact of (wage) campaigns by labor organizations and activists, including through the use of social media and other communications and applications,” could adversely affect the Golden Arches. The global fast food brand also noted that its results and financial condition could be impacted by “the long-term trend toward higher wages and social expenses in both mature and developing markets, which may intensify with increasing public focus on matters of income inequality.”

Meanwhile, in the face of calls for higher wages, the global fast-food brand unveiled a new look for its mascot Ronald McDonald. Ronald McDonald, who according to the company "represents the magic and happiness of the McDonald's brand," now wears cargo pants and tweets using the #RonaldMcDonald hashtag as a result of the makeover that was revealed last month.

But Erica Payne, president of the New York-based Agenda Project Action Fund, a progressive public policy advocacy organization, is not impressed.

"They need to re-re-launch Ronald McDonald," she said. "Instead of cargo pants, give him a conscience. The CEO of McDonald's makes $9,247 an hour while the people who actually cook the food and serve the customers live in poverty. We need to stop the Greedy Clown before he destroys the country."

The Agenda Project Action Fund highlights the above-mentioned fast food income inequality in a new ad called "Stop the Greedy Clown," which was released on the heels of Ronald McDonald's revamp and on the eve of Thursday's fast food strike. Take a look at the ad:

There are some 275,000 low-wage fast food and retail workers in the Chicago meto area, according to WOCC. The median hourly wage for fast food workers in Chicago is about $9.07, according to the union, though many of them earn the state's minimum wage of $8.25 an hour, or just above it. 

Five-year McDonald's employee Delores Leonard, 28, who works in the city's Hyde Park neighborhood, said it is extremely difficult for her to provide for her two young daughters.

Leonard earns the state's minimum wage of $8.25 an hour, which works out to be an annual salary of $17,160 before taxes for a full-time worker. Although Leonard said she has asked for more hours, her managers typically schedule her for an approximate total of 34 hours over two weeks' time.

“At the end of the two weeks, my paycheck still doesn’t add up to half of my rent, lights, gas, necessities … It’s not enough,” Leonard stressed, noting that her low wages force her to rely on food stamps and Medicaid for her children’s health care. “I don’t believe it’s fair at all. Personally, I don’t know if they’re just trying to keep us down in poverty … but it’s definitely not right” for workers to have to depend on government aid.

Low wages paid by the multi-billion dollar fast food industry forces 51 percent of Illinois' fast food workers to rely on public assistance programs to cover basic needs, costing taxpayers in the state $368 million annually, according to an October 2013 report by the University of California at Berkeley. At the national level, 52 percent of American fast food workers rely on some form of public aid, leaving taxpayers with an annual tab of nearly $7 billion.

Here's more from Leonard, Bailey and another McDonald's worker Jessica Davis, 25, as they discuss why they took part in the strike:

Adriana Alvarez, 23, another McDonald's employee who works in suburban Cicero, is a single mother with a two year-old son. Alvarez, who has worked for four years at McDonald's and gets paid $9.15 an hour, said it is a challenge each month to make ends meet. She wants to get a second job, but she has only found second jobs that require evening work hours, which clashes with her son's daycare hours.

“I don’t have anybody to watch him after 6 o’clock," she stressed.

Alvarez said it frustrates her to see McDonald's and other fast food giants rake in eye-popping profits at the same time many on-the-ground workers can barely pay their bills.

“How can you sit there and know you’re giving poverty wages to all your workers when we’re making the money for you?" she said. "It’s really unfair.”

Later in the day, U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL,9) joined the Chicago strike line to stand in solidarity with the fast food workers.

"You cannot survive on $8.25," the congresswoman stressed. "I'm just here to lend my support to these courageous workers. It takes a lot of courage to walk out of a job like this. They are saying that they're not afraid to fight for their rights. They're not afraid to fight for a wage that they can support their family on, and I'm just proud to be with them."  

When asked what she would like to see happen in Washington to help struggling low-wage workers, Schakowsky said raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 would be a good first step. House and Senate Republicans, however, have blocked debate on Democrat-backed legislation to lift the federal hourly minimum wage gradually from the current $7.25 an hour to $10.10, saying the measure would hurt businesses and result in job losses. The federal measure is the Fair Minimum Wage Act, S. 460 and H.R. 1010., which U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-California) jointly introduced back in March of last year.

Nonetheless, Schakowsky remains optimistic that there is still a chance Congress could pass a bill to lift the federal minimum wage before this fall's midterm elections.

"The polls one after another (say) the American people are in favor of raising the minimum wage," she said. "This is a fight that is going to continue all the way through this election in November if we don't get it. But I am hoping that before we get to the election that we will have an increase. It's good politics as well as good policy."

The congresswoman also blasted arguments that equate a boost in the minimum wage to job cuts. 

"The minimum wage has been one of the most studied economic tools," she noted. "There is no evidence whatsoever when the minimum wage goes up that there's actually been a loss in jobs of any significant numbers. In fact, there are many benefits to employers for raising their minimum wage. You get better workers, you get more loyal workers, you get more productivity, and so it would be a good thing for our country. These workers then, if they made a decent wage, would be able to go out and buy things and be the job creators, because they would create new demand."

In addition to boosting the minimum wage, Schakowsky said federal lawmakers need "to shame some of these companies into understanding that we are tired of subsidizing them by way of having to take care of their workers that they don't take care of because they don't pay enough."

Here's more from Schakowsky and scenes from today's strike:

Although most of the striking Chicago workers today were from McDonald's, other fast food employees took to the picket lines, including Dominik Allison, 31, who is employed at a Wendy's on the city's West Side.

Allison, a single father of two, began working at Wendy's more than eight months ago and gets paid $8.40 an hour. He receives full-time hours, but is currently searching for a second job because he struggles to afford basic necessities for his family.

He said today's strike is not a personal attack on lower-level fast food managers and bosses. Instead, it is a fight against "the CEOs and the shareholders of the companies."

"We are the ones who make the money for you," he said. "We're the ones who serve the burgers. We're the ones who clean the toilets and make sure the restaurants stay clean so that you can make more money. Productivity will go up for us if you allow us to get a little bit more money."

The Rev. Larry Dowling, pastor of St. Agatha Parish in Chicago’s North Lawndale community and Arise Chicago’s board president, also protested with the workers this morning.

“The fast food industry we all know is booming,” he said. "McDonald’s and Burger King are part of a $200 billion industry. They should pay their hard-working employees enough to cover the necessities and support their families, and not force taxpayers to shoulder the burden. Profitable fast food companies can afford to give their workers a decent wage and respect their rights to form a union.”

"It's time for fast food giants to treat the people who make and serve the food throughout the world, as well as their customers who are unknowingly footing the bill for public assistance for these employees, [with] the respect and dignity that comes from our faith, it comes from basic human dignity and the need to support our families," Dowling added.

For it's part, McDonald's said in a statement that it offers its workers "part-time and full-time employment, benefits and competitive pay based on the local marketplace and job level."

"This is an important discussion that needs to take into account the highly competitive nature of the industries that employ minimum wage workers, as well as consumers and the thousands of small businesses which own and operate the vast majority of McDonald’s restaurants," the statement reads.

Follow us on Twitter @ProgressIL for more on the fast food worker strike as it continues throughout the evening.

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