Fight for $15 in Chicago: Revolt in a Global City

“I am here to remind America that it is a crime to live in this great nation and to receive starvation wages. At McDonalds $8.25 an hour, what I make is about $400 every two weeks. With that salary I have to choose between rent and food. Rent and light…but this isn’t just about me This about my grandkids and my great grandkids. If McDonalds has its way, my great grandkids will make $8.25 in the year 2050”—- McDonalds worker Doug Hunter

It was a chilly drizzly, 5:30 am in Chicago as a handful of WOCC (Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago) activists loaded batteries into bullhorns, sorted out picket signs and made sure the now familiar Fight for $15 red plastic rain ponchos were ready. WOCC is the organization for the Fight for $15 movement in Chicago. They were preparing for the planned 6 am rally at the Rock and Roll McDonalds, the city’s flagship store.

Fight for $15 in Chicago: May 16 2014

It was May 15, 2014, the day of a global strike and protest against the McDonalds Corporation for its selectively applied exploitative labor policies. In countries with strong unions and a high level of working class solidarity, a job at McDonalds means reasonably decent wages and benefits. But not everywhere. And definitely not here in the USA.

WOCC members are acutely aware of this which is why they say “Fight for $15 AND a union.” Victories won can be taken back again without strong worker organization and constant vigilance.

Soon, a sizable number of people were  gathering within the small plaza in front of the Rock and Roll McDonalds. Located in the trendy Near North tourist area close to the Hard Rock Cafe, it is an unusually large and architecturally unique McDonalds.

Fight for $15 in Chicago: May 15 2014

Although named after a music born of youthful rebellion, it is run as a tight fisted dictatorship. One Rock and Roll McDonald’s worker said they treat the employees there like “animals.”

At first McDonalds security feigned friendliness and told people they could stay in the small plaza as long as they did not carry signs. Those could only be carried on the public sidewalk in front of the store.

But when a smiling mariachi band tried to play for the growing crowd carrying nothing but their instruments, McDonald’s security pushed them and everyone else on to the now crowded public sidewalk. Fortunately the overhang over the plaza extended to that narrow public space, giving the strikers, their allies and the media partial protection from a now wind-blown cold heavy rain. Spirits remained high as workers sang and chanted.

 Fight for $15 in Chicago: May 15 2014

Forcing the media to cover themselves and their equipment against the elements was probably not the best way for McDonalds Corporation to get sympathetic coverage. Neither was the disingenuous official statement from their Oak Brook Illinois HQ:

“…The events taking place are not strikes. Outside groups have traveled to McDonald’s and other outlets to stage rallies.”

Calling their own striking workers part of an “outside group” was both disrespectful and untruthful. But the bad weather and the now unsmiling McDonalds security did not deter  McDonald’s workers like Adriana Alvarez from speaking out at the early morning press conference:

“We’re here to show to show McDonald’s and everyone else that we are not going to put up with it anymore. This is global. Not just in the United States. Not just in Chicago. Everywhere. 100+ cities and 30 countries. We’re ready. I’m here because I have a 2 year old son. I want to give the world to my son but I can’t on today’s minimum wage so I need a living wage of $15 an hour.”

Chicago: A tale of two global cities

“I am proud to see A.T. Kearney has recognized the City of Chicago has a top global city of today and tomorrow….With our access to international transportation, central location between the coasts and pool of skilled workforce talent, businesses across the world realize all of the extensive opportunities Chicago has to offer as the city continues to shape the direction of the world in the coming years.” —Mayor Rahm Emanuel

Chicago is often called a global city and as Mayor Rahm Emanuel is fond of saying, a “world class” one at that. Rahm’s vision of Chicago as a global city is a greatly enhanced version of a downtown that already exists—- only with more glittering office towers and luxury condos. Where even more expensive cars cruise streets bordered by ornamental shrubs and colorful flowers. Where still more smartly dressed affluent mostly white people peruse the fancy shops lining the Magnificent Mile and its side streets. Where armies of business leaders and well-heeled tourists from across the planet will come to marvel at this Emerald City on the Lake.

You can read about this vision in A Plan for Economic Growth and Jobs a report commissioned by Mayor Emanuel himself. Buried deep within its 58 pages is this astonishingly frank  statement:

”While the Plan for Economic Growth and Jobs will contribute to increased opportunity for individuals and more investment for communities, it is not a plan for poverty elimination and community development.”

No kidding, Mr Mayor. Eliminating poverty is not on your agenda. Neither is fair-minded community development. But what else could we expect from a “leader” whose actual constituency  consists of high rolling hedge fund gamblers, gentrifying real estate speculators, shady mortgage lenders and predatory multinational corporations like McDonalds who ply their money-making trades with a coldblooded  intensity that even Ebenezer Scrooge couldn’t match. Poverty wages are just too damned profitable. The skyrocketing wealth inequality which the McDonalds Corporation and the rest of the Chicago elite favors is dependent upon the  continued existence of poverty.

Fight for $15 in Chicago: May 15 2014

The MacDonalds workers who went on strike May 15 have a different vision for the global city that Chicago could become, one that is widely shared by other low wage workers. While aimed specifically at McDonalds, the strike also send a message to other large corporations as well as government. It’s time for poverty wages to be raised to a living wage

The demand for a living wage is literally a fight for life. Poverty can kill, sometimes swiftly with a hail of bullets in the shadows of lonely street; sometimes slowly as stress and constant worry wears down an immune system, inviting multiple health problems that overwhelm the body and the city’s inadequate public health system.

Are you listening Ronald McDonald?

Chicago’s chronic and terrifying street violence is largely confined to the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods where unemployment, low wages and racism combine into a perfect storm of social distress. Raise wages. Cut the violence.

Are you listening Ronald McDonald?

Poverty can wound the mind as well, which is why the Chicago Teachers Union teamed with WOCC to help produce a report called “Fight for the Future: How low wages are failing children in Chicago’s schools”. From the report:

“Students living in or experiencing childhood poverty are much more likely to face significant unaddressed obstacles to classroom learning than their middle- and upper-income counterparts, and this impacts educational outcomes. In fact, data shows that family income is now the most significant predictor of academic success among students in the U.S.”

Are you listening, Ronald McDonald?

A living wage and the ability to organize a union without fear, as well fair minded investment in distressed communities would go along ways toward eliminating the poverty that is the root cause of so many human tragedies in Chicago.

Fight for $15 in Chicago: May 15 2014

Referring to a recent partial victory for the $15 an hour minimum wage in Seattle, Jamie, a McDonalds worker from Rockford said:”

We’re coming together with our coworkers, and we’re fighting for the right to join a union and $15 an hour…If they can get it in Seattle, we can get it in Chicago.”

The workers of Fight for $15 want not only better wages and benefits, but work schedules which are arrived at through honest negotiation, schedules that would enable them to have more time with their families; more time for relaxation; more time for personal goals and interests; more time to improve their neighborhoods; more time to live a rich and fulfilling live.

They want a global  city of safe neighborhoods, good schools, clean well maintained parks, decent housing, affordable health care, access to nutritious food and all of the social amenities that come with a living wage enforced by a union contract.

They know such things are possible because they see people in more affluent communities having them at their fingertips.

Their vision of a global city comes with a global working class consciousness, an understanding of the power that working class people have if they unite across racial, regional and national boundaries.

You could see the fierce pride in the eyes of McDonalds worker Jessica Davis as she said:

”Just months ago we were just a few workers in a couple of cities. They thought we were crazy. Now we’re global. We’re 100+ cities and 30 countries. We are showing McDonalds that we are a force and they can’t ignore us any more”

This is not the globalization that Rahm and his wealthy friends have in mind.

Fight for $15: This is what solidarity looks like!

All day long individuals and groups came to show their support. With rain still falling in the morning, Action Now! a community organization with branches on the West and South Sides came clad in their characteristic blue t-shirts. They brought an enormous blue fist, their bullhorns and their chants as they joined Fight for $15 and marched around the block where Rock and Roll McDonalds is located.

Fight for $15 in Chicago: May 15 2014

There were people from the United Auto Workers, Chicago Teachers Union, United Food and Commercial Workers, International Association of Machinists, Service Employees International Union, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Jane Addams Senior Caucus, Brighton Park Neighbors and Albany Park Neighbors.

Representing one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the city, the Albany Park contingent proudly marched up Clark Street with the flags of nations that were participating in the global strike action. The flags also represented the many nationalities who live in that North Side neighborhood.

Fight for $15 in Chicago: May 15 2014

There were the usual friendly waves from passerby, the raised fists and the horn honking. Tourists snapped pictures from their tour buses and from the sidewalk. I decided to take a break around midday from note taking and photography and held up a Fight for $15 sign on the corner. A pair of tourists asked to borrow my sign so one could hold it up while the other snapped a picture for their Facebook friends.

By the time the protest ended at 6 PM, several hundred people had participated. It was a long day, but spirits were even higher when the rally closed and the group briefly occupied the Rock and Roll McDonalds plaza in a final act of defiance.

No one underestimates the difficulties that lie ahead within the corrupted political economy of Chicago, where the vast fortunes controlled by global corporations  compete with the cry of the people demanding a better life.

Chicago needs more working class people in union meetings, in the streets, and on the picket lines. We also need more  volunteers in insurgent electoral campaigns. Independent-minded  elected leaders such as Kshama Sawant in Seattle, Washington and Marc Elrich in Montgomery County, Maryland have been instrumental in the fight toward gaining a living wage.

We need to exercise both economic and political power.

Jorge Mujica, an independent socialist candidate for city council who was on the picket line with the McDonalds strikers throughout the day, sums it up pretty well:

“We live in a working class city. It is our labor, our skills, our ingenuity, and our pride that built this city and that keep it running every day. Yet most of us are overworked and underpaid. We face a real crisis–not one of resources or possibilities, but of priorities. Until we create our own political voice, working people will remain locked out of political power.”

Whose global city? Our global city!

Fight for $15 in Chicago: May 15 2014

Bob “Bobbosphere ” Simpson is retired teacher and a member of Action Now!

Sources Consulted

Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago, a tale of two cities by Kevin Coval

Fast-food workers put their issues on the table by Elizabeth Schulte

Chicago’s world-class city complex by Jake Malooley

A Plan for Economic Growth and Jobs by the World Business Chicago (Chaired by Mayor Rahm Emanuel

Chicago Named Top Global City in A.T. Kearney Index by the World Business Chicago (Chaired by Mayor Rahm Emanuel

May 20, 2014 by
Filed under: Society and Economy, Unions 


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