As CTU and Chuy Garcia Endorse $15/hr Contract Demand, Fight for 15 Goes Beyond Fast Food

David Moberg

Chicago mayoral candidate Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, with Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey and members of the Fight for 15 campaign behind him. (Fight for 15 / Twitter)

The Fight for 15 and the Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU) have joined togeth­er to demand that Chica­go Pub­lic Schools (CPS) employ­ees should earn at least $15 an hour, includ­ing con­tract work­ers such as the jan­i­tors pro­vid­ed by Ara­mark in a con­tro­ver­sial pri­va­ti­za­tion of school san­i­ta­tion that has pro­voked protests by pub­lic school principals. 

At a press con­fer­ence on Wednes­day announc­ing CTU’s demand, Chica­go may­oral can­di­date Jesus Chuy” Gar­cia pledged that he would sup­port the $15 wage. I stand here today as some­one who under­stands the plight of thou­sands and thou­sands of Chicagoans in Chica­go neigh­bor­hoods who need to increase their wages,” said Garcia.

The CTU announced it would include a demand for all CPS employ­ees to receive a $15 per hour min­i­mum wage in their con­tract pro­pos­al to the Chica­go Board of Edu­ca­tion. The pro­posed lan­guage reads: The CTU will require the BOARD to report which employ­ees do not earn at least a $15/​hour min­i­mum wage and to then require that all CTU mem­bers must earn at least $15/​hr. and that all CPS sub­con­trac­tors must earn at least $15/​hr. and/​or that all CPS employ­ees must earn at least $15/​hr.”

You can’t expect schools to solve all of the prob­lems of the coun­try,” says CTU act­ing pres­i­dent Jesse Sharkey. One of the solu­tions is to pay par­ents and con­tract work­ers a liv­ing wage. It’s very impor­tant to locate demand for bet­ter edu­ca­tion with­in the demands for a soci­ety that treats work­ing class peo­ple bet­ter. Chica­go Pub­lic Schools should lead by example.”

The inclu­sion of a $15 per hour min­i­mum wage in oth­er unions’ bar­gain­ing efforts is the lat­est in the expan­sion of the Fight for 15 cam­paign. Two and a half years ago, work­ers at fast food restau­rants in big cities such as New York and Chica­go began walk­ing off their jobs, demand­ing $15 an hour and no employ­er inter­fer­ence in their decid­ing about whether to form a union.

The goals of their move­ment quick­ly res­onat­ed among the nation’s low-wage work­ers. Tak­ing the most recent avail­able num­bers from 2014, about half of all women work­ers and more than 40 per­cent of the work­force as a whole eared less than $15 an hour, accord­ing to the Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Insti­tute. Equal­ly impor­tant, the move­ment cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion of the broad­er cit­i­zen­ry, offer­ing a vivid con­trast with the ultra-rich 1 per­cent, just as the debate over eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty took root in the body politic.

A renewed fast food work­er spring offen­sive now under­way shows how the move­ment has grown in size and sophis­ti­ca­tion as well as ambi­tion and influ­ence. The actions planned for this spring will reach out to low-wage work­ers in many indus­tries and cor­po­ra­tions, hop­ing to trig­ger new and broad­er cam­paigns both to orga­nize unions and improve pay and work­ing conditions.

The strat­e­gy of the Fight for 15 has focused its attacks over the past year on McDonald’s, which sets the tone for the fast food indus­try much as Wal­mart does for big box retail. McDonald’s is also vul­ner­a­ble to the work­ers’ cam­paign because of its oth­er prob­lems with sales, con­sumer sat­is­fac­tion, pub­lic image, man­age­ment and profits. 

Both McDonald’s and Wal­mart remain obdu­rate oppo­nents of unions, even though Walmart’s recent deci­sion to raise many of its low­est pay rates sure­ly stemmed in part from the Fight for 15 cam­paigns for pay hikes. Progress that work­ers make at the dom­i­nant com­pa­nies may spread with less of a fight, just as Tar­get fol­lowed Walmart’s lead in rais­ing wages.

The Fight for 15 (known in New York as Fast Food For­ward and by oth­er names else­where) has already stepped up its fight through a series of actions around the coun­try intend­ed to build momen­tum for what orga­niz­ers hope will be a mas­sive day of protest on April 15 (or 415, i.e., for fifteen”).

Based on the expand­ing alliances they have formed, orga­niz­ers are con­fi­dent that many unions, com­mu­ni­ty and reli­gious groups, non-union work­er orga­ni­za­tions, unor­ga­nized work­ers from a wide range of low-wage and oth­er sup­port­ers will join the protests, and some may also par­tic­i­pate in this year’s actions at the May McDonald’s stock­hold­er meet­ing in a Chica­go suburb.

In Chica­go, to take one exam­ple, the Fight for 15 has count­ed on sup­port from a few unions in addi­tion to the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU) (whose nation­al lead­er­ship has pro­vid­ed sub­stan­tial finan­cial and orga­niz­ing assis­tance), work­er cen­ters such as Arise Chica­go and low-income orga­ni­za­tions such as Action Now, a close ally of SEIU. 

But recent­ly more con­ven­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions, which have only rarely become involved in work­place issues, have demand­ed that McDonald’s pay $15 an hour or more. 

For exam­ple, in the city’s work­ing class south­west side neigh­bor­hoods, the Brighton Park Neigh­bor­hood Coun­cil joined McDonald’s work­ers in demand­ing high­er pay, espe­cial­ly in light of the deep cuts in ser­vices like heat­ing assis­tance, Med­ic­aid and pub­lic trans­porta­tion that the new Repub­li­can Gov. Bruce Rauner has imposed.

And in com­pa­ra­ble north­west side neigh­bor­hoods, Com­mu­ni­ties Unit­ed direc­tor Raul Botel­lo said that the group rec­og­nized that high­er incomes for its res­i­dents were essen­tial to mak­ing the com­mu­ni­ties strong. Jobs are the back­bone of the com­mu­ni­ty,” he says.

In addi­tion to draw­ing sup­port from oth­er unions and work­er orga­ni­za­tions, the Fight for 15 now feels con­fi­dent enough to offer its own ges­tures of sol­i­dar­i­ty with oth­er work­ers, such as send­ing a del­e­ga­tion to join the Unit­ed Steel Work­ers refin­ery work­ers on strike, large­ly over health and safe­ty issues.

Those protests, in turn, linked to new issues that fast food work­ers were rais­ing regard­ing their own work. Last week, the nation­al Fight for 15 launched a new street protest and legal attack on McDonald’s for its poor safe­ty record, includ­ing 28 Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health Admin­is­tra­tion (OSHA) com­plaints about McDonald’s fran­chis­es and cor­po­rate-owned out­lets in 19 cities. 

Work­ers report­ed that they were repeat­ed­ly burned and oth­er­wise hurt on the job because there was inad­e­quate equip­ment and train­ing for han­dling and pro­tect­ing them­selves from hot grease. A sur­vey by Hart Research found that 87 per­cent of fast food work­ers suf­fered injuries last year, includ­ing 78 per­cent who suf­fered mul­ti­ple injuries. Work­ers said the injuries pri­mar­i­ly occurred because the restau­rants are under­staffed and man­agers push them to work too fast.

Also, McDonald’s work­ers said the restau­rants often had no first aid kits or any mate­ri­als in the first aid box­es. Super­vi­sors, lack­ing prop­er burn treat­ments, told them to use mus­tard, may­on­naise and but­ter on their burns.

The com­plaints about work­place health and safe­ty also tie in with oth­er Fight for 15 objec­tives. Unlike the demands for high­er wages, which the cor­po­ra­tion could pay and then suc­cess­ful­ly under­cut the orga­niz­ing cam­paign, the cam­paign for safe­ty requires greater work­er pow­er on the job.

Also, the safe­ty com­plaints take anoth­er step towards attempt­ing to estab­lish that the cor­po­ra­tion is indeed a joint employ­er with the fran­chise oper­a­tors, much as the work­ers have con­tend­ed in ear­ly com­plaints about cor­po­rate involve­ment in ille­gal mea­sures to block union­iza­tion. Next Mon­day, the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board will hear the first of 19 con­sol­i­dat­ed com­plaints filed claim­ing that McDonald’s Cor­po­ra­tion was indeed act­ing as a joint employ­er in its coor­di­nat­ed fight against work­ers’ attempts to organize.

And in anoth­er sol­i­dar­i­ty action, fast food work­ers joined with a del­e­ga­tion from Next Up, the AFL-CIO young work­er group that was hold­ing a con­ven­tion in Chica­go, to march on a West Side Chica­go McDonald’s and then, joined by work­ers who were try­ing to form a local of the Unit­ed Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers (UFCW) at a near­by Food4Less, the group marched on the gro­cery store.

And with yet anoth­er link forged, the Fight for 15 grows, not only in num­bers, allies and pow­er, but also in the breadth and depth of its message.

David Moberg, a senior edi­tor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the mag­a­zine since it began pub­lish­ing in 1976. Before join­ing In These Times, he com­plet­ed his work for a Ph.D. in anthro­pol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go and worked for Newsweek. He has received fel­low­ships from the John D. and Cather­ine T. MacArthur Foun­da­tion and the Nation Insti­tute for research on the new glob­al economy.

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