Chicago’s Fast Food Workers: “We Can’t Survive on $8.25”

David Moberg

Workers from Chicago fast food and retail outlets strike for improved wages, benefits and work conditions, as well as the right to unionize. (Aaron Cynic)

On a normal day, Sonia Acuña, a petite 41-year old mother of four, puts on her bright red McDonald’s cap and reports to work at a branch of the giant hamburger chain in Chicago’s main rail terminal, Union Station. But today, in cold and drizzling early morning weather, Acuña — still wearing her McDonald’s hat — was out on the street in front of the terminal, striking.

Although she was the only worker at her McDonald’s to walk off the job today, she joined other workers on strike from other Chicago fast food and retail outlets. They delivered a pointed chant, We can’t survive on $8.25.” As they moved through Chicago’s central shopping districts, the crowd of strikers and supporters swelled to more than 500 people.

The walk-out is the latest in a growing wave of direct actions by low-wage workers across the country demanding better wages, benefits and working conditions, as well as the right to unionize. Starting last fall with demonstrations by warehouse workers in Southern California and Chicago, the initiatives spread quickly. Walmart retail stores around the country staged a strike during the big Black Friday sale day after Thanksgiving; New York City fast food workers have held two day-long strikes since November; and McDonald’s guest workers” walked out last month in Pennsylvania.

Under the banner of Fight for 15,” the campaign in Chicago aims to raise the minimum wage in the retail and food-service industries to $15 an hour and to make it possible for workers to organize unions without the usual employer intimidation. Like the other campaigns, it works through a coalition of labor and community groups who support direct collective action by workers. Although the workers do not have a recognized union, they exercise their rights to collective action in order to change the economic and political climate in the targeted industries, trying to raise other workers’ expectations and, ultimately, the prevailing standards.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and a closely allied community group, Action Now, launched the campaign, then passed the baton to the newly formed Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC) with support from other unions and worker-based groups, like the militant Chicago Teachers Union, and many other community groups.

The campaign makes the case that not only do workers need better pay and more of a voice, but that the larger community will also benefit from their gains, since workers’ organizing directly addresses troubling developments in the U.S. labor market.

Both the less-than-livable federal minimum wage of $7.25 and the slightly higher Illinois minimum of $8.25 have lagged far behind where they once were in terms of purchasing power. According to the MIT Living Wage Project, a single parent with one child in Chicago needs to earn $21 an hour to enjoy a living wage.

Jobs that pay that much are increasingly difficult to find. As a study from the National Employment Law Project (NELP) demonstrates, a heavily disproportionate share of the jobs lost in the Great Recession paid medium-level wages — $14 to $21 an hour — in hard-hit sectors such as public employment, construction, finance and manufacturing. Most new jobs since the recession bottomed out have been in lower-wage sectors, such as retail sales, food preparation, warehouse work and food service, and typically pay from about $8 to $14 an hour. Overall, low-wage employment made up 21 percent of jobs lost in the recession, but 58 percent of jobs gained since the economy’s nadir.

This trend — an intensified version of longer-term shifts in the U.S. labor market — hurts the recovery by depressing consumer demand and contributes to social problems, from crime to poorer performance in schools, according to research by both NELP and Demos, a New York-based think tank, as well as reports from the WOCC.

Even employers, who ominously predict that robots will be the ones flipping hamburger if workers push for higher wages, could gain from raising pay, as productivity is likely to rise significantly, according to research by Zeynep Ton, a visiting professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

The growing share of Americans stuck with few alternatives to poorly paid jobs adds up to a potentially explosive situation. Employers have kept the lid on the problem by relying on workers’ fear of losing jobs in a high-turnover sector, as well as their lack of understanding about their rights.

They’re not happy, but they don’t want to stand up for what they deserve,” long-time Macy’s employee Deborah Cox says of her fellow employees. They’ve got no backbone. They’re afraid of losing their jobs, and jobs are hard to get. They need to come together. The union is just the people. With it you have a say-so in your workplace. It protects you from the corporate people coming in and firing you on any grounds.”

By telling people their rights, WOCC encourages leaders like Robert Wilson, a McDonald’s worker, to join in actions. Even though he had expected to be fired when he first joined a protest, he was comforted by the notion that federal law protected him. I know my rights,” he says. Instead of firing him after he started protesting, his boss gave him a promotion and a raise — which he accepted, even though he saw it as a futile effort to buy him off. But not all managers have gone that route. Lawyers with WOCC earlier this week filed 14 unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board over alleged intimidation and other improper employer behavior toward workers involved in the Fight for 15

Despite the widespread fears of losing even a bad job, some workers are standing up. Many of the workers involved in WOCC are young people of color, both men and women, who are trying to go to college and are frustrated with work that shortchanges their hopes. For example, Macy’s employee Emanuel Cannon is a college student who has $20,000 in debt after finishing only two years. He was ready to strike or do whatever he could to boost his income to pay for college.

But growing numbers of low-wage service workers are also older and stuck in the sector; they see no future in churning through ill-paying job after ill-paying job, unable to make ends meet.

Acuña, for example, has worked eight years for McDonald’s and now puts in part-time shifts at two additional outlets, totaling 62 hours of work a week. She’s paid just above the Illinois minimum wage of $8.25 — too little, she says, to afford the McDonald’s health insurance plan. She is ready to fight, not quit. It’s unjust that we make only $8.25 an hour,” she says. A lot of people are afraid, but it’s time we got started and took action to change things.”

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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. 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 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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