Lamarius Brewer, a 21-year-old Walgreens employee, says he is badly in need of a raise. His bills are mounting, and affording health insurance is growing more and more difficult. But his main motivation for joining a new organization of low-wage retail and fast-food workers in downtown Chicago was a desire to feel safer at work. His biggest complaint about the store where he works is the lack of security. “We the workers have to feel comfortable where we’re working at,” he says. “[Walgreens] thinks downtown is safe [and] we don’t need any security guards. But we do. They’re not looking at that, they’re looking at saving dollars.”
Brewer has an added reason for concern about safety in the store: He works at the same downtown Walgreens where 22-year-old Troy Cameron, his older cousin, was shot and killed last year. One Friday night in January 2012, a former employee who had been fired from the store walked in with a handgun and shot Cameron — who, as a greeter, was standing by the entrance — multiple times. The assailant, Dante Simmons, was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in an alley several hours later, and is also believed to have murdered a 15-year-old boy.
Cameron was not only Brewer’s cousin, but also one of his role models. Brewer says his cousin was “somebody you could talk to” whenever help was needed, a “good-hearted man” and a “comedian.” When Cameron was killed during a shift at Walgreens, Brewer was shocked. Brewer says he’s lost a number of friends to gang-related violence and has even been shot at himself “just [for] being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” But Cameron’s death was particularly unexpected — “Troy was a working man,” says Brewer.
Brewer says he doesn’t know why Simmons killed his cousin, but suspects he was simply in despair after having lost his job at the store. “I guess that was his only income and he felt like he was back to step one and probably going crazy,” Brewer says. Cameron also left behind a two-year-old son.
Despite the tragedy, when Brewer was hired in September by the same downtown Walgreens store where his cousin had been killed, he says he “looked at it as a blessing.” Youth unemployment, especially for young African-American men, is at staggering levels not seen since World War II. Brewer’s cousin originally encouraged him to apply for a job at the store, and he continued applying even after the shooting. “I was desperate,” Brewer says. When he was finally hired as a service clerk eight months after the shooting, “I think it was just Troy looking [from] above,” he says. “That’s how I felt, ’cause everything happens for a reason.”
When Brewer started work, he says the Walgreens was protected by security guards — a direct consequence of the shooting. But this winter the management removed the guards, telling employees that they were too expensive and unneeded, according to Brewer. “They think downtown is safe, [but] there’s nowhere anywhere you’re completely safe …Things happen, just like with my cousin,” Brewer says. “[Walgreens] got billions of dollars, but they’re saying they don’t have enough to pay for these security guards so we can feel safe at our workplace.”
Now Brewer says he has to “play security sometimes,” and has confronted would-be shoplifters on multiple occasions. He recognizes some of the shoplifters from his nearby neighborhood, which makes him uncomfortable. At least once, he says, one of them recognized him. “What if I just go step out one day and they got a gang waiting on me?” he asks. “I wouldn’t have to do all this if we had security to back me up.” Making only the Illinois minimum wage of $8.25 an hour, Brewer adds, “I’m not getting paid enough to risk myself.”
In May, a Walgreens co-worker told Brewer about the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC), a union of retail and fast-food workers agitating for higher wages through the Fight for 15 campaign. His interest was peaked immediately. A childhood experience instilled Brewer with confidence in the power of grassroots organizing: When he was in fifth grade, his class at the now-closed Byrd Academy mobilized community support and called for repairs to their school building, gaining national attention. “I know for a fact, if people want to make change, they have to stand up,” Brewer says.
Gun violence in Chicago has deepened in recent years. There were 506 homicides in 2012, and 72 shootings—12 of them fatal — during the July 4 holiday weekend alone. In a report [PDF] released this February, WOCC argues that gun violence is directly tied to low pay and unemployment. Produced in partnership with Stand Up! Chicago, a coalition of labor and community groups, the report notes that 89 percent of homicides and other violent crime in Chicago last year occurred in low-income neighborhoods with high levels of unemployment. Backed up by a plethora of social science research, the study argues that “the majority of increases in violent crime can be explained by downward wage trends” and recommends raising wages and creating jobs as key components to any strategy to reduce violence.
Despite staying away from gangs, being an active member of his community, and having a steady job, Brewer fears becoming another victim of gun violence. “I get shaky. So many people be dying around me, I be questioning myself,” he says, wondering whether he’ll be “next.” Still, Brewer says he continues “to move forward,” hopeful that through their union, he and his fellow low-wage workers will be able to successfully address both poverty and violence. “If us workers come together, come up [against] these problems together, I mean, it will work.”
Jeff Schuhrke has been a Working In These Times contributor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke