On Thursday, hundreds of people from dozens of community, labor and faith organizations marched through Chicago’s Cityfront Plaza and Magnificent Mile to demand fair pay and on-the-job respect for low-wage food and retail workers. The event was organized by the freshly formed Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC) — whose new campaign, Fight for Fifteen, is demanding a $15/hour living wage for underpaid workers in the downtown food and retail industries.
Under the banner “Neighborhoods March on Michigan Avenue,” residents of Albany Park, Brighton Park, Englewood, Little Village and other North, South and West Side neighborhoods gathered to address the connection between poverty wages, crime and educational underachievement in Chicago communities. After rallying at Cityfront Plaza and marching along the Magnificent Mile, workers and community supporters delivered a letter of protest to the Greater North Michigan Avenue Association — an advocacy organization for Magnificent Mile businesses and corporations — and issued a December 22 response deadline.
“I’m excited to see so many neighborhoods coming together to join this movement,” said Kenyanna Brown, who makes $8.75 an hour as a salesperson at Victoria’s Secret in the Water Tower Plaza. A sophomore at DePaul University, Brown helped launch the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago in August with five other workers.
“This struggle reaches out beyond downtown workers like myself who want a living wage and respect at the workplace,” says Brown. “Poverty hurts our communities. Within this past year I’ve lost friends to drug-related violence, I’ve had friends I’ve almost lost, and since I’ve gotten involved in this campaign it’s really hit home that the less chance people have to find employment that allows them to provide for their families and themselves, the more prone they are to seek profits on the street, and the more the community hurts.”
Earlier this month, a report released by Action Now and Stand Up! Chicago calculated that a wage increase to $15 an hour for low-wage food and retail workers downtown would lift thousands of workers out of poverty, create an estimated 1,000 new jobs in downtown Chicago and generate $179 million in economic activity for the city as a whole.
“The downtown area covers about 1 percent of the total land in the city, but its retail and restaurant industries bring in about a third of the city’s revenue,” explains Victor Perez, researcher with Action Now and coauthor of the report. “There’s an enormous concentration of wealth there. These industries are staffed by people who live in Chicago’s communities, but there’s not alot of money flowing back to the communities, because the wages paid are simply not enough for workers to cover their cost of living.”
The report, entitled “A Case for $15: A Low Wage Work Crisis,” details that a wage increase to $15/hour — though still short of the $17.24/hour Self-Sufficiency Standard for a single parent in Chicago with one child — would enhance socioeconomic vitality, diminish violent crime and improve student educational performance for communities hardest hit by the 2009 recession.
“The cost of this wage increase for the companies in downtown Chicago is relatively low compared to their overall revenues,” argues Perez, “and workers will go back and spend their increased paychecks downtown. So everybody benefits. The worker benefits from higher wages, the company benefits from increased economic activity, the neighborhood and family benefits from a better standard of living, and the city benefits because additional economic activity increases tax receipts for the city.”
Thursday’s rally is the latest in a string of Chicago protests addressing economic inequality and demanding dignity for workers and communities. On December 10, Stand Up! Chicago organized a downtown march and rally as part of a nationwide Jobs Not Cuts! day of action to protest plans to avert the “fiscal cliff” by shredding social safety nets. Members of SEIU Local 73 joined a coalition of home care workers and community supporters to deliver petitions to Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin at the Kluczynski Federal Building, calling on the Democratic lawmaker to reject any fiscal plan involving cuts to Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security. Last week, demonstrators held a symbolic protest demanding that lawmakers take care of Chicago’s communities, in which they operated a week-long makeshift soup kitchen and shantytown encampment at Federal Plaza — dubbed ‘Durbinville’ in reference to the Hoovervilles and soup lines of the Great Depression. Climbing into cardboard boxes, protesters warned that by bargaining away America’s Depression-era entitlement programs, senators like Durbin stand to plunge the country into another Depression.
Fight For Fifteen argues that a strictly policy-centered debate over the fiscal cliff overlooks the role played by the private sector in determining societal well-being.
“When employers don’t pay their workers enough to cover their cost of living, everybody else has to pay for it,” Perez explains. “The worker pays through hardship and lack of social mobility, and society pays through public assistance programs.”
In a post-recession economic recovery fueled primarily by the creation of low-wage jobs in the food and retail industries, workers across the nation are growing increasingly adamant in their demand for dignity. Here in Chicago, chants of “We can’t survive on $8.25!” reverberated through the Magnificent Mile today.
“I’m marching because I want what we deserve, and I want to make others realize what they deserve,” says Brown. “Even if they’re not ready to fight yet, I want them to know that there is change out there, that it’s coming, and that we’re gonna make it come together.”
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BEN LORBER works as senior research analyst at Political Research Associates, a progressive think tank monitoring right-wing movements, where he focuses on white nationalism and antisemitism. His book Safety through Solidarity: A Radical Guide to Fighting Antisemitism will be released in 2024 with Melville House Books.