The woman on the right is a McDonald’s worker who walked off the job this morning. Photo by Micah Uetricht.
Chicago’s downtown Loop area is the heart of commerce in the city. But beginning at 5:30 am today, fast food and retail workers there have gone on strike, following New York City fast food workers who walked off the job in November and again earlier this month demanding higher wages and better working conditions.
Organizers estimate about 500 workers, uniting under the name of the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago , will be striking today in industries long associated with low wages but unaccustomed to labor unrest. The campaign, backed by a coalition of Chicago unions and community organizations, has the lofty goal of winning a raise to $15 per hour for workers who make up nearly one-third of all jobs  in the city.
Silvia Garduno, 27, works at a Sally’s Beauty Supply store in the Loop. The night before the strike, Garduno explained that despite working at the store (one location of “the largest retailer of professional beauty supplies in the world,” according to the company’s website) for three years, she earns $8.91 per hour.
“We’re the ones working our butts off,” Garduno says. “$8.91 is ridiculous—especially being downtown. We’re worth more.” The Loop sees about $4 billion in retail and fast food revenue each year.
In addition to low pay, Garduno says her work at Sally’s is sometimes dangerous, like when she says her store was robbed, and is often full of indignities, like when she had to take time off to tend to her sick mother and was told she might be fired.
Retail and food service jobs are typically thought of as entry-level positions, populated by teenagers looking for some extra spending money before moving on. But a recent National Employment Law Project study  found that since the 2008 economic crash, the majority of jobs lost have been middle wage jobs (between $13.84 and $21.13), while the bulk of jobs under the “recovery” has been jobs between $7.69 and $13.83. It’s what has been called a “McJobs Recovery ,” in which low-wage jobs are increasingly the only jobs available—for teenagers, young adults, middle-aged workers, everyone.
Indeed, at a meeting downtown two weeks before the strike, workers of a wide variety of ages and other demographic profiles gathered. One of three such meetings held to discuss whether or not to strike, nearly 100 workers squeezed into a sweltering room, listening to middle-aged Ecuadorian immigrants telling their stories of working at McDonald’s in Spanish, followed by the kind of white twenty-something cashiers who would likely take umbrage at being pegged as hipsters. An African-American man approaching what’s typically thought of as retirement age told of decades working in fast food and hovering near minimum wage, while a young Urban Outfitters worker said a raise would “make the difference between living and surviving.”
When explaining what a raise to $15 per hour would mean to her, Trish Kahle, a Whole Foods worker, stated simply, “I could have heat all winter.”
“We all have one thing in common: sacrifice,” a young African-American cashier on the Mag Mile said later.
“We sacrifice our time, our family, our general happiness. The people we’re working for don’t make those sacrifices,” she said before pledging to strike.
Strikers’ principal demand—$15 per hour, nearly double the minimum wage rate—is likely unwinnable, but is refreshingly audacious at a time when workers’ expectations are severely diminished and organized labor appears nearly vanquished . It’s part of the campaign’s larger demand-side economics argument that is rarely heard in the age of austerity: in a city with massive violent crime rates in poor neighborhoods, the best crime prevention tactic is raising the wages of workers in those neighborhoods [PDF ].
And the willingness on the part of labor to begin campaigns loudly and publicly with walkoffs is a part of a recent “strike-first strategy ,” in which workers are bypassing the U.S.’s notoriously anti-worker labor laws whose typical process for forming a union allows employers to destroy organizing drives in their nascent phases. Instead, workers are walking off the job as part of a highly visible attempt to gain the support of their coworkers. Workers in Walmart’s retail  and warehouse  divisions took the same step late last year, and won some small but important victories .
While recent efforts to organize low-wage and retail workers seem new, they have historical precedent in the U.S. Vanessa Tait, author of Poor Workers Unions, a history of organizing efforts in low-wage jobs, says previous efforts, like the famous 1937 sit-down strike by women workers at Woolworth’s  or lesser-known efforts to organize fast food restaurants in Detroit in the 1980s, were done on a smaller shop-by-shop level—unlike the strikes in Chicago and New York, whose scope involves hundreds of stores and restaurants. “Being able to organize on a unified industrial and geographical level with broad public support makes a big difference: it creates a sense of movement and a greater possibility of victory.”
While organizing conditions are difficult for low-wage workers, Tait says they aren’t impossible.
“Producing lattes at Starbucks isn’t really all that different from making widgets at General Electric. Organizing is less about the thing produced and more about how workers and their supporters construct a movement,” she says.
At Wednesday’s meeting, workers from big-name companies like Macy’s, Subway, Victoria’s Secret, McDonald’s, and Nike pledged to strike. Some seemed nervous to take the step of a strike, but the successful example of New York—where only one striking worker was told they were fired, only to be allowed to return after community leaders and other supporters accompanied her back  and demanded her reinstatement—seems to have emboldened many of Chicago’s low-wage strikers. Organizers say the campaign will soon be spreading beyond Chicago and New York to other cities around the country, where there surely are surpluses of pissed-off low-wage workers.
“It’s because we put up with it,” Garduno says in response to a question about why these companies had paid so little for so long. “We let them pay us what they want to, instead of demanding they pay us what we deserve. Well, guess what? We’re not putting up with it anymore.”