by Elizabeth Grossman

On April 24th, hundreds of workers at fast-food restaurants in Chicago staged a one-day walk-out to demonstrate for a raise to $15 an hour and the right to form a union.  Striking workers included employees of Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, Subway, Popeyes Chicken, Macy’s, Nordstrom Rack, Sears, Lands’ End, Victoria’s Secret and Whole Foods.  Some stores were unable to open or forced to close when all workers who were not management either walked out or did not report to work.  Photos from Chicago show lines of striking workers stretching for several blocks.

Among them was Charde, who is 21, the mother of a 3 year-old and a 5 month-old, and works as a cashier at Sears.  She’s been working there for about a year, she told me, and earns $9 an hour.  Providing for a family of three with 40 hours a week at that wage would be challenging, but Sears hasn’t given Charde more than 20 hours of work a week, and her schedule changes from week to week.  She said she’d recently been offered five more hours a week but that Sears has told her it has no full-time positions available. Because it isn’t full time, her job includes no benefits, and Charde says she can’t afford the healthcare insurance that’s offered through Sears.  She’s also just gotten a new apartment where the rent is $650 a month. “It’s going to be a struggle, but my children make me strong,” she says.

The April 24 strike was organized by the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago campaign called “The Fight for 15.” It is part of an ongoing effort begun last year that is supported by numerous Chicago area labor, community and other organizations, including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).  The Chicago strike comes a few weeks after a similar one held in New York in early April, when a reported 400 fast-food restaurant workers held what’s being described as the largest such walk-out ever.  A demonstration is also planned for Oakland, California on May 1.

“The $15 is the tip of the iceberg” said Reverend Liz Muñoz of St. James Episcopal Church, whose clergy are supporting the “Fight for 15” workers who rallied at the Cathedral on the 24th.  “They’re asking for the right to organize” because they have no job security or benefits, she explained. “The workers are ready to take the risk and take a stand and ask for corporations to look at the human face of what’s happening in the community.”

A disparity between wages and living costs

According to recent Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, about a third of Chicago’s workforce earns $12 or less an hour.  Of those who work in retail, about half earn $12 per hour or less.  Approximately one-third earns less than $10 per hour, and about 20% earn less than $9 per hour.  This means about a third of the people who work in Chicago earn $24,960 before taxes. According to the MIT “Living Wage Calculator,” the estimated living wage for a household with one adult and two children is $53,055  —  before taxes.

Minimum wage in Chicago pays $8.25 per hour. Working full-time at that wage would earn $1320 a month or $17,160.00 annually before taxes, based on an 8-hour day and a 260-day work year.  But the average weekly hours worked by non-supervisory food-service employees – like those who marched in Chicago on April 24th – is currently 24.  Average weekly hours for non-managerial retail employees – again like those who marched in Chicago – is 31.  Average wages for these positions in both industries is less than $10 per hour.

With the hours Sears gives her, Charde earns $180 a week, or $720 a month.  This adds up to before tax income of $8640.  Even with the extra five hours a week, she’ll still be nearly $9,000 below the 2013 poverty level for a family of three.

“These workers would like to be able to work full-time, but employers won’t give them the hours,” said the Rev. Muñoz. The unpredictable part-time schedules many low-wage workers juggle make it difficult to piece together the several jobs needed to make ends meet, not to mention the challenges of organizing childcare and other household responsibilities.

Charde said that about 15 Sears employees participated in the strike. “Everyone is going through the same problems,” she said.  “We’re all making the same amount of money and all struggling and trying to pay our bills.”

The $15 hourly wage the striking workers are asking for would mean monthly earnings of $2400, or $31,200 for a year before taxes.   According to the MIT “Living Wage Calculator,” that is about $6,000 less in after-tax income than what’s needed to support one adult and one child in Chicago, where monthly costs for modest homes run between a minimum of $600 and $800 and where a monthly Chicago Transit Authority pass is $100.  Monthly food costs for a Chicago family of three – one adult and two children – MIT puts at $536.  So if you are one of the 30-plus percent of Chicago workers earning $12 or less per hour that means after covering basic housing, transportation and food costs, a single parent with two children, like Charde, would be figuring out how to pay for utilities, phone, childcare, clothing and healthcare costs on less than $200 pre-tax dollars each week.

At current wage rates, many low-wage workers have to rely on public assistance to fill the gaps, says the Rev. Muñoz.  She calls a living wage an investment in the community.  The links between poverty and violence are well known, she says, and Chicago is one of the most violent cities in the country in terms of gun violence.  “People want a secure and safer future for their children.”  In addition to the most obvious adverse impacts of community violence, recent environmental health studies have shown that exposure to the stress of living in such environments can increase risk for childhood asthma and exacerbate its symptoms and also those of exposure to contaminants like lead and car exhaust.

Asked for a comment on the strike, Sears, Subway, and Whole Foods have not responded by press time (The Pump Handle will follow up when they do respond), but McDonald’s said in a statement, “”We value and respect all the employees who work at McDonald’s restaurants.”  McDonald’s also said most Chicago McDonald’s restaurants, like others around the country, are independently owned and operated. “Both our company and franchised-owned restaurants work hard every day to treat McDonald’s employees with dignity and respect. Employees are paid competitive wages and have access to a range of benefits to meet their individual needs,” the company said, noting that it offers “a variety of training and professional development opportunities” for employees “who want to go from crew to management.”

Asked for her employer’s response to the strike, Charde replied, “They haven’t said anything yet.”

When I spoke to the Rev. Muñoz on the afternoon of April 25, she told me that “today from 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m” elected officials, community leaders and others were “walking workers back to their jobs.”  That, she said, “sends a message to corporations that these workers have support and a message to other workers that their plight is being heard and there is support in the community. This story needs to be told until workers get fair wages.”

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green ChemistryHigh Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.

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