Standing with other protesters on Chicago’s storied State Street, Charde Nabors, 21, said she’s fighting for better pay and more opportunities for workers like her.
Nabors said she earns $9 an hour at Sears and would like to work full time, rather than her current 20 hours a week. She relies on food stamps to help feed her two children, ages 2 and 5 months.
“Food stamps help but they don’t pay the rent,” Nabors said, acknowledging the difficulty of searching for work and taking public assistance. “I keep this guard up because I look at their faces every day and I know I have to do what I can do support them.”
She and other fast-food and retail workers flocked to downtown Chicago on Wednesday to make a public pitch for higher wages. Their “Fight for $15 campaign” seeks $15 an hour for employees. It is supported by a coalition of local community, labor and faith-based organizations — including the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago, a group of downtown fast-food and retail workers that launched in November.
The group has been working with others to stage protests and push for a boost in Illinois’ minimum wage, which has remained at $8.25 since 2009.
Wednesday’s action came just weeks after hundreds of fast-food workers walked off their jobs in New York City, also in a push for higher wages. Late last year, Wal-Mart workers in select cities staged protests, seeking higher wages and benefits as well as pushing back against the retailer’s decision to open on Thanksgiving.
The protests have been gaining steam in the fast-food and retail sectors — which have generated the most jobs since the recession, labor experts said, but are among the lowest paid.
A study last year by the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group, found that most of the jobs gained since the early 2010 — 58 percent — paid $12 an hour or less.
It also found that the workers earning $14 to just over $21 per hour suffered the biggest losses during the recession and that hiring at that pay grade has lagged during the recovery.
The upsurge in organizing efforts among workers in the service industry can be explained by two factors, according to Annette Bernhardt, policy co-director of the National Employment Law Project and author of the report.
“Fast food and retail have been driving job growth in this recovery, the signature characteristic of which is booming corporate profits on one hand and stagnant wages and growing inequality on the other,” she said.
The rolling protests began at 5:30 a.m. as workers walked off the job at some McDonald’s restaurants and Dunkin’ Donuts, organizers said. The protesters, who were scattered around several Loop locations, continued the day with a rally at St. James Cathedral.
“I’m fighting for 15,” Robert Wilson Jr., 25, who makes $8.60 an hour at McDonald’s at Navy Pier, told the crowd. “I don’t see the point of people having full-time jobs that don’t pay enough to cover their basic needs.”
Katelyn Johnson, executive director of Action Now, one of the rally’s organizers, said the idea for the event was borne out of protests last year over CTA fare hikes. Johnson said conversations with protesters there revealed the bigger priority of low wages.
“Fight for $15 seeks to put money back in the pockets of the 275,000 men and women who work hard in the city’s fast-food and retail outlets but still can’t afford basic necessities,” the group said in a release. “If workers were paid more, they’d spend more, helping to get Chicago’s economy moving again.”
Others believe it could have the opposite effect.
“An increase to the minimum wage, combined with the increased employer costs for the national Affordable Care Act, will threaten the vitality of the industry and result in restaurants closing and workers losing their jobs,” said Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia.
Susan Kezios, president of American Franchisee Association, said it would be a mistake to believe that all business franchise owners are wealthy.
Referring to a conversation with a local 7-Eleven franchisee, Kezios said that even when a store is grossing more than $1 million per year, the operator is “hardly making $15 an hour.”
“Just because there’s a franchise sign doesn’t mean these people are millionaires,” she said. “They’re working lots and lots of hours, and I think some of their employees would be surprised to see how little some of their employers are making.”
A spokesman for Nabors’ employer, Sears, said the retailer has several programs in place that provide an opportunity for extra income for hourly workers. He declined to say how many of Sears’ associates are in those programs.
Historically, it’s difficult to organize fast-food workers because of the industry’s high turnover, said Emily Rosenberg, director of the Labor Education Center at the DePaul University’s School for New Learning.
But there’s also an economic argument to be made for paying people more, she said.
“In a downturn, you want people to buy things, and they can’t buy things if they are earning $8.25 an hour and working two jobs and struggling to feed their children,” she said. Workers will organize, she said, “when they feel like they haven’t got a lot to lose.”
The makings of the retail and fast-food protests began with Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, said Dorian Warren, associate professor of political science and public affairs at Columbia University in New York.
The public will be watching to see how the protests progress, he added, and if the workers are not fired after protesting, they will be emboldened, Warren said. “It’s anybody’s guess how virally this could spread across the country.”