By John V. Santore
While boisterous protests targeted Chicago-area Walmarts Friday, a new local union formed in mid-November coordinated a second wave of actions calling for an increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour, well beyond a gradual statewide increase to $10.55 that may be approved next year.
The Illinois minimum wage is currently $8.25 per hour.
The activities were part of the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago’s “Fight for 15” campaign. The committee says it already includes employees at more than 100 businesses. After supporting the Walmart rallies, committee members marched down Michigan Avenue and rallied both outside and inside Water Tower Place.
“That’s really hard for me, because I’m paying student loans off, I have other things I have to pay off, I just moved to Chicago,” she said.
Another committee member who asked to be identified only as Nash said he has never made more than $11.91 in 16 years of retail and restaurant work around the country. He works at Jamba Juice.
“Please know, where you spend your money at and you pay an honest dollar to get your products, these people that are working there — to bring that service or product to you — are nowhere near making an honest living wage,” he said.
Stand Up! Chicago, a coalition of local labor groups, helped the committee coordinate Friday’s activities.
Elizabeth Parisian, a policy analyst with the coalition, said she expects reports to be released and further actions to take place in support of the Fight for 15 campaign, but that the course of future events is in the hands of the committee’s leaders.
“I think the workers definitely want to use the holiday shopping season to deliver their message,” she said.
Earlier in the day, Fight for 15 members joined OUR Walmart, an independent group operating in conjunction with established unions, at staged protests at multiple Walmart locations in Chicago. According to organizers, at least 40 Illinois Walmart employees were involved. The retailer operates six locations in the city. Planned expansions have stoked controversy, with critics questioning the chain’s impact on wages and local economic conditions.
“We’re looking for better pay, stop the retaliation when workers try to come together, better benefits,” said Rosetta Brown, a long-time Walmart employee who took Friday off so she could attend the protests. “We’re just asking for respect.”
David Tovar, vice president of Corporate Communications for Walmart, released a Friday statement minimizing the protests’ significance.
“It was proven last night — and again today — that the OUR Walmart group doesn’t speak for the 1.3 million Walmart associates,” he said “We had our best Black Friday ever and OUR Walmart was unable to recruit more than a small number of associates to participate in these made for TV events.”
Parisian dismissed Tovar’s statement.
“These employers recognize that they are not paying their employees what they are worth, what they deserve to earn, and certainly not enough to even get by,” she said. “Obviously they’re going to come out with strongly worded statements about how they’re the good guys and everything’s fine.”
Marc Goumbri, a field organizer with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union who helped coordinate the Walmart protests, also objected to Tovar’s assessment. “The reality is, this was a nationwide movement,” he said. “There were at least a thousand actions that took place.”
According to Walmart, the average hourly full-time employee at the company makes $12.57 per hour.