On Aug. 1 I stood outside of a Walgreens in downtown Chicago chanting, “Come on out! We’ve got your back!” alongside 200 other people. We stood in the windows holding up signs that read, “We are worth more” and “Strike for 15.” Teresa, an employee, looked outside at the crowd longingly as her manager yelled at her, illegally, that joining her co-workers on strike would result in her termination. After a 30-minute standoff, Teresa worked up the courage to walk out and join the protest. The crowd erupted in celebratory screams and Teresa was attacked with hugs from her co-workers as we moved on down the block to picket outside of Chick-fil-A. The ecstatic expression on her face showed that she clearly felt she’d made the right decision. A beautiful picture of the moment was featured in the Chicago Tribune the following day.
We were part of a nationwide movement of one- to two-day strikes of fast food and retail workers called the Fight for 15 campaign. Our demands were simple: a $15 minimum wage and the right to unionize without employer retaliation. Hundreds of striking workers and supporters travelled around the city’s neighborhoods and downtown, picketing in front of each store where workers were on strike. Each day of protests began at 5:00 a.m. and we marched until evening.
The current minimum wage level in Chicago is $8.25, meaning that an employee earns around $17,000 a year, assuming they are given the opportunity to work full-time. A common argument in support of a low minimum wage is that these jobs are often reserved for teenagers, yet over 57 percent of minimum wage earners in Chicago are over 30.
In response to this criticism, McDonald’s released a sample budget plan for its employees this summer, explaining how to make due on a fast food salary. The budget plan assumed that each worker had a second job and was working over 70 cumulative hours per week. Even so, the plan allotted only $20 a month for healthcare and $600 for rent. Initially, McDonald’s suggested that its employees spend no money at all on heating, but raised that figure to $50 after McDonald’s faced ridicule from every corner of the Internet.
McDonald’s proved what critics have been saying for years: supporting a family of four on a minimum wage salary is simply not feasible. Even a $15 minimum wage only produces around a $30,000 salary. The costs of raising the minimum wage would not be as large as many claim they would be either. While downtown Chicago fast food and retail chains have seen billions of dollars in increased profits over the last decade, the cost of raising their employees’ salaries to $15 is only estimated to be $103 million, a relatively small fraction. Even if the costs were entirely absorbed into prices (which wouldn’t necessarily be the case), a study out of the University of Kansas says that the McDonald’s dollar menu would only increase by seventeen cents. Minimum wage in this country has not kept up with either inflation or increases in productivity, and it is time for this to change.
Many of the workers who have gone on strike with Fight for 15 have seen real improvements to their jobs, including wage raises, more reasonable hours and better treatment by management. Although it is illegal to face retaliation of any kind (including termination) in response to a strike over unfair labor practices, some employers will attempt to do so anyway. To prevent this, groups of at least ten supporters of Fight for 15 walked each worker back to their store the morning following the strike. A lawyer or religious spokesperson went with each group and gave the employer a letter explaining the worker’s rights. The group would refuse to leave until the employee was allowed back into work. When we chanted, “Come on out! We’ve got your back!” to employees like Teresa, we truly meant it.
I got a chance to speak to Teresa during a lunch break a few hours after she walked out of her store. I asked her how she was able to work up the courage to go on strike under such intimidating circumstances. She told me that the minute she saw the crowd of workers and friends outside she knew she had no other option but to strike. Teresa marched along with thousands across the country, and the same group went on strike again last Thursday. They will continue the Fight for 15 until their demands are met.
Diana Rosen is a sophomore in Pierson College. She is a staff blogger for the News. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .