By J. Coyden Palmer, Chicago Crusader
Thousands of workers across the country participated in a one-day strike on Nov. 29 with the purpose of getting politicians and large corporations to acknowledge the need to increase the nation’s minimum wage to $15.
Dozens of fast-food and health care workers, educators and others were arrested for committing acts of civil disobedience during the strike. In Chicago, those arrested included several Latino politicians who joined the fight on the front lines.
The day of action in Chicago started at a McDonald’s restaurant in the Ukrainian Village community. There, protesters defied police orders and sat down in the middle of the intersection of Damen and Chicago Avenues while supporters cheered them on.
Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia was among those taken into custody. Garcia, who lost his campaign bid to Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the mayoral election last year, said it is time for Americans to wake up and acknowledge that the existing minimum wage is too low.
“The main argument against raising the minimum wage is it will hurt businesses, and people should not be living their lives off of working in a McDonald’s,” Garcia said.
“Well, there are some places in America, like Seattle, where they see the benefits of raising the minimum wage, and it is not hurting businesses. And the truth of the matter is the economy is so bad, getting these jobs is the only option for thousands of Americans. So, perhaps we need to realize the purpose for many of these jobs has changed.”
Non-unionized baggage workers, janitors and wheelchair attendants at O’Hare Airport were among the striking employees. Shortly after noon, they were joined on the picket lines by those who work at hospitals and other institutions.
Most of the workers at O’Hare—one of the nation’s busiest airports—earn around $11 an hour, which they say is not enough. They claim they are part of the nation’s working poor because they get no benefits.
“My daughter needs a root canal right now, but I can’t afford it,” said Kisha Rivera, who cleans airplanes at O’Hare. “It’s a horrible thing to have to choose between paying your bills and your child’s health.”
Airline travel was not interrupted because of the strike. Organizers say they did not want to strike during the busy Thanksgiving holiday weekend because they want the public’s support on the issue.
The Service Employees International Union Local #1 (SEIU) was the chief organizer of the strike at the airport. The union said the only chance workers have of gaining acceptable pay is to organize as a union.
The scene at downtown Northwestern Memorial Hospital was much the same, with protesters walking the picket line. There, workers say they work at one of the most prestigious hospitals in the country, but are paid little to nothing by the hospital.
Mary Kay Henry, SEIU president, joined the workers at Northwestern Hospital. She said the workers in Chicago are a “symbol for the country.” She believes Chicago will be a catalyst for change. The SEUI said 65 million workers in the United States make less than $15 an hour.
“Today, Chicago fast-food and airport workers and other low-wage workers with the Fight for $15 are showing that they are not backing down,” said Alderman Carlos Rosa (35th).
He added, “They are going to continue to fight for a more just Chicago and country. They are going to reject any divisiveness that will tear apart working-class families and will oppose anybody who will try to take workers’ rights, block wage increases and deport immigrants. We need corporations, like McDonald’s and major airlines, to step up, too, so that we can have a more just economy.”
But not everyone feels that way.
Nick Fuentes, who works as a security guard, says fast-food workers do not deserve to make $15 an hour. He said the work they do does not deserve that kind of wage and the employees at many of these places are rude to customers and mess up orders all the time. He was aggravated with the one-day strike and is a part of the population that believes these workers should get more job training skills so they can get into higher paying fields.
The National Employment Law Project found that 63 percent of Americans favor increasing the minimum wage to $15 over the next five years. In many states, they have already increased wages for those at the bottom of the money-earning scale. In areas around Minneapolis, fast-food workers regularly make $13 an hour—some of the highest fast-food wages in the country—and the economy there is thriving, according to the state’s chief financial officer.
Officials in San Francisco have already raised their minimum wage to $15, as have New York, Seattle and Portland, OR. But getting the nation as a whole, especially Congress, to raise the minimum wage so drastically is seen as inviting a potential economic collapse, say those who are against it.
Economist Steve Kaplan, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, called the plan “a terrible idea.” He believes it will only lead to a higher unemployment rate and reduce investment in companies.
Kaplan said those striking are in danger of losing their jobs as technology continues to improve and show their jobs can be eliminated. He cited the Wendy’s hamburger chain as an example of what can happen to workers who are demanding too much. Wendy’s is currently experimenting with using robots to fill customers’ orders.
“The worst thing to do is to make jobs more expensive,” Kaplan said. “Technology is already taking jobs. What we need to do is make it easier to hire people. The Earned Income Tax Credit is a great tool. It gives low-wage employees extra. It doesn’t reduce incentive for employer to hire, and it helps employees earn more.”