It was a cold clear Saturday morning on December 22, 2012 when I got off the CTA Green Line and walked toward the St. James Cathedral to join with members of the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC). WOCC was planning march and sit-in to demand a living wage of $15 an hour for Chicago’s downtown retail and restaurant workers. The Illinois minimum wage is now $8.25, far below what is needed to support families or even individuals.
The Hawk, Chicago’s legendary icy wind off the Lake, was not present as I crossed the Michigan Ave bridge on the way to the Cathedral. The Hawk can easily cut through the North Face jackets favored by many Chicagoans and makes carrying a large protest banner as tricky as sailing a schooner around Cape Horn. And leafletting to passersby when The Hawk comes down? You can lose dozens of fliers in an instant if you relax your grip and then have to chase a passel of airborne leaflets through crowds of shoppers and tourists.
The weather was with us that day.
WOCC was a new union in town, barely a month old, but had already pulled off two successful public actions including banner drops at Macy’s department store and marches through Chicago’s upscale Magnificent Mile (aka MagMile) shopping district.
At the St. James Cathedral, we practiced a satiric song we’d sing at stops along the march route. Two WOCC members were dressed up as the Biblical Mary and Joseph in the tradition of the Latin American Posada, a procession commemorating their search for lodgings on what is now Christmas Eve. Our Posada would symbolize the search for justice by downtown workers.
Our practice singing was a little ragged and we wandered around the musical scale a bit, but we belted out the words with enthusiasm. An energetic and joyful Rev. Liz Muñoz assured us we were doing fine and to have fun with it. To boost our morale even more, WOCC thoughtfully passed out warm red stocking caps with the WOCC logo embossed on them. I eagerly removed my baseball hat and donned mine.
Our Posada for worker justice
There were about 150 of us as we left the Cathedral on our Posada. Although our spirits were high and we planned to be light-hearted throughout the afternoon, we were 100% serious. Yana, a worker at Macy's on the Magnificent Mile, had explained one of our purposes at an earlier Fight for 15 action:
“I work in the Water Tower and have been doing so for 9 months.I'm here with the union fighting for $15 because we work hard for little pay. We deserve more for the work we're putting in for these companies, right? I'm passionate about this campaign because in my neighborhood I see a direct connection to the poverty in my community for the lack of jobs.You've got the violence and the gang rivalry. I personally have lost loved ones and friends and I've seen my family members and friends do the same. The violence and everything wouldn't happen if there were jobs out here for people to make a decent living. I’m in a fight for survival." —Yana, a worker at Macy's
For workers like Yana, this is more than a struggle for better pay. It is literally a matter of life and death. Yana’s analysis is backed up by solid research in WOCC’s detailed report “A Case for $15: A Low Wage Work Crisis”. In that context, our Posada was also a a celebration of peace and hope in dark times.
We marched though the MagMile neighborhood, stopping briefly at McDonalds, Jimmy Johns and Starbucks to sing our satiric Posada song and deliver our message to passersby with leaflets. Our final destination was the Macy’s at Water Tower Place.
Almost two dozen people had been assigned to block Pearson Street next to Water Tower Place in a sit-in to protest Macy’s low wage policies. The cops allowed us sufficient amount of time to make our point and then moved in for arrests. People were cited and quickly released, allowing them to could join us back at the rendezvous point at St James Cathedral. We made the local news who treated the story more decently than I expected.
Fight for 15 wants a meeting with the Greater North Michigan Avenue Business Association, which represents companies on the MagMile. Among its Board of Directors is Richard Simon, CEO of United Service Companies, the parent of United Maintenance, the mob linked janitorial firm that just won a juicy contract from the City. It’s Chicago, so you are never too far from The Outfit.
A living wage for is an investment that will repay itself many times over.
“I'm a single mom raising 5 children by myself.And I am here to let you all know that we all go through struggles, not just me but all of us. We can't live off $8.25 so we're here today to fight for what we know is right. Now I am also part of Goodlow Magnet Local School Council. I've been there for 4 years. I've been there as a parent-teacher advocate for 3 years.I've been a volunteer parent for 7 years. I have put all my work into my children's education.”—Parthenia Barnes of Chicago’s West Englewood community.
Parthenia’s $9 an hour seasonal salary at Macy’s means she has to rely on public assistance to meet basic needs. Macy’s refuses to give her a regular work schedule which is very hard on her as a parent with children. She has asked that Macy’s not schedule her when she has a Local School Council meeting, but they ignore her. The Local School Councils are a vital part of maintaining quality education in the Chicago Public Schools.
For people like Parthenia and the thousands more like her in Chicago, a living wage with regular schedules and generous benefits would result in more stable families and more stable neighborhoods. Reducing financial stress means better physical health and a reduction in domestic and street violence. People would have more time and resources for their children, their schools and their communities. They would have more money to spend in their neighborhood, helping small businesses stay alive and creating more jobs. There would be fewer evictions and foreclosures.
There would be less need for public assistance. People could more easily further their education, become involved in hobbies and recreation, which besides being personally fulfilling for those individuals, can also be a job and income creator. Because of Chicago’s long history of racial separation, the burden of low wages falls heaviest on communities of color.
Since parental income is the single best predictor of school success for children, raising wages to a decent level would do wonders for the Chicago Public Schools and could help end the destructive drive for privatization through charters and turnarounds.
A living wage has a multiplier effect that goes far beyond the individuals who would receive it. A living wage is a smart investment to create a better city for all.
If a living wage is a good social investment, then why is Chicago’s political and financial elite so opposed it?
“Whose city? Our city!”
In 1968, Henri Lefebvre wrote the book Le Droit à la ville (The Right to the City) which asked who has the right to make and transform a city? His book launched a global Right to the City movement which seeks to democratize a process which is largely dominated by political and economic elites. At the US Social Forum in 2008, the Right to the City Movement was explained this way:
“The right cannot be limited to people who own property in the cities or to legally recognized citizens; instead it belongs to all urban residents: working class people, poor people, homeless people, youth, women, queer people, people of color, immigrants, all of us. The people of the city have the right to remain in their cities and to benefit from what the city has to offer. Perhaps even more importantly, they have the right to democratically determine the future development of the city.”
Across Chicago, the cry of “Whose city? Our city?” has been raised at countless rallies and marches, with Fight for 15 being the latest to add their voices. Why should the wealth created by Chicago’s working class be invested without their participation in the decisions? Why should it be invested in bloated CEO compensation like the $14.5 million awarded to Macy’s CEO Terry Lundgren when Macy’s workers are struggling just to survive?
“Analysis of more than 50 publicly traded retail and restaurant companies that have operations in the downtown Chicago area found that the average CEO compensation package in 2011 was about $8.3 million.
If broken down as an hourly wage, this would amount to $4,011 per hour (assuming they work a forty hour week), about 409 times more than what these companies pay their typical worker.”— A Case for $15: A low wage work crisis
Chicago is one of the wealthiest cities on the planet through its participation in global finance, yet very little this money makes its way to the city’s working class. Poverty has been increasing in Chicago every year since the 2008 Crash, with child poverty now afflicting over 1/3 of Chicago’s children. Investing in exotic casino capitalism schemes is somehow more important than Chicago’s children.
The trend in Chicago is toward divestment in working class neighborhoods, low wages for workers and deep cuts in public services. The city elite has engaged in deliberate unionbusting through privatization, resulting in unstable jobs with few worker protections. The City has closed mental health centers, reduced library services, closed neighborhood schools, slashed CTA transit routes and seems hell bent on turning more lucrative city services over to private companies with political ties to the Mayor.
Since the 2008 Crash the top 1% of the USA has reaped 93% of real income growth. The corrosive effect of gross income inequality on the social fabric of nations has been well documented. Besides being a crime against humanity, it is also dangerous to the very capitalist system so-beloved by our political and financial elites. One of the major factors in both the 1929 and 2008 financial crashes was income inequality.
Chicago’s economic and political elite thinks it is the sole owner of the city, even as they force it down a perilous economic path. The Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago does not agree.
“You leave us with no other choice. Working people still have a voice.”–from the WOCC Posada song
That line from WOCC’s Posada song reminds us that although we are up against some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in human history, we also have a power if we choose to use it. After the demonstration ended at Macy’s, most people headed back to the Cathedral. I decided to duck into Water Tower Place on Michigan Ave to get a quick cup of coffee and write some notes about the events of the day.
I was stopped from entering by two security guards who refused to give me their names. My crime? I was wearing a red WOCC stocking cap with the union logo. If I took it off, I could go inside. If a single union cap is seen as a threat to Corporate Chicago, imagine if there were 10,000 people on Michigan Avenue wearing caps from their unions? Or 100,000? Or 500,000?
A million, or even more? Now that would be a day of reckoning.
A case for $15: A low wage worker crisis
Fight for the future: How low wages are failing children in Chicago’s schools