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Fight for $15: Breaking the silence about suburban poverty


“As a 44-year-old man, making $8.25, living paycheck to paycheck and barely being able to survive just isn’t right. I love to cook. I love what I do for a living. That’s why we’re calling for fair wages for fast food workers in Chicago’s suburbs. From Oak Park to Cicero, to Sauk Village to Barrington Hills, we need this. That’s why we’re standing together in the suburbs and calling for $15. Suburban workers are struggling and we need higher wages so that we too can be part of the American dream.”—-Anthony Kemp, Oak Park IL KFC worker

Silence can be a powerful way to communicate a message. That was certainly true at the September 28 meeting of the Oak Park Illinois Village Board.After hearing 5 speakers representing the Fight for $15 movement speak about the importance of passing a Living Wage Ordinance in the town and the need for a $15 a hour minimum wage throughout Chicagoland, their heartfelt words were met with a perfunctory almost expressionless,”We really thank you for your thoughts,” from the Mayor and silence from the rest of the Village Board.

The Oak Park Village Board would not even summon up a few pious platitudes of encouragement to the workers and community allies who filled the meeting while their representatives took to the podium.

Oak Park Village Board

Fight for $15 at the Oak Park IL Village Board: Sept 28 2015

The silence was a tacit admission that the hardships of being a low wage worker in the suburbs are of no concern to the political leadership of a relatively affluent suburban town that has a history of some progressive social initiatives.This is also a town that borders on the West Side Austin neighborhood of Chicago, with its high poverty rate accompanied by serious social problems.

Even Oak Park Village Board members who had privately indicated some support for the Living Wage Ordinance proposal remained tightlipped. This proposal has been languishing in Village Hall since 2008 after it passed easily in a non-binding referendum.

But while the political leadership of “liberal” Oak Park may be silent, Fight for $15 is not.

Before the testifying at Village Hall, Fight for $15 members and community allies gathered at a nearby Oak Park McDonalds for a rally to speak out for economic justice in the suburbs.

Oak Park IL McDonalds

Oak Park IL McDonalds

”I can’t think of one job that shouldn’t start at $15 an hour. Especially in a city and in the suburbs which are as expensive as they are now in this day and time. It’s bad enough that workers in all fast food a make such little money and live in poverty. We are hard and dedicated workers.I go way above and far beyond my job description just to get shorted more hours. Maybe next week I’ll only work 20 hours a week. Maybe it goes down to 15. I feel that is unlivable. It is unmanageable and it is quite unfair.”—- Solo Littlejohn, Oak Park IL KFC worker

Suburban workers are making their voices heard.Poverty has increased dramatically in the Chicago suburbs

Swiss based investment banking firm UBS recently named Chicago the 7th most expensive city in the world to live in. Chicago public policy has been to systematically disinvest in Black and Brown working class communities, especially those which have a high proportion of low income people.

This is poverty as public policy and designed to empty communities of their residents. It’s slow motion ethnic cleansing. During the school closings battles of 2013 I often heard this refrain from African American and Latino speakers,”They don’t want us here. They want the land.”

Tara Stamps in Oak Park IL

West Side Chicagoan Tara Stamps, a Chicago Teachers Union member, spoke at the Oak Park McDonalds rally

Hardship is not confined to the city’s poorest neighborhoods of color. Rahm got an earful from white working class residents of the Northwest Side when he went to Wright College in early September for the last of his public budget speak outs.The attacks on pensions combined with the prospect of higher property taxes raised well justified fears of more foreclosures and economic distress in that part of the city.Now that the Chicago City Council has passed the biggest property tax in Chicago history,Communities United is warning that these increases will be passed on to renters, many whom can barely afford their rent now. More working class neighborhood appear fated to disappear as Chicago continues to be, not the city that works, but the city that evicts.

Meanwhile in the suburbs, A 2013 Heartland Alliance report showed that between 1990 and 2011, poverty grew faster in the suburbs than it did in the City of Chicago. Between 1990 and 2011 there was a 29% increase in the suburban population, but a 95% increase in suburban poverty. As of 2011 one half of the region’s poor people lived in the suburbs compared to only one third in 1990.

Some observers have pointed to a modest increase in suburban manufacturing jobs as a positive sign, but at present most of these jobs are non-union and pay relatively little.

The expense of living in Chicago along with its severe social problems growing out of racism, poverty and disinvestment have contributed to an exodus from the city with many people relocating to working class suburbs, particularly to the west and south of the city. It is deportation from the city through economic policy.

According to the US Census Bureau 1.3 million people live in poverty in the Chicago metro area.

However outmigration from the city is only one factor for the rise of poverty in the suburbs.

Rather, a complicated set of factors have contributed to the re-balancing of poverty between cities and suburbs, including economic decline, job movement, growth in low-wage work, stagnating and falling wages, overall population growth, demographic changes, and shifts in housing affordability and policies. These changes have happened gradually over several decades and now culminate in nearly unprecedented levels of poverty both nationally and locally.—- From Poverty Matters by The Heartland Alliance

The stereotype of the suburbs being only for an affluent white middle class is ancient history. The suburbs are now much more racially and economically diverse than ever…and poorer than ever before.Amy Terpstra, one of the authors of the Heartland Alliance report said this,

“Low-wage work has proliferated in the suburbs. If we are wanting to be addressing poverty, we really need to be taking a strong look at the quality of jobs, [and] the wages that those jobs pay.”

Alba Roman, a Burger King worker in the Chicago suburb of Cicero would certainly agree with Terpstra, She spoke in Spanish at the September 28 Oak Park McDonalds rally as Adriana Alvarez translated for her.:

“I work at the Burger King at 5100 W. Cermak. I have worked there for 13 years and make $9 an hour. It’s not enough to support my children. I am a single mom and have two daughters that are in school and I cannot afford to pay all our expenses. So I fight for $15 an hour and a union because they need to respect us as workers. We are not octopuses. We are not robots.”

Alba Roman of Fight for $15 speaks in Oak Park IL

Alba Roman of Fight for $15 speaks in Oak Park IL

Translator Adriana Alvarez is also a Cicero single mom. She recently met with Pope Francis in the White House to represent low wage workers. She also contributed a weeklong diary of her life as a McDonalds worker to Working Parents of America. In it you can read about the mixture of parental joy, exhaustion and stress she experiences in a state where because of Governor Rauner’s budget cutbacks, her childcare expenses went from $40 a month to $75 a week.

Adriana Alvarez of Fight for $15

Adriana Alvarez of Fight for $15
If your idea of life in the suburbs comes from old Leave It To Beaver reruns, think again. Uniting urban and suburban low wage workers is critical to the success of the movement.

Overcoming poverty in the suburbs faces significant challenges

The changing landscape of poverty and hardship is significant because safety net policies and social service infrastructure are built on the assumption that poverty is concentrated in central cities.”——- The Heartland Alliance

It took Fight for $15 three years with multiple strikes, demonstrations,and civil disobedience arrests to incrementally raise the Chicago minimum wage to a level of $13 per hour by 2019. It also took some serious money from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to financially support that effort.For these and other reasons(re-electing Rahm being almost certainly one of them), Rahm and the powerful corporations he represents decided that a minimum wage increase was necessary and it passed the Chicago City Council.

However, the Chicago suburbs are divided into multiple governmental units with a confusing mishmash of villages, townships, counties and unincorporated areas. People are more spread out and access to public transit ranges from frustrating to non-existent.

The low wage workers movement will need to develop a strategy for confronting these and the other unique challenges of suburban low wage worker organizing. As one veteran union leader who directs low wage worker organizing told me,”Basically the labor movement is throwing strategies up against the wall and seeing which ones stick.”

Walmart worker at the Oak Park Fight for $15 rally

Walmart worker at the Oak Park Fight for $15 rally

If Fight for $15 can develop a strategy that sticks in the Chicago suburbs, it could become a model for success elsewhere.Another approach to combating suburban poverty is being promoted by Cook County Commissioner Bobby Steele with the support of the Illinois Indiana Regional Organizing Network (IIRON) and National Peoples Action. Steele, along with Board co-sponsors Luis Arroyo, Jesus Garcia and Joan Murphy, has introduced a bill at the Cook County Board that would address how big corporations who pay poverty wages get indirect public subsidies.

The Cook County Responsible Business Act (CCRBA) would charge big corporations like Walmart a fee if they pay less than a CCRBA-set wage. The CCRBA-set wage would reach $15 an hour by 2019. It’s well known that low wage workers are forced to rely on government aid programs like food stamps in order to survive. In effect, public funds are funneled into generating private profit. According to Americans for Tax Fairness, publicly funded benefits to Walmart workers in Illinois alone cost $222 million a year.

As described in the Chicago Reporter the CCRBA would do the following:

The funds, estimated to be $500 million over the next four years and $200 million annually after that, would be set aside to cover services the public provides for low-wage workers, including healthcare, housing and childcare—services that, as it stands, constitute a subsidy to low-wage employers. The county would establish a Family Sustainability Commission to disburse the funds.

Of course any big corporation that does business in Cook County could easily avoid the CCRBA by paying their workers at or above the county set wage.That is clearly one of the the intentions of the bill.

So far the efforts to get the CCRBA passed have been relatively low key. CCRBA is a scheme to raise taxes on wealthy corporations to benefit the working class. But like any effort to raise taxes on corporations for the public good, such as the proposed Financial Transaction Tax on LaSalle St traders, it is meeting strong corporate resistance.

Clearly local efforts at combating poverty have their limits, but the struggles to achieve local victories can help build a national movement of experienced activists who can link struggles together much like Chicago Fight for $15 has linked up with Black Lives Matter, the immigration rights movement, the education justice movement and the environmental movement.

And because national struggles have their limits, the low wage workers movement should continue to build relationships around the world. Here in Chicagoland, Fight for $15 is committed to making those global connections.

This is more than a struggle for economic survival. It’s a struggle for democracy itself.

“We don’t want there to be a big difference between the richest and poorest, because poor people would just get really poor. We don’t want people living on the streets. If that happens, we consider that we as a society have failed.”—-Martin Drescher, the general manager of HMSHost Denmark, an airport restaurants corporation

There are nations that deal with poverty much differently than here in the USA. In Denmark, fast food workers make around $20 an hour along with benefits that include five weeks’ paid vacation, paid maternity and paternity leave and a pension plan. These much needed benefits came through intense working class struggle.They were not a gift. Fast food workers also benefit from Denmark’s s social welfare system.Danish corporations, unlike the ones in the USA, pay relatively higher taxes and higher wages to keep poverty at a low level. Drescher admits that is harder for capitalists to make a profit in Denmark, but still quite possible, or else companies like McDonalds and Burger King would not locate there.

For corporate executives who think like Drescher, the higher taxes and better wages are worth the lower profits because they create a more stable capitalist society with a better quality of life. But if Denmark has put a more human face on capitalism, it is because its socialist and labor movements organized to make that happen.

Among developed nations, Denmark has a comparatively low wealth inequality gap while the USA has one of the highest wealth inequality gaps. The social consequences are stark. According to UNICEF, Denmark has a child poverty rate of 6.5%, The USA by comparison has a child poverty rate of 23.1%. Poverty is a feature of capitalism, but even under capitalism, reducing poverty is possible.

The high level of poverty in the USA is not an accident, an act of god or the sum of the failures of individual poor people.  It is deliberate social policy. Here in the USA we face the most powerful capitalist class on earth and as a working class, we have deep racial and gender divisions, along with a culture of extreme individualism. These factors continue  to impede, but not stop the working class organizing necessary to reduce poverty. Fight for $15 is just one example of a movement struggling to overcome these obstacles.

Doug Hunter of Fight for $15 aat the Oak Park rally

Doug Hunter of Fight for $15

These realities have left the US working class with one of the highest poverty levels among developed nations.That allows government, whether in Washington or in the Village of Oak Park, to tolerate levels of poverty that should be unacceptable in a nation as wealthy as the USA.This US policy of high poverty has resulted in a widening gap between rich and poor, a heavily racialized division which tears at our social fabric and contributes to the multitude of social problems that we face.

In a survey of research on inequality and social problems this is what Psychology Today writer Ray Williams had to say:

“Research indicates that high inequality reverberates through societies on multiple levels, correlating with, if not causing, more crime, less happiness, poorer mental and physical health, less racial harmony, and less civic and political participation. Tax policy and social-welfare programs, then, take on importance far beyond determining how much income people hold onto.”

The more money that flows to the top, the more our already money-soaked political system becomes dominated by corporate wealth while actual votes in voting booths and legislatures come to matter less and less. No wonder many people in poverty have given up on voting.Wealth inequality is toxic to democracy.

Fight for $15 and the rest of the low wage workers movement have achieved their greatest successes in large cities. But as poverty spreads in the suburbs and more people are forced out of cities, the impetus for the low wage workers movement to expand beyond the Seattle’s, Chicago’s and San Francisco’s becomes an imperative.

And let’s not forget about the people struggling with poverty in small towns and rural areas.

Our lives and our democracy are at stake.

NOVEMBER 10: NATIONAL MOBILIZATION FOR  $15 AND A UNION. MORE INFO HERE

Solo Littlejohn of Fight for $15 testifies at the Oak Park IIL Village Board 9-28-2015

Solo Littlejohn, an Oak Park KFC worker, testifies at the Oak Park IL Village Board 9-28-2015
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For further reading:Workers rally for $15 minimum wage by Timothy Inklebarger

O’Hare Workers Join Fight For $15; Fast Food Laborers Bring Wage Campaign To Chicago Suburbs By Ellen Fortino

Corporations should pay for employee benefits, not taxpayers by Curtis Black

Living Wages, Rarity for U.S. Fast-Food Workers, Served Up in Denmark by Liz Alderman and Steven Greenhouse

Testimony in Support of Responsible Business Act by Brian Gladstein

State of Suburbs: A manufacturing renaissance? by Anna Marie Kukec

New Factories Have Jobs You’d Really Want—and These Chicago Kids Are Skilling Up to Get Them by Laura Flanders

The next great cause in Chicago: A financial transaction tax by Ben Joravsky

How economic inequality is damaging our social structure by Ray Williams

More than 1.3 million in Chicago metro area live in poverty Chicago Sun-Times

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