PI Original Ashlee Rezin Friday August 2nd, 2013, 11:22am

Fast Food And Retail Workers Continue Push For Higher Wages, Hundreds Walk Off The Job (VIDEO)

“If I get paid on Friday, by Monday I’m broke,” said Mary Harris, 64, who has worked at Wendy’s for 11 years. Harris makes $9.23 per hour, and on Thursday she went on strike with approximately 400 other fast food and retail workers in Chicago to demand higher wages and better working conditions. Progress Illinois was there for the action.

“If I get paid on Friday, by Monday I’m broke,” said Mary Harris, 64, who has worked at Wendy’s for 11 years.

Harris makes $9.23 per hour, and on Thursday she went on strike with approximately 400 other fast food and retail workers in Chicago to demand higher wages and better working conditions.

“I watch the money Wendy’s makes ... They need to pay us more,” she said, adding that she has high blood pressure and, because she isn’t offered benefits, often has to forego doctor's appointments and medication because majority of her paycheck goes toward “normal stuff”, such as groceries and transportation.  

Beginning just before 7 a.m. Thursday, hundreds of workers and their supporters marched through the Loop and chanted, “No burgers! No Fries! We want our wages super-sized!” The massive throng of protesters, which included anywhere between 100 and 400 participants throughout the 12-hour day, staged rallies outside of stores and restaurants identified as low-wage employers. 

Harris was one of more than 10 workers from a downtown Wendy’s location who didn’t report to work on Thursday and instead chose to participate in the citywide strike organized by the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC). As a result, the Wendy's location at 6 S. Clark St., was forced to close when no non-managerial employees showed up to work.

The union has campaigned for a $15 per hour minimum wage, known as the "Fight For 15," and better working conditions for fast food and retail employees since it formed in November. According to organizers, workers from more than 60 locations and 26 brands, including McDonald’s, Whole Foods, Walgreens, Dunkin Donuts, Sears and Subway, participated in the Chicago strike.

On Wednesday, workers from Whole Foods and McDonald’s neighborhood locations walked off the job to demand higher wages and the right to form a union free from retaliation.

“Workers have the power to demand better working conditions,” said Deivid Rojas, communications director for WOCC. “Workers are uniting, and when they get together they can fight for their rights and achieve things. These are people that shouldn't be taken advantage of.”

Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, an income organizers claim is enough to cover employees’ basic needs, has garnered support across the country. Hundreds of workers have staged walkouts and protests this week in seven cities, including Detroit, Flint, MI., Kansas City, Milwaukee, St. Louis and New York City.

Illinois’ minimum wage, which is $8.25, provides a full-time worker with an annual salary of $17,160 before taxes. The nationwide minimum wage, which hasn’t been adjusted since 2009, is $7.25.

“You shouldn’t have to work full-time in one of these billion dollar corporations and still be in poverty,” Rojas said.

The union’s first citywide retail and fast food worker strike, which prompted hundreds of low-wage workers to protest and strike on April 24, was largely regarded as successful. Several employees who participated in the strike saw significant victories within the workplace, including promotions, wage hikes and increased hours.

Rojas said he anticipates similar results this time around.

“We’re growing and this time we coordinated with different cities around the country,” he said, adding that WOCC is backed by other local labor organizations and community groups. “This has become a national movement that’s spreading and that sends a strong message to employers.”

But Felix Mendez, 28, said, despite having participated in the April 24 protest, nothing has changed at the downtown Subway location at which he has worked for more than three years.

“It’s a challenge every day basically, trying to put food on the table and keep a roof over our heads,” said the 28 year-old father of two children, ages six and nine.

Earning $8.25 and working full-time, Mendez said he struggles to make ends meet, living “check-to-check, check-to-check.” He was one of four Subway employees to join the strike Thursday morning, forcing the location, at 37 S. LaSalle St., to close.

“We’re all good workers, we deserve what we need,” he said.

Here’s Mendez and his coworkers, as they walk off the job, and more highlights from the day of protests:

According to a March report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), workers earning minimum wage in Illinois must work 82 hours per week and 52 weeks per year in order to afford to rent a safe, reasonable apartment unit.

But critics of the Fight for 15 movement say raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour could result in massive layoffs across the fast food and retail industry.

“You’ve got employers who are looking to maintain their profit margins, they’re for-profit businesses,” said Tanya Triche, vice president and general counsel at the Illinois Retail Merchants Association (IRMA). “You’ve got businesses, in this economy, who, if they’re lucky enough to even make a profit, are trying to keep their doors open.”

Triche said that when the cost of doing business is increased, employers are forced to look at alternative ways to maintain profit margins, adding that although IRMA’s membership is not public, “a number” of the stores targeted by WOCC are represented by the advocacy organization.

“If that means cutting hours for their employees, that’s what they’ll do. If that means cutting positions, that’s what they’ll do,” she said. “This would be a job killer for people who have jobs today and it really puts a brick on being able to access jobs, especially for low-skilled workers.”

Triche continued to say businesses “have the right to make a profit”, adding that the workers are “blessed to even have a job in this economy.”

While the nation’s fast food industry grosses roughly $200 billion in revenues every year and retail is a $4.9 trillion industry, Natasha Bradford, 20, who has worked for Wendy’s since March, said she can’t always pay her phone bill and doesn’t know how she can afford to go to college.

“We work really hard to keep Wendy’s open,” she said, pointing out that she has never worked in a company that paid more than $8.25 per hour. “There’s a lot of money that goes in and out of Wendy’s and I think they can afford to pay us more.”

Bradford, who worked until midnight on Wednesday and was asked to come back at 7 a.m. on Thursday, went on strike to demand higher wages:

Meanwhile, Charde Nabors, a 22 year-old single mother of two children, ages one and three, said her low wage at Sears, at 2 N. State St., is preventing her from moving out of her “dangerous” South Side neighborhood and providing a better life for her kids. She works roughly 20 hours a week and earns $9 per hour.

“I can’t afford to move out of Chatham, my rent is $600, but my paychecks are only $300,” she said. “I’m always scared for my kids’ future. There’s so much violence in my neighborhood, but I can’t afford to move right now.”

Nabors and eight of her coworkers didn’t report to work for their shifts on Thursday. She added that she has requested to work more than 20 hours every week, but has been turned down by her managers, and wants the strike to send the message that Sears’ employees deserve more.

“I don’t lead a stable home, I’m stuck,” Nabors said. “My children need some stability in their lives, and making $9 is not enough.”

Andrew Little, who works in the stock room at Victoria’s Secret, at 734 N. Michigan Ave., is hopeful Thursday’s strikers will experience the same workplace triumph he was afforded following the April 24 walkouts.

“What we’re doing is giving a voice to minimum wage workers who are so often kept silent,” he said.

Little’s hourly pay was increased from $9.56 to $11.26 after he and his coworkers walked out earlier this year. He attended the second round of strikes because he said he wanted to stand in solidarity with the demonstrators.

“It’s not just us out here fighting, there are people across the country going through the same struggles, maybe even worse struggles, than us,” he said. “We’re making history right now, we’re showing that minimum wage isn’t enough, this poverty wage isn’t enough. We have to make $15 an hour and we have to have a union so we can live our lives to the fullest potential.”

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