PI Original Ellyn Fortino Thursday December 5th, 2013, 5:16pm

Chicago Fast Food, Retail Workers Walk Off The Job, Take Part In 100-City Strike (VIDEO)

A few hundred Chicago fast food and retail workers walked off the job Thursday as part of a national day of strikes for higher wages and the right to form a union without retaliation. Progress Illinois provides a snapshot of some of the day's protests.

A few hundred Chicago fast food and retail workers walked off the job Thursday as part of a national day of strikes for higher wages and the right to form a union without retaliation.

The Chicago strikers marched to fast food establishments in the Loop and along the Magnificent Mile this morning, chanting "Workers can't survive on $8.25!" and "We want change. We ain't talking about pennies!"

The downtown protests specifically hit Macy's, McDonald’s, Snarfs, Sears, Walgreens and Wendy's. Strikers also rallied outside McDonald's and Wendy's locations on the North and South sides later in the afternoon. A huge puppet of the Grinch, representing the "greedy" fast food and retail companies, tagged along with the strikers.

"Everything is going up in Chicago but our wages," said Alfred Dellahousaye, 27, one striker from the Forever 21 store on Michigan Avenue, where he's worked for more than two years. "You got rent going up. Gas going up ... It’s pretty hard to survive making $8.25 or $9 an hour. Even $10 an hour is like you're just barely getting by."

Here are some scenes from today's actions:

Chicago was one of at least 100 cities, including New York, Houston, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh, where workers hit the picket lines Thursday as part of the "Fight for 15" campaign. The strike wave comes one year after fast food workers in New York took part in the first strike against the fast food industry last November. Those with Fight for 15 have been pushing for a $15 minimum wage, which is a yearly salary of about $31,000 — enough to cover workers' basic needs, according to organizers.

Thursday marked the fourth fast food and retail strike in Chicago this year, and the first time McDonald's employee Jessica Davis, 25, walked off the job.

Davis, who has worked at the McDonald's at Chicago and Damen Avenues for four years, earns an hourly wage of $8.88 an hour, which she says is not enough to afford basic necessities for her and her two children. She can't pay to finish college either, she said. As such, Davis said she relies on public assistance, including food aid and Medicaid, to supplement her low wages in order to make ends meet.

“If I work hard like I do, I shouldn't have to depend on (public assistance) to take care of my family," she told Progress Illinois.

Fast food and retail employees "spend as much time as we can at work. We work hard for our money. We make millions and billions of dollars for these corporations, but then they still benefit from us having public assistance."

Low wages paid by the multi-billion dollar fast food industry forces 51 percent of Illinois' fast food workers to rely on public assistance programs to cover basic needs, according to a recent report from the University of California at Berkeley. Illinois taxpayers are left with a $368 million tab annually for those workers' public benefits.

There are some 275,000 low-wage fast food and retail workers in the Chicago area, according to the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC), the union representing the striking downtown fast food and retail workers.

The median hourly wage for fast food workers in Chicago is about $9.07, according to the union. Many workers, however, earn the state's minimum wage of $8.25 an hour, or very close to it, according to organizers. A full-time, minimum-wage worker in Illinois earns an annual salary of $17,160 before taxes. The federal minimum wage, which has not seen a bump since 2009, is $7.25.

Sears employee Roy Jackson, 50, who works in the electronics department at the store on State Street, said he feels many Americans do not understand just how bad the salaries are for workers in the two industries.

"We have to live in very bad communities, because we cannot pull ourselves out of the those communities," he stressed.

Jackson, who has worked at Sears for a year, is a commission-based employee. His base wage is $6 an hour, and he gets 1 percent of the price of electronics he sells. So, if he sells a $700 TV, he gets $7.

"If the customers aren’t coming into Sears, then my wages are very low, and they’ve been very low since I’ve been at Sears," Jackson said, adding that his typical take-home pay in a given month is around $1,000. He said Sears employees at his location often lend each other a few dollars to help those who cannot afford lunch and transportation to and from work.

"I cry sometimes," he explained. "I just got a two-week paycheck. It was under $600, and I’m working like 30 hours a week. By the grace of God I am surviving. That’s all I can say."

Some of the Chicago strikers toted clear plastic Ziploc bags labeled "dignity" and "respect" to represent the fast food and retail establishments that ask their employees to bring personal belongings to work in a clear bag as a theft-prevention measure. Organizers said the practice is used at some McDonald's locations.

“Why would you hire a staff that you don’t trust," asked Dellahousaye. "It’s a fast food restaurant. What would you possibly steal? I feel like it’s really disrespectful."

Tyree Johnson, 45, a McDonald's worker of 21 years, said he recently quit at one of the two McDonald's restaurants where he had worked due to alleged retaliation from management. Johnson said it's because he has participated in numerous actions against McDonald's. The management at the Chicago Avenue and State Street McDonald's location allegedly cut his hours down to 12 a week, hired new employees and then provided those employees with 40 hours a week.

"All the frustration built up inside of me. I had to say, 'I quit,'" he said. "I gave the managers the respect, but as they see me on TV, and they see my protesting and talking to the media about McDonald’s, they hold that against me. They retaliated and cut my hours, but I won’t give up."

Workers also picketed outside the Wendy's near Clark and Madison Streets, where WOCC held an action last month to call attention to the alleged mistreatment of two veteran employees at the hands of the restaurant's management.

Last month's action took aim at management for failing to sign the paperwork one worker needed to maintain the affordable rent in her Section 8 housing. She needed management to sign off on documents confirming that her hours had been reduced.

Organizers said the action had an impact. Management signed the document immediately following the protest. The other veteran employee, Vincent Jones, 60, also received the two weeks of workers' compensation he said the company owed him about a week after the union's protest.

"I asked for (the two weeks of workers' compensation), but it got delayed, and with the help of the union, I finally got it," Jones said Thursday at the strike. "I’m feeling good."

Later in the afternoon, the strikers headed to the Wendy’s at 3610 N. Western Ave. for a rally with students and teachers from nearby Lane Tech College Prep High School. Another group of workers picketed at the McDonald’s at 70 E. Garfield Blvd. with support from members of Action Now.

Action Now spokeswoman Aileen Kelleher said it's important to call out companies that fail to give back to the communities in which they are located.

"Low wages affect the community as a whole," she told Progress Illinois. "It’s a community issue. When people aren’t paid enough, it leads to violence, issues with illegal activity [and] crime. So we’re saying that if these companies like McDonald's want to profit off the people in our community buying their food, then they should pay the workers in that community a fair wage."


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