PI Original Ellyn Fortino Thursday December 4th, 2014, 2:54pm

Chicago Fast Food Workers Call For $15 During National Day Of Strikes (VIDEO)

About 500 Chicago fast food workers and their supporters hit the city's downtown streets Thursday morning to call for a $15 an hour minimum wage and union recognition during a national day of strikes in 190 U.S. cities. Progress Illinois provides highlights from the Chicago protest.

About 500 Chicago fast food workers and their supporters hit the city's downtown streets Thursday morning to call for a $15 an hour minimum wage and union recognition during a national day of strikes in 190 U.S. cities.

Thursday marked the seventh time fast food workers in the Windy City have walked off the job to demand better pay and working conditions since 2012, when the fast food industry was first targeted by striking employees in New York City before the Fight for 15 movement gained traction across the country.

The 190-city national strike, said by organizers to be the largest of its kind, comes just two days after the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance to increase the city's hourly minimum wage from the current level of $8.25 to $13 by 2019. Under the measure, Chicago's minimum wage will go up to $10 an hour in July and incrementally thereafter to reach $13. At the state level, lawmakers are also considering a minimum wage increase.

Workers said a $13 minimum wage in Chicago is a positive step, but it's not enough. The five-year phase-in period is also too long, according to critics of the plan. During the protest, fast food workers and their allies chanted, "They voted $13. We fight for $15" and "They say five years. We want it now."

Chicago mayoral candidate and progressive Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) was the only elected official on the picket line with workers this morning at the McDonald's at 23 S. Clark St. On Tuesday, Fioretti voted in favor of the $13 plan, put forward by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, but vowed to continue the push for $15 an hour.

"Fifteen is going to continue in the city council," he said at Thursday's strike. "These workers, as they go across the city demonstrating, are making the case on why we need it. As I said, $13 an hour in (2019) is pennies above the poverty level. We need to do better for our workers."

During the last national fast food strike in September, dozens of low-wage workers and their allies were arrested in Chicago after taking part in civil disobedience, including blocking traffic. Protesters didn't go the civil disobedience route this time around. They held speak outs, chanted and marched through the downtown area. Police on bikes followed the marchers and kept them on the sidewalk. Officers in vehicles blocked traffic for the activists.

The demonstration did take an interesting turn at the end of the march.

Several workers stormed through the doors of a building at 33 W. Monroe St., which houses the offices of the Illinois Restaurant Association. The restaurant group lobbied against Chicago's $13 minimum wage plan. The protesters unveiled a large banner inside the building that said "$15 and nothing less," before complying with police orders to leave after only a few minutes inside. 

Overall, most of the Chicago fast food strikers were McDonald's employees, including Douglas Hunter, 53, a single father who has worked for the fast food giant for five years. Hunter, who earns $1 more than the state's current minimum wage, said he can barely provide for his family each month, even after earning some extra money by doing odd jobs for members of his church. 

"McDonald's and these multi-billion dollar companies can do better by their workers," he stressed. "We don't want the minimum wage to increase to [$15 an hour] for mom and pop guys, because they probably can't afford it, but we're talking about people that can more than afford it."

As far as Chicago's newly-approved $13 minimum wage by 2019, Hunter said, "That's a long way up the road."

"I'm struggling to put food on my table today at $9.25," he stressed. "My rent has gone up $10 a month every year for the past five years. I haven't gotten a raise at all. My pay has stayed the same while gas is going up, [electricity] is going up, rent is going up. Everything around me is going up, and we're continually being told to wait."

Tyree Johnson, 46, another McDonald's worker who walked off the job, has worked for the fast food chain for 22 years.

"I'm coming up on my 23rd anniversary, and I have nothing to celebrate," he said. "I'm still living in poverty."

Here's more from Johnson, Fioretti and scenes from the protest:

The median hourly wage for fast food workers in Chicago is about $9.07, according the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC), the union representing the striking downtown fast food workers. Many workers, however, earn the state's current minimum wage, 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.

Also on the picket lines today were home health care workers and convenience store employees as the Fight for 15 movement expands to industries beyond fast food. Those with the 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.

Jonelle Walker, 29, a Chicago home health care worker represented by SEIU* Healthcare Illinois, said low-wage workers across different industries are banding together for $15 because "we all share the same struggles."

"We all go home at the end of the day of hard work and still aren't able to feed our family," she said. "Just the other night, I had to decide if I was going to buy groceries or buy medicine, because I have a cold, and my decision was to buy groceries." 

Members of many community and advocacy groups stood in solidarity with striking workers, including Ann Marie Cunningham with the Jane Addams Senior Caucus.

"You may say, 'Why are seniors involved in this,'" she said. "Many of us work[ed] for less than a living wage, especially women ... We know that if you do not have the amount of money when you retire in Social Security, life is going to be difficult for you. We also know that we have seen our brothers and sisters lose their jobs in the recession in the age of 50 or 60 and not be able to get a job, because they were considered too experienced -- a name for being too old. We saw young people who graduated, who did the right thing ... and are now unemployed or underemployed. This fight is intergenerational."

*The SEIU Illinois Council sponsors this website.

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