Hundreds of Chicago minimum wage workers and their supporters descended upon a West Side Food 4 Less store Saturday morning, demanding that the grocer give its employees a higher wage and the right to form a union.
Food 4 Less is owned by Kroger. The activists allege that Food 4 Less workers in Chicago are provided less money and fewer benefits than unionized Kroger workers across the country.
"We're asking them to respect Chicago, because Food 4 Less is union in California, and other Kroger banners are union as well, but for some reason they don't care enough about workers here," said Kristin Ryan, an organizer with United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 881.
There are no Kroger stores in the city and Food 4 Less employees in Chicago are not unionized, according to Ryan. In addition to Kroger workers in Bourbonnais, the UFCW represents roughly 12,000 Kroger employees nationwide, she added.
Busloads of activists, including members of the Raise Chicago coalition, kicked off the demonstration on Saturday by protesting outside a McDonald's restaurant in the Austin neighborhood. They then marched a few blocks to the Food 4 Less location, 4821 W. North Ave., where workers are trying to unionize. The grassroots coalition is calling on major corporations with more than $50 million in profits to raise workers' wages to $15 an hour.
"Right now, [Food 4 Less workers] are pretty much making minimum wage in there, and some of them have been working there for five or 10 years," Ryan said.
Illinois' minimum wage, which is $8.25 an hour, provides a full-time worker with an annual salary of $17,160 before taxes. The federal hourly minimum wage, which hasn't been adjusted since 2009, is $7.25.
In December, the Chicago City Council approved a mayor-backed plan that will raise the city's minimum wage gradually to $13 an hour by 2019.
But activists with Raise Chicago claim that, although $13 is a step in the right direction, the city's wage increase is not enough.
"This is about people working in poverty that cannot feed their families. They're struggling day to day to see what [bills] they're going to pay, that ain't right," said Nancy Salgado, a McDonald's worker. "It' ain't right that I'm working for a multibillion company that makes billions after billions after billions, and I'm still stuck with only $5 left of my paycheck."
Tara Stamps, aldermanic candidate for the 37th Ward, which includes the Food 4 Less store on North Avenue, said residents are "standing at the precipice of a historic moment in the city of Chicago that will reverberate throughout this nation."
Leading a chant of, "When we fight, we win," Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teacher Stamps has been endorsed by the Chicago Teachers Union, UFCW Local 881, SEIU* HCII, AFSCME Council 31 and the Chicago Federation of Labor, among others. She faces incumbent Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) in the April 7 runoff election.
"The lights are on downtown and in the communities there's shadows," Stamps said. "We are here today to serve notice to Rahm, to Emma, to Rauner, to all of those who seek to oppress working people ... that we are taking our city back, we are taking our state back and we are taking our country back."
Here's more from Stamps and Saturday's protest:
The protesters also took their message inside the Food 4 Less grocery store before Chicago police intervened and the demonstration dissipated. About a dozen protesters marched among the foodstuffs chanting "shut it down!"
Food 4 Less employees did not participate in the protest because they were reportedly scared of employer retaliation and "mysteriously scheduled" to work Saturday morning, according to Erica Clemmons, an organizer with the UFCW.
"The Food 4 Less workers are at work today," Clemmons said. "We encourage you to speak to the workers and let them know it's OK to talk to a union. It's ok. We're here standing in solidarity with the Food 4 Less workers to show them that there's power in numbers."
The Raise Chicago coalition has a larger demonstration to call for a $15 minimum wage scheduled for April 15 in Chicago.