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The Fight for 15 Hits Chicago Streets

Amy Traub

“I make $1,000 for the store in 30 minutes. But I don’t make $1,000 in a month working there.”

The quote is a paraphrase of a Victoria’s Secret worker. She, like 500 other retail and fast food employees in and around the Chicago Loop, isn’t at work today. They’re all on strike. (Follow #strikefor15 for the latest and photos)

Building on the powerful example of Walmart workers who walked off the job  last fall and New York City fast food workers  who took action earlier this month, employees of major retailers like Macy’s, Sears, and Victoria’s Secret, as well as fast food outlets from Dunkin Donuts to Subway have taken to the streets. Organized by the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago with support from  a wide range of community and worker organizations, workers are demanding respect at work, the right to form a union without employer interference, and what they describe as a livable wage for the Chicago area:  $15 an hour.

Impressively, the strike brings together workers not only across employers but across industries, looping in two of the nation’s fastest growing occupations: jobs in retail sales and in food service. Both are low-wage industries with erratic scheduling that makes it difficult to make ends meet or organize one’s life.

In her recent analysis of the retail industry,  Demos analyst Catherine Ruetschlin found that raising wages in the retail industry nationwide would lift families out of povertystimulate economic growth,   and even boost sales to retailers themselves. While she did not analyze Chicago workers’ $15 an hour demand specifically, Ruetschlin found that large retailers could easily afford a substantial raise over current wages and that price increases to consumers would be negligible

Workers are facing a steep uphill fight, but today's action is promising, as Josh Eidelson writes today in Salon:

The strike wave’s spread to Chicago offers a hopeful sign for the New York City fast food campaign. While individual fast food stores are managed by franchisees, national CEOs are the real decision-makers in both fast food and retail. Given the financial cost and, more important, the risk of setting a precedent and emboldening a wider workforce, it’s hard to imagine executives for McDonald’s or Macy’s making any significant concessions to workers in any city unless faced with a bona fide national uprising. For that to happen, the strikes would have to go viral, big-time.