Demanding a hefty raise and a fair chance to form a union, workers in Chicago’s growing fast food and retail sectors plan to walk off the job Wednesday morning. The one-day walkout begins at 5:30 a.m. Central Time, and organizers expect 500 workers from a dozen chains to participate. The work stoppage follows similar strikes by New York City fast food workers and by Wal-Mart retail employees across the country, and marks the latest escalation in the struggle between an embattled labor movement and two industries that increasingly dominate and define the new economy.
“At the end of the day,” Macy’s employee Krystal Maxie-Collins told Salon, “it feels like I’ve done all of this to help everyone else, to help the store, help the managers, help the customers, but it doesn’t feel like anyone is looking out for me.” Maxie-Collins, a mother of four who works part-time for the state minimum wage of $8.25 plus a commission, said she had initially been hesitant about the strike because of the risk of retaliation. But “what we are fighting for, the reason for doing it, kind of overrode the fear of doing it.” “Usually the things that are worth it,” she added, “you have to sacrifice for.”
Katelyn Johnson, the executive director of the community organizing group Action Now, said she expects a strike that “really shakes up business as usual for downtown.” Organizers expect the strikers to include employees of McDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts, Subway, Sears, Macy’s and Victoria’s Secret. The Chicago strike is spearheaded by Fight for 15, a campaign backed by organizations including Action Now and the Service Employees International Union. SEIU also provides funding for the New York City group Fast Food Forward, which brought 400 fast food workers out on strike three weeks ago. Both Fast Food Forward and Fight for 15 are collaborations between unions and community organizing groups.
A Macy’s official declined a request for comment on the Fight for 15 campaign Tuesday morning. A McDonald’s spokesperson referred Salon to a previous statement saying, “We value and respect all the employees who work at McDonald’s restaurants” and touting “competitive wages,” “flexible schedules and quality, affordable benefits,” and “professional development opportunities” for employees.
Johnson said that Action Now took a leadership role in organizing fast food workers after discovering on door-to-door canvasses about fare hikes that “people were more concerned with their jobs,” and that once fast food workers started holding meetings, “retail workers heard about it and wanted to join the effort.” Like their New York counterparts, the Chicago workers are demanding raises to $15 an hour, and the chance to form a union without intimidation.
That’s a very heavy lift, and the campaign faces what may be impossibly long odds. But the stakes are high, because the future of fast food and retail jobs has far-reaching implications for the U.S. economy. Both industries are among the highest-grossing, fastest-growing and lowest-paying in Chicago, and in the United States. Retail is largely non-union; fast food is almost entirely so. Whether or not these long-squeezed workers can force their bosses to concede some money, and some measure of democracy, will help shape the future of work in the United States.
That’s especially true now. Drawing on federal statistics, the National Employment Law Project last year found that lower-wage occupations made up just 21 percent of the jobs lost in the Great Recession, but 58 percent of the job growth in the recovery; the same study found that food service, retail and employment services together represented 43 percent of employment growth in the previous two years. U.S. employment increasingly looks more like fast food and retail: service sector work heavy on emotional labor – the constant requirement to perform a certain personality for customers – and light on job security, benefits or predictable scheduling.
NELP researcher and attorney Tsedeye Gebreselassie noted that the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data listed the nation’s top three occupations as retail salespersons, cashiers and “food preparation and serving workers, including fast food.” “Because these are the jobs that are dominant, in our economy,” she told Salon, “the fact that they are very low-wage jobs” is “setting the standards for how some businesses think they can treat their workers.”
And while politicians from both parties tout training and education as a ladder to opportunity, “higher-skilled” jobs’ labor standards are actually on the same downward trajectory as others’. In a 2012 report, the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that from 1979 to 2010, while the number of U.S. workers with advanced degrees nearly doubled, the percentage of workers whose jobs provide decent wages, health insurance, and retirement benefits declined. That was true for workers with college degrees as well as for those without them. The cause, argued authors John Schmitt and Janelle Jones, wasn’t “workers’ skills,” but rather “the loss of bargaining power” at work.
In other words – like the garment sweatshops of a century ago -- what makes McDonald’s or Wal-Mart jobs bad isn’t that employees lack degrees. It’s that they lack leverage. The same problem faces workers doing comparatively glamorous work – from fashion models faced with wage theft, to Apple store specialists without health insurance.
In recent months, non-union employees in fast food and retail have mounted unprecedented challenges to their bosses’ business model. First, building from a year of store-by-store organizing, Wal-Mart store workers staged their first-ever coordinated strikes in October and November. Then, a week after Wal-Mart workers’ Black Friday walkout, New York City fast food workers staged a strike of their own; this month, they did again, with twice as many people. (Wal-Mart is not among the companies where Chicago retail workers will be striking Wednesday, but -- as I reported for the Nation -- Wal-Mart workers in a hundred-some stores plan to go in groups Wednesday to confront managers about scheduling issues.)
Maxie-Collins said that changing her industry would also change her community: “I work downtown in a beautiful community, but then I come home to a neighborhood where I can’t even take my kids to the park without worrying about a dangerous situation.” She said poverty is to blame for the crime rate that makes her keep her kids inside, because “everyone’s trying to get over on the next person because of what they don’t have, and what they can’t afford and what they can’t do.” NELP’s Gebreselassie argued that poverty wages are also crippling the recovery: “We cannot build a recovery on very low-wage jobs. We have tried it for the last three years, and the recovery has stalled, because people don’t have enough money to spend.”
At a moment when some major unions have virtually stopped striking, these low-wage, non-union workers have taken up strikes, despite a battery of legal, political and economic changes that have increased their risk while reducing their impact. As I’ve explained, these recent work stoppages share a set of tactics designed to reduce – but not remove – the risk that strikers lose their jobs.
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.
The strikes aren’t spreading by accident. November New York fast food strikers told Salon that they drew inspiration from workers who walked out of Wal-Mart stores, who in turn cited the example of their Wal-Mart warehouse counterparts. Interviewed while on strike April 4, New York fast food workers said that November’s smaller walkout had made that day’s work stoppage possible. “I was waiting” during the first strike, said Brooklyn Burger King worker Christelle Lumen. “I wanted to know, would they be OK with it? Would they fire the people that went on strike?” (Organizers say almost all of the November fast food strikers returned to work without incident; a termination at one Wendy’s was reversed within an hour after local politicians and activists occupied and picketed the store.)
Though New York and Chicago have the only campaigns of their kind to go public so far, fast food organizing efforts are also underway elsewhere. Could they ever build the clout to bring service sector giants to the table? Maxie-Collins said that seeing fast food workers strike this month gave her hope: “That proved to me that if I stand up, and voice our opinion, and show everyone what’s going on, a change can happen. It might not be immediate, but the groundwork will be laid for our children and grandchildren … Change is going to start from this.”