Workers at the forefront of minimum wage victory press on for union rights

24 million low-wage workers have received $70B in annual raises since Fight for $15 began in 2012

By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz / Chicago Tribune

Adriana Alvarez of Cicero, Ill., was earning $8.50 an hour at McDonald’s five years ago when a union organizer approached her about joining a movement to fight for a $15 minimum wage.

“Honestly, I thought it was a little crazy,” Alvarez said.

But as she talked with the organizer about her working conditions, she became angry that she and her co-workers were being treated unfairly and that her pay didn’t allow her to provide a decent life for her son. Soon Alvarez was on the front lines of the Fight for $15 campaign, yelling through bullhorns at marches and traveling across Europe and Latin America to speak about the plight of low-wage workers in the U.S.

She was one of 101 protesters arrested at a rally in front of McDonald’s Oak Brook headquarters during the company’s 2014 shareholders meeting, the first of several acts of civil disobedience she participated in to press the case.

Being so exposed was scary at first, Alvarez said, but “I think I was more scared to go home and tell my 2-year-old that I don’t have food for him.”

The $15 goal, which seemed unattainable a few years ago, became reality in Illinois last week, when Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker made good on a campaign promise and signed into law the bill that will gradually raise the state’s minimum wage from $8.25 an hour, where it has been since 2009, to $15 by 2025. Now, workers behind the movement are focused on the next goal — unionizing groups that historically haven’t been represented by organized labor, and improving existing contracts.

Illinois is the first state in the Midwest to adopt a $15 minimum wage as cities, states and employers across the country raise their wage floors in response to the activism. The Service Employees International Union, which funded the campaign, estimates that 24 million low-wage workers have received $70 billion in annual raises since Fight for $15 began in November 2012.

Workers haven’t seen such a benefit the Fair Labor Standards Act passed in the 1930s, said Bob Bruno, director of the labor education program at the School for Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It wouldn’t have happened without the aggressive grassroots push to shape public opinion about who low-wage workers are and what they deserve to be paid, he said.

“It had an enormous impact on changing the narrative,” and that in turn helped elect politicians who made their demands into public policy, Bruno said. “The activism changes who runs for office and what they run on.”

An important key tactic in capturing the public’s attention was a series of one-day strikes, first by fast-food workers in New York, then Chicago, then cities across the country. Eventually, airport workers, adjunct professors, home health aides and other low-wage workers joined the protests.

“Striking showcases a courage that is hard to ignore,” said Michael Oswalt, associate professor at the Northern Illinois University College of Law in DeKalb. That’s especially true for nonunionized, private-sector workers who could be replaced, and their boldness changed the conversation to the point that the goal of $15 an hour became a political litmus test, he said.

Striking, which had fallen out of favor, has since gained steam among teachers and in other industries, which Oswalt attributes to the example set by Fight for $15. There were more strikes last year than in at least 30 years, he said.

The campaign continues to push legislation for a $15 minimum wage. Vermont, Connecticut, Maryland and Pennsylvania will consider bills. A federal bill faces an uphill climb, given the makeup of the Senate and the leap from the current $7.25 federal minimum wage, but “based on what has happened with this movement, I am hesitant to say that anything is impossible,” Oswalt said.

The SEIU also has opened the next front of the movement — unionizing workers across low-wage industries to improve conditions broadly. It seeks the help of elected officials to figure out how that could happen.

“The ultimate dream is to get McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King to a national fast-food bargaining table,” said international SEIU President Mary Kay Henry. “We could reach a private agreement and that could cover a million fast food workers, but it could impact 4 million fast-food workers” by setting industry standards.

With $15 notched as a win, Alvarez is ready to fight for a union. She has seen the power of a collective voice at the McDonald’s in Cicero where she has worked since her senior year of high school.

Shortly after joining the Fight for $15, she organized a petition asking the franchise owner for respect, and immediately workers got a raise to $9.15 an hour. She now makes $12.50 an hour, and she says her continued activism at the restaurant has improved her relationship with management.

The pay boost has made a big difference. At $8.50, she couldn’t treat her son, Manny, to a movie or even take him to a store for fear that he might covet a $5 Superman toy she could not afford. Now she can take the 6-year-old to a movie, buy him the occasional toy and keep food in the refrigerator.

With the minimum wage increasing to $15, Alvarez hopes she can afford to go the nearby mom-and-pop grocery stores on her corner rather than drive somewhere cheaper. She also wants to move out of her two-bedroom basement apartment, which floods when it rains.

What Alvarez doesn’t want is to leave McDonald’s, a job she likes because of the regular customers whose orders she has memorized and the colleagues she feels responsible for protecting. While she attended college for a year, she doesn’t think the debt is worth it, especially because she knows people with degrees who end up working in the fast-food industry.

“I feel like there’s nothing wrong with that,” Alvarez said. “I shouldn’t have to want to change jobs.”

The SEIU’s Henry credits people like Alvarez for turning the tide.

“When we started, people thought these are teenagers earning pocket change,” Henry said. “When they realized that most minimum wage workers are moms and dads trying to make ends meet, then it became something people started talking about.”

More than two-thirds of fast-food workers are older than 20 and a quarter of them are raising children, according to a report from the University of California, Berkeley. Among front-line fast-food workers, 70 percent are women, according to an analysis by the National Employment Law Project, which may be one reason female workers have been at the forefront of the wage campaign.

Tichina Haywood, a certified nursing assistant at Swedish Covenant Hospital in Chicago, was nervous when she first started speaking at Fight for $15 news conferences, but feels that telling her story was critical to changing people’s perceptions about the struggle to escape poverty.

“It’s not that you’re not educated or don’t have a full-time job, it’s not that you’re not trying or you’re lazy,” said Haywood, who lives in the Chatham neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. “We live in a society that doesn’t work for working people.”

Haywood, who travels two hours by bus and train to get to her full-time job at the North Side hospital, has her associate’s degree and dreams of eventually getting her doctorate to become an educator or therapist. But her $13.30 hourly wage is sometimes not enough to cover her phone and internet bills. She has a 3-year-old daughter and becomes tearful at the prospect that the girl might be better off living in the south suburbs with her father.

“Sometimes the struggle overwhelms all the hope and aspiration you have,” Haywood said. “Things like (the minimum wage increase) are a step in the right direction, where we can finally have hope, and give our children hope, that they don’t live in a society that doesn’t want to do anything for each other.”

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