Hourly Workers Strike in Chicago for Higher Wages

CHICAGO (Chicago Tribune/MCT) -

Standing with a group of protesters Wednesday morning in front of the Nordstrom Rack store on Chicago’s State Street, Charde Nabors, 21, said she’s fighting for better pay and more opportunities for workers like her.

Nabors works at Sears for $9 an hour to support her two children, a 2-year old and a 5-month old. Nabors says she only works about 20 hours a week, though she has asked for a full-time position.

She has to supplement her income with food stamps, and she’s struggling to pay $650 a month for the apartment she moved into after staying with family and living in a hotel.

Nabors is among the hundreds of fast food and retail workers in Chicago that community organizers expected to walk off the job Wednesday in a campaign to push for higher wages.

The Fight for $15 campaign, named for its goal of securing $15 an hour for workers, said it expected McDonald’s, Subway, Dunkin’ Donuts, Macy’s and Sears stores to be affected.

The rolling strikes began at 5:30 a.m. as workers walked off the job at some McDonald’s restaurants and Dunkin’ Donuts. Strikes were expected later Wednesday at some retailers. A culminating rally was planned at the St. James Cathedral.

“Food stamps help, but they don’t pay the rent,” the protesting Nabors said, acknowledging the difficulty in searching for work and taking public assistance for her and her kids. “I keep this guard up, because I look at their faces every day and I know I have to do what I can do support them.”

While acknowledging that “a few workers may have walked off the job,” McDonald’s spokeswoman Danya Proud said: “Our downtown restaurants remain open, and it remains business as usual for us.”

Although only “a small number of folks” were striking, Proud said, she wasn’t aware of anyone being terminated for participating.

Representatives for Dunkin’ Donuts and Subway said that hourly wages are set at the discretion of franchisees who operate their restaurants.

A Macy’s spokesman declined to comment on the strikes.

“Fight for $15 seeks to put money back in the pockets of the 275,000 men and women who work hard in the city’s fast food and retail outlets, but still can’t afford basic necessities,” the group said in a release. “If workers were paid more, they’d spend more, helping to get Chicago’s economy moving again.”

But some believe it could have the opposite effect. Susan Kezios, president of American Franchisee Association, cautioned that raising the minimum wage could result in closures.

Referring to a conversation with a local 7-Eleven franchisee, Kezios said that even when a store is grossing more than $1 million per year, the operator is “hardly making $15 an hour.”

“Just because there’s a franchise sign doesn’t mean these people are millionaires,” she said. “They’re working lots and lots of hours, and I think some of their employees would be surprised to see how little some of their employers are making.”

Citing franchise experts, Kezios said that “only about one-third of franchised locations are making money.” The rest are breaking even or losing money, she said.

Wednesday’s action follows a nationwide Black Friday strike by Wal-Mart workers, and comes just weeks after 400 fast food workers walked off their jobs in New York City.