‘Fight for 15’ keeps pressure from trenches on Emanuel

Last September, hundreds gathered outside a McDonald's in the Chatham neighborhood to rally for a $15 minimum wage.  A new day of protest is planned Wednesday in Chicago and other cities across the country.

File photo by Michelle Kanaar

Last September, hundreds gathered outside a McDonald's in the Chatham neighborhood to rally for a $15 minimum wage. A new day of protest is planned Wednesday in Chicago and other cities across the country.

Low-wage workers in Chicago will join a nationwide mobilization for a $15-an-hour living wage on Wednesday — just a week after Mayor Emanuel was re-elected, with his multiyear minimum-wage hike as a major campaign theme.

The juxtaposition highlights the inadequacy of Emanuel’s campaign-season measure and also demonstrates that whoever is mayor, pressure from below for systematic change is not letting up.

Fast-food and retail workers began organizing in the Fight for 15 movement two years ago. They’ve “functioned as a kind of second act to the Occupy Wall Street movement,” protesting “the enormous disparities in income and wealth in our society” and adding a concrete program to address the problem, Harold Meyerson writes in The Washington Post.

And at a time when the machinery of labor law makes union organizing extremely difficult, they’ve created “a form of collective bargaining by other means,” taking their struggle to the streets, bringing in community allies and winning a series of victories, he adds.

Since Fight for 15 launched, several states and cities have raised their minimum wage. In recent months, Walmart, Target and other major retailers have announced wage increases, and two weeks ago McDonald’s said it would pay workers in non-franchise restaurants $1 more than the current minimum wage.

Now Fight for 15 is preparing its largest action ever: coordinated strikes, marches and rallies in 200 cities across the country Wednesday. In Chicago, low-wage workers and supporters will hold actions throughout the day, culminating in a rally at 4 p.m. at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Led by fast-food and retail workers, the movement has swept up home-care and child-care workers, cabdrivers and adjunct professors. In recent weeks, community and student groups have joined the mobilization. On the Northwest Side, Communities United held a series of demonstrations outside local McDonald’s emphasizing the boost to the local economy that a living wage would provide. On Saturday, hundreds of Latino students protested at a Pilsen McDonald’s. At UIC, a student-worker coalition has called for a campus-wide $15 minimum wage.

It was this kind of pressure that forced Mayor Emanuel to act. Let’s recall: In February 2014, when progressive aldermen introduced a resolution calling for a $10.25 state minimum wage, Emanuel introduced a competing resolution backing a $9 rate. When then-Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn was campaigning for a $10 wage, Emanuel backed a $9.25 rate for the city.

Last summer, with 20 aldermen backing an ordinance establishing a $15-an-hour city minimum in four years, Emanuel appointed a commission. Last December, in the 44th month of his 48-month term, and with a tough re-election campaign looming, he pushed through an increase to $13 by 2019.

It’s very much a partial victory — a full-time worker earning $13 an hour in 2019 is likely to be barely over the poverty level — and workers clearly aren’t settling for that, continuing to push for something closer to a living wage. But that victory came from a combination of workers and their supporters hitting the streets and a progressive movement that was able to generate a credible political challenge to Emanuel’s re-election.

There’s another example of workers organizing in Chicago who are putting serious constraints on Emanuel’s agenda: charter school teachers. Emanuel repeatedly sounded the teacher-bashing theme in his 2011 campaign, backed legislation aimed at making it impossible for teachers to strike and then goaded teachers into a strike. He closed 50 neighborhood schools and is on track to open a similar number of charter schools — whose chief attraction for many supporters is their non-union workforce.

But boosted by an 87 percent “yes” vote in May 2013 at UNO Charter Schools, the city’s largest charter network, the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff now represents teachers at nearly a quarter of the city’s charter schools. In February, organizing drives were announced at two of the most prominent charter networks, North Lawndale College Prep and Urban Prep. Emanuel issued a statement supporting teachers’ right to organize.

Chicago is now the most heavily unionized charter school district in the nation. That’s probably not the record Emanuel was aiming for when he came into office.

The way the system is currently rigged, big money will win elections nine times out of ten. But that’s not the end of the story.