Downtown walkout for higher minimum wage shakes up Chicago businesses

April 24, 2013

A group of fast food and retail workers in downtown Chicago staged a protest and walkout Wednesday to demand a minimum wage of $15 an hour for all downtown workers. Beginning very early in the morning, the roving protest grew in size as it made noise in front of stores including Macy’s, Nordstrom Rack, Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s.

Felix Mendez said he changed out of his uniform and into a red shirt and walked out of his job at Subway early Wednesday morning.

“Every two weeks my check is less than $500,” he said. In two years at Subway he said he’s never gotten a raise, and he and his family recently had to move because they couldn’t pay rent. He lives with his girlfriend, who’s a teacher, and his two kids. “We make it, but it would be nice not to have to struggle, just to live comfortable live everybody else.”

Managers at Mendez’s Subway didn’t want to comment. But another Subway manager whose employees walked out said he’d support a higher state minimum wage.

“Why not?” said Subway manager Firoj Ali. But he said Subway won’t be the one to set that new minimum. “The franchise is not going to decide minimum wage.”

“I have to go paycheck by paycheck struggling,” said Amani Johnson, who works at the same Subway. The 26-year-old has two young children, and he’s been at Subway for six years. “Why be greedy and keep the money to yourself when you could be helping many others out here that are struggling?”

Earlier this year in his State of the State address, Ill. Gov. Pat Quinn voiced his support for raising the state minimum above $8.25. But lawmakers have not yet addressed legislation this session. The last change in the state minimum wage was in 2010.

A study by the National Employment Law Project shows that since the economic crash in 2008, the growth of low-wage jobs has far outpaced mid- and high-wage jobs.

The group behind Wednesday’s protest, the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC), wants downtown businesses to raise pay on their own rather than waiting for a change in laws. The WOCC is using a protest strategy that has also been gaining some traction with fast food workers in New York City: getting workers to go out on “strike” without officially forming a union. But Wednesday’s demonstration was more a walkout than a strike; workers said they will be back on the job Thursday.

Lewis Wallace is a Pritzker Journalism Fellow at WBEZ. Follow him @lewispants.