From ‘Outlandish’ To Reality: How The Fight For $15 Was Won In Chicago

Fight for 15 protest at O’Hare
In this Nov. 29, 2016, file photo, protesters gather at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport as part of a nationwide protest for a $15 per hour minimum wage for fast food restaurant, airport, child care and other low wage workers. On Thursday, Chicago's hourly minimum wage reached that mark, but organizers of the Fight for $15 campaign said many workers still lack a living wage and union representation. Kiichiro Sato / Associated Press
Fight for 15 protest at O’Hare
In this Nov. 29, 2016, file photo, protesters gather at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport as part of a nationwide protest for a $15 per hour minimum wage for fast food restaurant, airport, child care and other low wage workers. On Thursday, Chicago's hourly minimum wage reached that mark, but organizers of the Fight for $15 campaign said many workers still lack a living wage and union representation. Kiichiro Sato / Associated Press

From ‘Outlandish’ To Reality: How The Fight For $15 Was Won In Chicago

As Chicago brought its minimum wage up to $15 an hour this week, it was a milestone that went curiously uncelebrated among some of the cohort of organizers and laborers who helped launch the campaign a decade ago.

“Two days ago, somebody reminded me the minimum wage was going up to $15 in Chicago,” said Alex Han, an organizer who was with SEIU Healthcare of Illinois in the campaign’s earliest days. “I had almost forgotten about it.”

Chicago has joined places like Washington, D.C., New York City, San Francisco, Seattle and many other municipalities where the minimum wage is — or exceeds — $15 an hour. Illinois’s minimum wage is set to hit that mark in 2025. And nationally, President Joe Biden has increased the minimum wage to $15 an hour for federal contractors. It’s a stunning turnabout for a demand that seemed on the fringe in 2011, when Illinois’s minimum wage seemed stuck at $8.25.

“$15 seemed like an outlandish demand, even [to some within] the labor movement,” Han said.

But it was perhaps the very boldness of the demand, along with a key labor turning point in Chicago, that helped propel the campaign to a win. And for early organizers, many who have moved on in their professional and personal lives, the Fight for $15 still offers important lessons on how to center campaigns not around preconceived notions about what can be won — but instead to stay focused on what would measurably improve workers’ lives.

“It seemed to have a kind of magic to it”

The Fight for $15 campaign’s official kickoff in Chicago was on Black Friday in 2012, when members of the newly-organized Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC) marched down the Magnificent Mile. But work behind the campaign had, in fact, begun the previous year. Madeline Talbott, a longtime Chicago community organizer, had been strategizing with Jon Kest, a counterpart in the labor movement in New York City, about how to organize low-wage workers across several different sectors, including food service and retail.

“We had this interesting feeling about it, which is that … rather than build a coalition of existing powerful labor unions, community organizations, church-based groups, this time, we were organizing the actual hundreds of thousands of working people who were impacted,” said Talbott, now retired. “We knew that all kinds of things were possible if we could succeed at doing that.”

Talbott said the target of $15 came from listening to workers who described what they needed to survive. During the decade prior, she had worked on two campaigns to raise Illinois’s hourly minimum wage — first, from $5.15 to $6.50, and then from $6.50 to $8.25. Talbott said she was well aware that pushing to nearly double it, after a history of only modest increases, would require a much bigger effort.

“But it also had the advantage that it could attract a larger constituency to fight for it,” she said. “It seemed to have a kind of magic to it almost immediately. For low-wage workers, it was aspirational, it was something worth fighting for. And so it really, it attracted people to the fight.”

With help and funding from Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare in Illinois, community and labor organizers helped workers establish their own organization, the WOCC, to chart the agenda and build the campaign.

A turning point for Chicago workers

The campaign also began around the time that teachers mounted an historic strike in Chicago. In September of 2012, less than two years into former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first term in office, the Chicago Teachers Union won higher pay for teachers and more favorable evaluation criteria after striking for seven days. The boldness and success of the action breathed new life into the city’s labor movement, including the new coalition that was pushing for a higher minimum wage.

“It’s hard to imagine that [the $15 an hour] demand is that clear without those workers having just seen 25,000 teachers go on strike and win against really, really long odds,” said Han.

The inaugural public event for the campaign, marching down the Magnificent Mile on Black Friday, took place two months after the teacher’s strike was resolved. For many of the workers who became involved in the movement, it was the first time they had ever publicly advocated for themselves.

“When I finally took part in the Black Friday action, it was transformational in a lot of ways in my life,” said Robert Wilson Jr., who was working for McDonald’s at the time. Wilson, now 33 years old and living in El Paso, Texas, recalled the last business they marched to that day happened to be his own workplace — the McDonald’s at Navy Pier.

“[It was] the first time I was ever scared to walk to my workplace that I’ve been walking to for years,” Wilson said. Another organizer told him he didn’t have to participate in their action there, but Wilson said he decided to do it.

“The next day, I expected to get fired, and I got promoted,” Wilson said. Despite some leeriness over the motives behind his promotion, Wilson said he took it. But he would continue his activism within the movement, becoming one of its more public faces in media interviews. “It really just showed me [that] no one’s going to give you what you’re worth; they’re going to give you what you negotiate.”

A campaign gains traction

It wasn’t long before advocates of the higher minimum wage began to see their demand translate into policy proposals.

“I remember Mayor Emanuel proposed a counter minimum wage proposal to ours,” said Katelyn Johnson, founder of the BlackRoots Alliance and formerly an organizer with Action Now, a nonprofit that helped push for the $15 minimum wage. “And it was like, ‘Oh, wait, if he’s responding to us, then we’re on the right path.”

At the end of 2014, Emanuel’s proposal to raise the minimum wage in the city to $13 an hour over five years passed with overwhelming approval of the Chicago City Council. Though it fell short of what advocates were demanding, it was clear that their campaign had fundamentally shifted the conversation from centering on what retailers and restaurants could afford to what families needed to survive.

In late November of 2019, seven years after the kickoff march for the Fight for $15 campaign down the Magnificent Mile, the City Council approved Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s measure to bring the minimum wage for most workers to $15 by July 1, 2021. Her office marked the milestone with a press conference Thursday, saying that 400,000 low wage laborers in the city would benefit.

The work ahead

Many who helped propel the campaign in its early days have moved on. Talbott is retired; Han has left SEIU to work on other advocacy projects; Wilson has moved out of state; and Johnson has departed Action Now to found a nonprofit organization that focuses on the wellbeing of Black communities. While they noted the significance of the $15 minimum wage taking effect in Chicago this week, they said that number was never, in fact, the goal.

“Our goal is to win power for those workers to be able to have control over their lives,” Han said. “And those numbers are markers on that.”

Nationwide, organizers had hoped to unionize many low wage workers, particularly those working in fast food and other restaurants. Fewer than 2% of workers in the food services industry are represented by labor unions, among the lowest percentages of any job sector, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Wilson, who now delivers packages for services such as Amazon Flex and DoorDash, believes that $15 still is not enough, especially nearly 10 years after the demand originated. “You got a city that already has … Black and Brown and also white working class folks leaving,” he said. “I don’t see it making a significant difference compared to how much it costs to live in Chicago.” Wilson, himself, relocated to Texas in February for personal reasons.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the equivalent of $15 in November 2012 — when the campaign began in Chicago — was $17.54 in May 2021, the most recent month for which data was provided.

Additionally, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimates that a single adult with no children in the Chicago metropolitan area needs to work full time and earn $16.08 an hour to sufficiently cover all of their living expenses.

The victory in Chicago was also not absolute. One of the biggest disappointments for activists was a failure to eliminate the subminimum, or “tipped” wage for restaurant workers and some other service workers. They make $8.40 an hour, with tips expected to make up the difference between earnings and the minimum wage.

“The culture of tipping is very rooted in racism and very rooted in oppression,” Johnson said. “And so I really support anyone who is working for one fair wage for everyone.”

But Talbott, who said she fully expected the Fight for $15 to take as long as it has in Chicago, sees that campaign’s success as a sign that future fights can succeed, as well.

“It is truly very exciting,” she said. “And it means that there’s no particular reason why we wouldn’t do a Fight for $50K in the future.”

Odette Yousef is a reporter with WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @oyousef.