Fast Food Workers Strike In Second Major City

Chicago fast-food and retail workers walk out in strike. Ever since she began working as a cashier for the Protein Bar restaurant chain in downtown Chicago a year and a half ago, says Amie Crawford, she's felt mistreated. The 56-year-old has yet to be made a full-time staffer, as she was told she would be. And despite 30 years of employment history, including working as an interior designer in North Carolina's Outer Banks, she must ask permission to use the bathroom. She makes $8.75 an hour and has no benefits.

Crawford joined several hundred other fast-food and other low-wage workers Wednesday in a one-day walkout from their jobs. The workers, who are calling for a $15 minimum wage in their Fight for $15 campaign, are being organized by the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago, a non-union community organization. Crawford, who is single and is a leader of organization, credits recent activism among fast-food workers in New York as the inspiration for the day of action.

And in speaking about the New York protest from earlier this month, which turned out to be the largest strike ever of fast food workers, Crawford says the the protest in Gotham provided a shot in the arm for the Chicago workers. "If they can do it, why can't we do it. We felt empowered by that," she said.

The day of action is slated to go into the night, so there's no final count yet of the participating workers. The workers have come from such national fast-food companies as McDonald's, Subway and Dunkin' Donuts in addition to Protein Bar, which also has restaurants in Washington D.C.

In an interview with AOL Jobs, Protein Bar founder Matt Matros defended the salaries at his start-up operation. "It's the industry standard," he said. "This is what we have to offer to sell burritos for $6.50." He himself makes "well under $100,000," he said. His eight restaurants give workers performance tests to increase their salary until they rise to become general managers.

But the workers also came from retailers including Macy's, Victoria's Secret and Sears. (Organizers were originally hoping for a turnout of around 500 workers. Early reports suggested that workers from other companies were joining in the action. By early evening, workers from Whole Foods had already joined the event, without prior warning.) In addition to the demand for a $15 minimum wage, the workers are clamoring for many of the similar goals that were raised in New York -- full-time hours and benefits.

The workers are focusing their attention on the downtown area Chicago known as "The Loop," which according to The Nation, sees about $4 billion in retail and fast food revenue each year.

More:NYC Fast-Food Workers Strike: 'Supersize Our Wages,' They Demand

Organizers were hailing the Chicago rally as part of a nationwide invigoration of labor activism. "Bravo Chicago. This is just the beginning," Jonathan Westin, campaign director for Fast Food Forward in New York, said in a news release. In speaking to AOL Jobs early this month, Westin presented the $15 minimum wage as anything but a fantasy. "It's not reasonable for multibillion corporations who are making record profits to pay this little," he said.

One marked difference from the April 4 strike in New York is that the fast-food workers are being joined by the retail-store workers. The emergence of both fast food and retail workers as the focus of union activism represents a shift for American labor. As AOL Jobs reported in December, the face of American labor is moving away from auto, manufacturing and steel workers and toward workers from service sectors.

The shift is in keeping with changes in the American economy. Back in 1950, the services sector represented comprised 60 percent of the economy. Now, the figure is closer to 80 percent.

"For so long, labor avoided low-wage service jobs," Lowell Turner, professor of international and comparative labor at the Industrial Labor Relations School at Cornell, said last year. "But now this is the majority of jobs. If [unions are] not elevating these jobs, we'll have a whole class of workers living in poverty."

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