Yesterday’s hardest moment came for me when I watched a worker cry. I had been on the streets for about 5 hours with striking workers from the Fight for 15 movement and their supporters, who held a series of actions for two days in conjunction with a national week of strikes and protests to raise the minimum wage. I met the first picket in front of a Subway in the Chicago loop during the morning rush hour where several workers walked off the job. Organizers planned more than twenty pickets spread throughout the financial heart of the city for the day. Hundreds of demonstrators snaked along the sidewalks, stopping in front of retail and fast food outlets to deliver their message – “We can’t survive on $8.25.”
Morning was slowly turning to afternoon and demonstrators lined the sidewalk in front of a Walgreen’s on State and Randolph, a location sandwiched between the Chicago Theater and a Macy’s outlet in the loop. Several Walgreens workers, who had already made the decision to strike, stood near the corner, clad in their blue uniformed t-shirts and spoke about their plight.
“I don’t see my kids until Friday night,” said one worker. He described how he not only worked for Walgreen’s, but for fast food outlet Chick-fil-a. By the time he returned home from working two low wage jobs in one day, his children were already sleeping. “I want to be able to come home and take care of my kids off of one day’s work, one 8-hour shift,” he said. Later, another woman got on the megaphone and started to speak. She said she didn’t know what she would do if she lost her job, but she couldn’t care for her family on $8.25 an hour.
Then she began to cry.
I could feel myself choking up too. I cleared what felt like a large golfball sitting inside my throat, lit a cigarette and kept watching. A co-worker gave her a hug. Soon after, the demonstrators lined along the huge glass windows of the building began chanting “come on out, we got your back!” The woman who had teared up regained her composure and joined them, and the picket line began chanting in unison for Teresa a fellow worker still inside the store to come out. After about 15 minutes, Teresa emerged from the door to thunderous cheers and applause, and was nearly overwhelmed by hugs from other demonstrators.
The group formed up and began to move to the next picket location, energized from the new edition to their growing numbers, and I felt a shot of adrenaline surge through my veins too.
One of the more common criticisms I hear while covering protests and demonstrations fighting for workers rights is that low wage workers aren’t skilled enough to deserve better wages, or they’re lazy and entitled. Often that criticism is backed up by a personal anecdote from a negative experience with a co-worker and how that person doesn’t deserve what little they’re making, or a Horatio Alger type story about how they or someone they know pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.
It’s easy to fall into that line of thinking. America’s labor movement has gotten a bad reputation for decades, and “solidarity” – if recognized at all – became a four letter word long ago. America’s unions aren’t blameless in this – they’ve become just as susceptible to the same type of corruption we see in politicians and CEO’s. But for every story about a union worker sleeping on the job or taking a dozen coffee breaks, I’ve got one about high paid executives spending half their day playing golf or a president taking five weeks of vacation time.
The only union job I ever worked was the first job I held as a teenager. As a bagger in a grocery store, I didn’t see the point of paying dues. I didn’t need health insurance, I had a roof over my head, food on my table, clothes on my back and I went to a good school. It took me quite a long time to realize I had those things thanks to the union my father belonged to.
Time and again, the workers drove that point home for me as they walked the picket lines and spoke. The Macy’s employee with a child working on commission, forced into a pay deficit if store goals aren’t made, the Subway worker trying to support two children on two low wage jobs, and the woman who broke down in front of Walgreens – my parents could’ve easily faced the same situation, and so can I.
Movements to raise wages and organize workers aren’t only about putting money in people’s pockets. Given the current state of income inequality locally and globally and the exponential increase in poverty for the average person – the fight is about survival – and it shouldn’t be. When the Dow Jones hits record highs and major corporations are continuing to rake in record profits, why should any of these workers have to struggle to survive? These workers are fighting to improve the quality of life for themselves, their families, and each other. If we all engaged in that fight, no one would have to survive on $8.25.