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Protests set as Fight for 15 marks second anniversary

When 22-year-old Adriana Alvarez was approached last year to join the Fight for $15 at the Cicero McDonald’s where she worked, she scoffed.

“The organizer came up to me one day after work in the parking lot, and I told him that was crazy, no way were we going to get $15,” the single mother of a 2 year-old said, nevertheless joining in local organizing and protest efforts.

Turns out she was wrong.

The Fight for $15 national wage increase campaign that began Nov. 29, 2012, when 200 fast-food workers in New York City walked off their jobs, can boast many victories at its two-year anniversary. Chicago is among its latest.

“The only reason Chicago just passed a $13 minimum wage ordinance is because low-wage city workers were demanding $15,” said Kendall Fells, national organizing director of the movement, called Fast Food Forward.

It has used union organizing tactics, single-day protests and strikes and federal labor actions to slowly and steadily move a once seemingly far-fetched $15 minimum wage goal for fast-food and other low-wage workers to reality in several cities.

On April 24, 2013, Chicago was the second city to organize a strike after the initial one in New York. Strikes in six other cities followed that spring in Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City, Milwaukee and Seattle.

Efforts of the movement here, through the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago — a coalition of unions and nonprofits that work with the poor — failed to achieve the $15 goal their allies in the City Council progressive caucus sought on their behalf.

But two years ago, the $13 minimum wage that passed Tuesday seemed improbable.

The city’s new ordinance, affecting about 400,000 Chicagoans, will increase the minimum wage to $10 an hour on July 1, and then raise it gradually to $13 an hour by 2019. Illinois’ minimum wage is currently $8.25 hourly. The federal minimum wage is $7.25.

“I’ve been involved for a year, holding meetings at my house, getting petitions signed, going to protests. In May, I was arrested at the protest at McDonald’s headquarters in Oak Brook,” said Alvarez, who will participate in another of the nationwide strikes planned in 160 cities on Thursday.

“I was surprised at what could happen when we stood together,” she said.

To date, the movement has successfully advocated for a $15 minimum wage in three cities. Proposals are making their way through other municipalities. SeaTac, Washington, was the first to pass a $15 ordinance in November 2013. Seattle followed in June 2013, then last month, San Francisco.

Two years in, other low-wage workers have joined the fast-food workers’ campaign, including those at big-box store Wal-Mart, workers at airports, and those in the hotel, health care and home care arenas. Experts credit the movement with elevating the debate around income inequality in the U.S.

“People are more aware of these issues as a result of these actions,” said Cesar Rosado, assistant law professor at IIT-Chicago-Kent College of Law.

“Unions like SEIU, the United Food & Commercial Workers, they’re sort of in the background, and they’ve developed these kind of alternative labor groups to raise consciousness around the issue,” he said. “Our nation hasn’t seen this precise kind of activity in a while. And I think we’re going to see more cities, more states, raising the minimum wage as a result.”

Among other victories counted by the movement are a $15 minimum wage increase for hotel workers that was passed by the L.A. City Council in September; successful collective bargaining for a $15 minimum wage for school workers in L.A., housing authority workers in Portland, Oregon, hospital workers in Baltimore and Boston and university workers in Rochester; and agreements by several fast-food and other chains nationwide to pay a $15 minimum.

Organizers estimate about 7.6 million low-wage workers nationwide have gotten raises as a result of local ballot measures, city and state legislation and contract negotiations in the campaign’s wake.

“Invisible workers in the American economy have become invincible,” Fells said. “Two years ago, when we first started talking about a $15 minimum wage for a fast-food or any low-wage worker, people thought we were crazy. Two years later, $15 is the new norm. In Chicago, $13 is a good start, but our workers will not be happy until they get $15 and a union.”

Host to the movement’s first nationwide convention in July, the Chicago area saw about 1,300 workers from across the country flock to west suburban Addison for training. About 2,000 had converged here in May for the protest Alvarez attended at McDonald’s Oak Brook headquarters.

Fast-food workers will be joined by those from the home care and airport industries in Chicago at 4:30 a.m. Thursday for protest outside the flagship Rock N Roll McDonald’s at 600 N. Clark. Also planned is a 7 a.m. protest at a McDonald’s at 23 S. Clark and a march through the Loop from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m.

In September, nearly 500 were arrested when Fight for $15 workers held strikes in 150 cities. Alvarez said it is worth the risk.

“Before we joined the movement, workers at our McDonald’s hadn’t gotten raises in two years. Since joining, we’ve gotten four raises, and there’s been a lot of changes,” she said. “We now punch in for ourselves, instead of them doing it, and we don’t have to pay out of our paychecks if the cash register is short. I’m going to keep fighting because of my son.”