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Hundreds more McDonald's, Potbelly workers set to strike Thursday

Less than a month after 400 low-wage employees walked out of 60 Chicago-area retailers and fast-food establishments, workers will again strike Thursday at McDonald’s, Potbelly and 18 other national companies.

The protests will begin at 7 a.m. at the Rock & Roll McDonald’s in River North and continue with a larger rally at 3:30 p.m. at Federal Plaza, where organizers expect a crowd of more than 1,000 workers, clergy and allies. The strikes are part of a nationwide movement; fast-food and retail workers in 50 cities are also expected to strike. Thursday’s strikes will be the third iteration of the walkouts in Chicago.

Deivid Rojas, communications director for the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago, says that a half-mile down the street from the Rock & Roll McDonald’s is another McDonald’s franchise that amended its employment rules in the wake of the last round of strikes. Now, Rojas alleges, workers no longer have the cost of food they burn on the job deducted from their paychecks. McDonald’s disputes the entirety of Rojas’s claim, saying that the company has never charged workers for burning food.

Such basic factual disagreements between employers and employees characterize much of the fallout from August’s strikes and underscore the chasmic divide between the parties. The Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago relies on anecdotal accounts of workers to track the results of strikes. Employers, for their part, are unwilling to admit that striking workers reflect the large-scale discontentment in their labor force that might make them reconsider their employment policies.

Labor organizers and movement members have claimed several small victories in the wake of the strikes that took place earlier this month, including a smattering of raises, an uptick in hours and changes in work environments. When contacted for comment, each corporation denied that they had made any concessions as a consequence of walkouts.

Krista Reese, 22, works at Nordstrom Rack in River North. She believes she received a $1.50 raise and promotion to coat specialist the night before the strikes three weeks ago in order to dissuade her from participating. “I’m definitely seen as a leader, going around, talking to people, asking them to meet with organizers. I’ve done other interviews, I’m on the front lines of the strike lines, so I know that they know that I’m a leader in the movement,” she says. “Nordstrom has been trying to buy us off instead of trying to punish us.”

Tara Darrow, a spokeswoman for the company, flatly disputes all elements of Reese’s story. “She was not given a raise, she was not given a promotion,” Darrow says. “We feel like we offer a pretty darn good wage,” she added, noting that employees like Reese start at $10.75 an hour.

When labor organizers claimed that employees at the Jason’s Deli on Lake and Dearborn received raises as a result of participating in the strikes, Jason’s Deli wrote back with a statement that the raises were merit-based. “These increases have nothing to do with the ongoing Fight for 15 demonstrations and are based solely on individual performance,” a spokeswoman wrote in an email.

And when an employee from Forever 21 claimed that she had received a long-sought increase in hours after striking, the corporate office attributed the extra work to increased footfall from the back-to-school rush.

What’s more certain is that participation in the Fight for 15, as the strikes are branded, appears to be increasing. “400 workers went on strike [in August], an increase from about 300 in April. They walked out of 60 establishments, double the number of the previous strike,” says Lorraine Chavez, outreach coordinator for the WOCC. A press release from her organization notes that there are 275,000 low-wage fast-food workers in the Chicago area.

When asked whether workers were growing impatient that they hadn’t yet seen widespread results, Chavez argued that plenty of progress had been made. “In less than a year, we’ve gone from nothing to a union with coordinated national strikes,” she says. “There’s no whiff of discouragement that I can discern about the speed of tangible benefits. [Workers] completely understand that they are in this for the long haul.”

“What they tell me is, ‘We are slowly dying out here,’” she added. “There is no light at the end of any tunnel with the exception of organizing.”