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At 24, Cicero mom known internationally for her ‘Fight for $15’

Adriana Alvarez, of Cicero with her 4-year-old son Manuel "Manny" Davila. She works 30 to 33 hours a week at a McDonald's, making makes $11 an hour. | Leslie Adkins / Sun-Times

When we last caught up with Adriana Alvarez, this single mom from Cicero was 22 years old, had been working at the same McDonald’s for four years and had been active in the nationwide “Fight for $15” movement for about a year.

When we caught up with her last week, she’d been arrested in Fight for $15 protests in Chicago — among demonstrations by service industry workers in 340 cities and 20 airports, marking the fourth anniversary of the movement to raise the minimum wage.

“A lot of people are too scared to come out with us, too scared to say anything,” says Alvarez, whose Fight for $15 efforts have taken her to the White House as well as to Brazil and France. “I feel like I’m their voice.

“Pushing these corporations is a little tough, but I feel like it’s working,” she says. “Right now, I’m at $11 an hour. I mean, this is good. Because, back from where I was, I feel like I’ve come a long way.”

Where she started was stuck at $8.25 an hour — Illinois’ minimum wage — after three years at McDonald’s.

We’d first spoken in December 2014, after Chicago passed an ordinance that will raise the city’s wage floor in increments to $13 an hour by 2019. It’s now $10.50 an hour. The federal minimum wage has been $7.25 since 2009.

The Chicago Sun-Times’ “Faces of Minimum Wage” series had examined the minimum-wage debate as the battle raged here and nationwide, with profiles of  low-wage workers and small-business owners. Alvarez was profiled in a Dec. 3, 2014, story.

When an organizer approached her to join the movement a year before, “I told him that was crazy, no way were we going to get $15,” Alvarez said then, but she nevertheless joined.

As the movement marked its second anniversary, she said: “I’ve been involved for a year, holding meetings at my house, getting petitions signed, going to protests. I was surprised at what could happen when we stood together.”

Like Alvarez, the union-driven campaign has come far since Nov. 29, 2012, when 200 fast-food workers in New York walked off their jobs. It has moved a once seemingly farfetched $15 minimum-wage goal for fast-food and other workers to reality in many cities and states.

Adriana Alvarez with her 4-year-old son Manuel "Manny" Davila. | Leslie Adkins / Sun-Times

Adriana Alvarez with her 4-year-old son, Manuel “Manny” Davila. | Leslie Adkins / Sun-Times

According to a report last month by the National Employment Law Project, the movement, over the past four years, has won $61.5 billion in raises benefiting 19 million workers.

Two-thirds of that $61.5 billion is attributed to landmark $15 minimum-wage laws won by workers at Sea-Tac Airport in Washington, as well as in Seattle and San Francisco in the first two years of the campaign, and, in the last two years, New York City and Los Angeles — then statewide in New York and California — and Washington, D.C.

“When I got involved, I was scared to lose my job. But I had a 2-year-old that I had to keep fed, and, with what I was making, I was more scared of not being able to feed him,” says Alvarez, whose co-workers hadn’t gotten raises in two years before she helped them organize in 2013.

When we talked to her in December 2014, their efforts had led to $1.25 in raises. She was making $9.50 an hour then.

“Since joining, we’ve gotten four raises, and there’s been a lot of changes. They respect us a lot more,” she said then.

When the 24-year-old mom was arrested Tuesday at a protest outside a McDonald’s at 2005 W. Chicago, it wasn’t her first time. She’d been arrested twice by the time we’d met  — at a May 2014 protest at McDonald’s Oak Brook headquarters and a September 2013 demonstration outside her own McDonald’s.

“We’re standing up for what’s right, and we’re being rewarded,” says Alvarez, who launched a YouTube series in 2014, “My Fight,” which follows her efforts.

Born and raised in Cicero, Alvarez is one of two children of parents who emigrated from Mexico in 1990 and attained permanent residency. Her father is a truck driver, her mother a factory worker. Her 20-year-old brother works at a pizzeria.

“If this movement had been around then, I feel like my parents would have struggled a little less,” says Alvarez. “I know some of my aunts and uncles would have definitely benefited. I feel like they went through hell just to get their kids fed.”

Adriana Alvarez in a selfie outside the White House.

Adriana Alvarez in a selfie outside the White House in September 2015.

She’s now the Chicago rep to Fight for $15’s National Organizing Committee. She was selected with others to visit the White House and greet the pope during his September 2015 U.S. visit. She’s traveled to Brazil to testify at federal hearings into McDonald’s business practices and to France in support of a European Union antitrust complaint against the fast-food giant.

“I still wonder how I got here, to this day,” she says. “When I started, I didn’t do it because I thought one day I’m going to go here, and I’m going to go there. I did it because I want a better future for myself, for my son, for everyone.”