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Minimum wage protesters demonstrate outside hospital, O’Hare

Protesters march along Lake Shore Drive Tuesday. | Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

When Ethel Poindexter began working downtown at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in 1973, street parking was 10 cents an hour and she made $4.75 working in food services. Forty three years later, she still works in the vast hospital complex, making $22.13 as a surgical assistant.

Poindexter says she loves her job, but that didn’t stop her standing with about 100 protesters at Huron and McClurg, as they demanded a minimum of $15 an hour.

“I want to be treated with dignity and respect,” said Poindexter. “I do a lot of back-breaking work.”

That’s what she and hundreds of other protests were trying to prove in rallies across the country on Tuesday. The national “Day of Disruption” was planned by labor organizers in the Fight For $15, a movement to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Strikes were planned by low-wage workers at 20 airports across the country, as well as walkouts at fast food restaurants and a work stoppage by some Uber drivers.

At O’Hare International Airport, hundreds of protesters lined the sidewalk between Terminals 2 and 3 holding signs, including one that read, “Taking off for better wages.” The crowd was a solid band of purple and gold – the colors of the Service Employees International Union, which backed the effort — right down to their hats, scarves, shirts and gloves.

Passengers walking by stopped to take pictures with their phones, while drivers in passing cars honked or waved in support as protesters chanted: “Fight, fight, fight, fight — organizing is a right.”

An early-morning demonstration outside a McDonald’s restaurant at 2005 W. Chicago Ave. led to several people being ticketed after they filled the intersection at Chicago and Damen, disrupting traffic.

Downtown, outside Northwestern Memorial, Poindexter and the other protesters marched along Huron to Lake Shore Drive, before ending on Chicago Avenue, where buses waited to take them to further protests at O’Hare where a one-day strike of workers began at 10 p.m. Monday.

As many as 500 workers at O’Hare were expected to skip their shifts as janitors, security guards, baggage handlers, wheelchair assistants and other low-wage, non-union jobs at the airport to join picket lines outside the terminals, organizers said.

Striking workers march outside Terminal 3 at O'Hare International Airport on Tuesday morning. | Jesse Betend/For the Sun-Times

Striking workers march outside Terminal 3 at O’Hare International Airport on Tuesday morning. | Jesse Betend/For the Sun-Times

Sue Dyke, waiting in the American Airlines wheelchair services center in Terminal 3, found that although service was a little slow, it was not an inconvenience.

“I usually have to wait about 15 minutes,” said Dyke, who usually flies twice a year. “Today it’s been about a half an hour.”

Just then, an American Airlines attendant approached with Dyke’s wheelchair.

Dyke, who is flying home to Philadelphia, said a she was aware of airport workers plans to strike and came early.

“I think attendants need more money,” said Dyke, “I’m happy to have them strike for it.”

Elizabeth Satern, 27, arrived back in Chicago Tuesday morning after spending Thanksgiving in Palm Beach. She had no complaints about her return trip.

“We got here early,” Satern said.

Lindsey Wagner (left) Sarah Donnelly and their dog, Eli, flew into O'Hare Internaional Airport on Tuesday morning and despite a strike by some workers, they had no problems. | Jesse Betend/For the Sun-Times

Lindsey Wagner (left) Sarah Donnelly and their dog, Eli, flew into O’Hare Internaional Airport on Tuesday morning and despite a strike by some workers, they had no problems. | Jesse Betend/For the Sun-Times

Another flier who didn’t want to provide her name said she had no problems.

“They’ve been more helpful than usual,” she said. “Someone walked up to us and asked if we needed assistance. That’s never happened before.”

Lindsey Wagner, Sarah Donnelly and their dog, Eli, flew into O’Hare Tuesday and didn’t wait long at the American Airlines baggage claim. Wagner and Donnelly knew there would be a strike at O’Hare, but apparently it didn’t affect their experience.

In fact, Wagner said, “this is the fastest we’ve ever gotten our bags.”

Airlines at O’Hare said they were ready for the strike.

“We’ve been working closely with our vendors to ensure there is no disruption to our operation and at this point we have not seen any impact,” said Leslie Scott, an American Airlines spokeswoman. “American supports better pay for workers across the board, but does not believe initiatives should target a specific group or industry. We also respect the right of employees and workers to organize, but we do not get involved in union representation discussions with our vendors and their employees.”

A United Airlines spokesman likewise said the job action had no effect on operations. And the Chicago Department of Aviation, which manages both O’Hare and Midway airports, also said it “has not seen any disruption in service at Chicago’s airports due to this development” and that security lines were moving smoothly.

At O’Hare, 500 workers had submitted strike notices, said Izabela Miltko, a spokeswoman for SEIU Local 1.

As workers rallied around her outside the O’Hare on Tuesday, Miltko said there has been no communication between airline officials and the union.

“We would love to start a dialogue,” said Miltko. “We are adults who want to provide for our families.”

Scrub Inc. cabin cleaners, Evelyn Becerra, Yarely Bernal, and Kisha Rivera attended the rally at O'Hare International Airport. | Jesse Betend/For the Sun-Times

Scrub Inc. cabin cleaners, Evelyn Becerra, Yarely Bernal, and Kisha Rivera attended the rally at O’Hare International Airport. | Jesse Betend/For the Sun-Times

Miltko said baggage handlers used to make as much as $22 an hour. But as more and more airlines used contract employees, wages plummeted.

“Airports — they’re economic engines,” Miltko said. “But when you pull back the curtain, you really see the types of conditions these grown men and women have to deal with. And they know it’s not just.”

That includes workers like Kisha Rivera, a cabin cleaner for Scrub Inc., one of the companies used by American and United Airlines. Rivera says last month she was called to clean up a plane bathroom.

“One bathroom was covered in feces. On the walls. The other bathroom had blood in the sink.”

Rivera claimed she did not have the proper equipment to clean up the mess safely and there was no one she could call. What did she do?

“Improvise,” Rivera said. “I used two pairs of gloves.”

For Rivera, it’s about more than money.

“I want to be respected. I deserve to be paid more. It should be $15.”

Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st) addressed the striking workers and said he recognized some of them from his ward.

Striking workers and their supporters held a demonstration between terminals 2 and 3 at O'Hare International Airport on Tuesday. | Jesse Betend/For the Sun-Times

Striking workers and their supporters held a demonstration between terminals 2 and 3 at O’Hare International Airport on Tuesday. | Jesse Betend/For the Sun-Times

“You need to listen to these people in order for this economic engine to function,” Napolitano said, as workers chanted “We Are American” and “Organizing is a right.”

Nationwide, dozens of people were arrested as part of the minimum wage protests.

Besides Chicago, demonstrations were held in Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and New York. In many cities the protesters blocked busy intersections.

About 25 of the 350 protesters in New York City were arrested. One protester, Flavia Cabral, 55, struggles to make ends meet with two part-time jobs.

“All these people don’t have savings because we’re working check to check,” Cabral said. “We have to decide what we are going to get: We’re going to pay rent or we’re going to put food on the table or we’re going to send my child to school.”

Detroit police say they arrested about 40 protesters who blocked traffic. And nearly three dozen protesters have been arrested in Cambridge, Mass. In the San Francisco Bay Area, ride-hailing drivers, fast-food employees, airport workers and others shut down an Oakland intersection.

The conservative-leaning, nonprofit Employment Policies Institute think tank said it believes minimum wage increases will result in lost jobs, reduced hours and business closures.

Contributing: Jordan Owen, Andy Grimm, Associated Press

A crowd of about 350 protesters stand on Broadway in front of a McDonald's restaurant on Tuesday in New York. About 25 of the chanting minimum-wage protesters, foreground, were arrested. The event was part of the National Day of Action to Fight for $15. The campaign seeks higher hourly wages, including for workers at fast-food restaurants and airports. | Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

A crowd of about 350 protesters stand on Broadway in front of a McDonald’s restaurant on Tuesday in New York. About 25 of the chanting minimum-wage protesters, foreground, were arrested. The event was part of the National Day of Action to Fight for $15. The campaign seeks higher hourly wages, including for workers at fast-food restaurants and airports. | Mark Lennihan/Associated Press