Why Chicago’s Fast Food Workers Are Striking Today

Hundreds of Chicago fast food workers walked off the job early this morning at restaurants like McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts, with workers at retail chains like Macy’s and Sears joining them. By the end of the day, more than 500 workers are expected to participate in the strike, calling for higher wages and the right to organize unions in low-wage jobs that are increasingly dominating the American economy. Here’s what you need to know about today’s walkouts:

WHY WORKERS ARE TARGETING FAST FOOD AND RETAIL: Fast food and retail jobs make up large portions of the low-wage sector that has grown rapidly since the Great Recession — though low-wage jobs made up just 21 percent of jobs lost during the recession, they account for 58 percent of the jobs added since it ended. Those job gains have come with big profits for companies like McDonalds, which has seen its profits rise 130 percent in the last three years. But workers, including an increasing number of college graduates, haven’t shared in that prosperity. They are making at or near the minimum wage, and they are increasingly doing so without benefits like health care and retirement plans. Low-wage workers have also found it hard to organize unions without retaliation from their employers.

HOW A UNION WOULD HELP THEM: The ability to organize would, as Salon’s Josh Eidelson explained, give the workers leverage to bargain for better wages and benefits without fear of retaliation from their employers. Fast food and retail workers aren’t all teenagers — the median age of a low-wage worker is 28, and many of them are trying to earn a living and support a family. But with so few protections, workers have almost no ability to demand better wages, benefits, and working conditions without the fear of retaliation, including fewer hours or outright job loss. A union, however, would give workers the ability to collectively bargain for better wages and benefits: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union workers across industries make an average of $200 per week more than their non-union counterparts.

WHY NOW: The Chicago strikes follow similar actions by Walmart workers across the country and by fast food workers in New York City. After thousands of Walmart workers walked off the job on Black Friday and picketed their employer, New York fast food workers staged a one-day strike in December. New York workers staged a larger action on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday earlier this month. Chicago workers cited both actions as inspiration for their own strike, and organizing groups hope today’s walkout will help take the fight for better wages and benefits and workers’ rights to other cities across the country.