Workers from stores throughout downtown Chicago streamed into the already packed meeting room, picking up a slice of pizza and a drink or dropping their kids off in the childcare room. 

A short Latina woman stood up and introduced herself in Spanish while someone else translated.

“I work in the kitchen at McDonald’s,” she said. “The big one. The one they call the Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonald’s, on Ohio Street. We are all Latinas in the kitchen. We all make minimum wage. We get no benefits. We have all been burned, badly, from the hot grease.” 

She raised her arms to show the scars that ran up and down them. Then, one after another, other workers in the room raised their arms, a multi-colored array that shared one striking feature: scars. 

“We don’t have health insurance so we can’t see a doctor about the burns. We don’t have paid sick days so we can’t take time off to heal. We are told we don’t qualify for Workers’ Comp, so we get nothing, no help. We use home remedies, and we keep working. 

“That’s why I joined the union. I want something better for myself and my kids. That’s why I want $15 and a union!” The room erupted. 

This was one of the first meetings of the Chicago downtown workers — just a few months before the kickoff of the Fight for 15 in Chicago and New York in November 2012. Over the next few months, organizers would reach out to thousands of workers with the goal of building a mass-based organization of low-wage working people. The workers who stepped forward to lead the fight would risk job loss and deportation in the hopes of earning better wages and respect on the job. 

This is the story of the workers and organizers in Chicago — most of them women — whose efforts to build an organization of downtown workers helped to spark the national and global Fight for 15 movement. 

 

Beginnings 

The organization that I started in Chicago as a successor to ACORN — Action Now — first conceived of the idea of building an organization for all working people in downtown Chicago. The organization would act like a union but include everyone, winning wage increases, benefits, and, eventually, recognition through direct action, legislative action, and large strikes. 

In August 2011, when other organizing was slow, we held a coalition march up Michigan Avenue with our minimum wage coalition partners; every group took responsibility for getting contact information from the workforce in certain stores. I took a crew into Eddie Bauer, where everyone, including the manager, signed. Everywhere we went, we had the run of the place. Even at the Nordstrom food court, the security guards allowed us to talk with employees, so long as we did not bother them. Security was usually getting $10/hour; they knew you couldn’t live on it. We were surprised to get significant press for our small action; we soon learned that any disruption on the Magnificent Mile was big news (and besides, most of the media offices were nearby).

We knew we were on to something, but we still needed funding to get the project off the ground. On September 21, 2011, I joined former ACORN organizers Brian Kettenring, Jon and Steve Kest, and Amy Schur at a restaurant in DC’s Dupont Circle to prepare our pitches to SEIU staff for joint labor/community work. We knew and trusted each other from decades of work together at ACORN. We came together thinking we would each make separate presentations to SEIU to interest them in funding the projects that we cared about the most. But when Steve, who worked in SEIU’s Organizing Department, suggested that the union would want a worker organizing project, Jon and I started to see the possibility of joint work on low-wage worker organizing. 

By the time we walked over to the SEIU Headquarters, Jon was prepared to lay out his work with car wash and immigrant retail workers, and I was planning to pitch Chicago’s downtown minimum wage worker organizing. 

SEIU was immediately interested. “Can you organize fast food workers?” asked an SEIU staffer. Jon Kest agreed that he could give fast food workers a try. I stuck with the downtown sector of low-wage workers in general, of which fast food workers made up a significant part. Thus began a series of follow-up meetings that led to two separate but related organizing projects: downtown workers in Chicago and fast food workers in New York City.

 

Building the List

To make an organizing plan, we needed a good estimate of the number of workers in each organizing drive. To get this number, Jon and I reached out to Greg Will, a researcher at SEIU Healthcare Illinois, the local union where my partner, Keith Kelleher, served as president (and co-founder). Greg Will can figure out almost anything, so he came up with defensible numbers of how many low-wage workers there were in Chicago’s Loop and Magnificent Mile area and how many fast food workers there were in the different boroughs of New York City. Both numbers came out in the tens of thousands, helping to convince SEIU that the workforce was sizable enough to invest in. By the end of January 2012, SEIU committed conditional monthly funding that would eventually total almost two million for Chicago and double that for New York. 

To build the team of organizers, I ran an ad on Craigslist at the end of November 2011 that went something like this: “Want to raise the minimum wage? Call Action Now about a full-time or part-time job.” I didn’t want to advertise that this was really a union drive, for fear the employers would catch wind of it. By December, I had a diverse crew of ten trainees working with me, many from low-wage jobs downtown.  

In most organizing, getting a list of the people you want to organize — with contact information — is critical. From Greg’s research, we understood that there would likely be at least 20,000 low-wage workers in downtown stores. We wanted a list of all of them. 

I asked Hannah Joravsky, our best organizer at Action Now, to run the campaign, and she readily agreed. By mid-December, 24-year-old Hannah had her own crew of ten doing the same work: building a list of downtown workers by going door-to-door to downtown stores and talking with them. By January, she had also brought on three lead organizers — Christina Rivero, Nazly Damasio, and Caleen Carter-Patton — to help her create an organizing model and manage the diverse field staff of twenty organizers. 

It was too difficult to find this workforce at home: when off the clock, they were out hustling more hours at another job, like babysitting or car repair, spending time with their kids, or working on their music or art. We were going to need to go directly into the stores to gather contact information while workers were on the clock. 

What we discovered was that no one was really minding these stores. With the exception of an occasional fast food restaurant, the “shift managers” at most stores were paid only fifty cents above minimum wage themselves. They were enthusiastic about a campaign to raise the minimum because they would benefit along with the staff they supervised.

To build our list, we gave out postcards that read like a petition in favor of raising the minimum wage. The goal was to get everyone’s cell number, email, and home address. In many stores, the shift manager would take the postcards and get them signed by the entire workforce, then leave them for us to pick up the next day.

Later, we changed the postcards to petitions to stop rate increases on public transportation since everyone working downtown took the bus or train (no one who made low wages could afford to park downtown). There was some concern that a petition for a minimum wage increase would wake up the bosses, wherever they were, and alert them that our union was operating in their stores. Indeed, at a McDonald’s near our Action Now office, Hannah became the subject of an employee training film, with all employees at that store alerted not to speak to her. 

Hannah was the one who figured out how to approach workers on the job once the bosses were aware that something was up. As she tells it: “I would go into the store as a customer, perusing the menu or the racks of clothes or the shelves of goods. I looked for workers who were walking the floor or not being watched at the moment. Then I approached, saying:

‘Hi, workers are very upset about the point system here, where you get docked points for missing work even if you’re sick or have a sick child at home. What’s your phone number? I’ll call you later when you’re off the clock.’

Or:

‘Hi, workers are coming together in Chicago for $15 and a union. We can talk about it when you’re off work. What’s your phone number?’”

We had been taught by labor organizers to be more relational, but Hannah and her team learned the hard way that interactions with workers had to be very fast and raise a hot issue right away or the workers would get scared and walk away. They were often getting wrong numbers, though, so Hannah had her staff call the cell number as soon as they got it, in the store, with the worker still with them.

“Whoops, guess I wrote it down wrong; your phone’s not ringing. Could you give it to me again? Great, now it’s ringing. That’s my number in your phone now. I’m Hannah. What’s your name? I’ll call you later. When do you get off?”

Hannah and her crew included the store name, location, department, and shift in the contact list, reaching out that same day for a follow-up phone conversation.

This was just the list building. Over that critical first year, Hannah, Nazly, Christina, Caleen, and their teams: 

·  Built a list with contact information for 20,000 low-wage workers from the Chicago Loop and the Magnificent Mile (this was all done during Chicago’s freezing winter, from December through February)

·  Got a crash course from the SEIU Organizer Training department (under Chris Woods and her team of all female/people of color trainers) on how to do labor organizing; they then developed a home-grown “rap” to get downtown workers to become publicly active union members (experienced SEIU organizer Casey Murphy provided invaluable consulting and advice)

·  Created a “hub and spoke” model of organizing, putting the lead organizers and Hannah in coffee shops downtown (the “hub”) while the other organizers acted as “spokes,” fanning out to grab workers as they went on lunch or finished their shifts and bringing them over to the hub for their union membership conversation. This was a deep conversation about what mattered to the workers — their children, their future — ending with the hard ask: Will you sign the union card? Through this model, we signed up 500 members on union cards. 

·  Held bimonthly meetings of the newly formed Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago, an organization we referred to as “The Union,” where fast food workers from McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts joined baristas from coffee shops and retail workers from Macy’s and Sears to discover the excitement of creating and leading a new organization and movement. Only union card signers could attend. Attendance began at 20 but quickly grew to more than 75. Workers shared stories of miscarriages on the job, threats of deportation, disrespect, stagnant wages with no benefits, and a universal feeling that bosses did not care about them. Hannah made sure there was always an ask: Will you move other workers to the “hubs”? Create a map of the workers at your store? Do an action at work? Come out to the big public actions? Then the musicians and artists, of which there were many, performed their rap songs in support of the union or showed their designs for posters and t-shirts and banners. Workers invariably came away with a vision of what a downtown workers union could look like. They left excited — and scared.

·  Moved hundreds of workers into the streets in November 2012 (on November 15, to kick off the public demands, and on November 23, Black Friday, to join with WalMart workers and warehouse workers who were also organizing). During these actions, Chicago workers carried, for the first time anywhere, banners that read “Fight for 15” and wore t-shirts with the same logo over their winter jackets. Many of the marches on Black Friday veered off to visit the home stores of workers, including delightful marches inside Forever 21 and other stores, as well as a great rally at the Rock ‘n’ Roll and Navy Pier McDonald’s stores.

Workers risked their jobs marching into their workplaces, but no one ultimately did. Some, like worker leaders at the Navy Pier McDonald’s, received raises when they showed up for work the next day!

 

Our Vision

Union card signup, leadership identification and development, mapping each store: these were the elements of worker organizing that Hannah and her team were learning to love. For them and for me, this work was all about building a mass-based organization of low-wage workers.

I had had the privilege of watching my partner, Keith Kelleher, build a union of low-wage homecare and childcare workers in Illinois from scratch over the last three decades (first with ACORN’s United Labor Unions, then with SEIU Local 880, and finally with SEIU Healthcare Illinois; when he retired in 2019, his local was the largest of any union’s in the Midwest and the seventh largest in SEIU). I had a model in my head of how to do that work outside traditional union organizing:

·  Sign up hundreds and then thousands of dues-paying members on automatic monthly payments through their debit card or bank account;

·  Win interim wage and benefits victories at the City Council and the State Legislature by raising the minimum wage, passing paid sick days legislation, and more;

·  Build political power, using the huge base of workers, against business interests;

·  Demand a union for all downtown workers, and, over time, build the ability to take a majority of workers out on strike to win it.

It would not be built in a year, but the SEIU funding gave us hope that it could be built over time.

My biggest mistake was failing to plan for the followup. I was retiring at the end of the year. I suspected that the SEIU funding would not last forever or even very long. I should have raised alternative funding to keep our dream of a union for all low-wage workers alive after that first year, and I should have made a plan for someone to run it. Could we have done that once SEIU settled on a fast food only narrative campaign without alienating that important union ally? I don’t know because I failed to plan for it.

 

Narrative Campaign

By the end of the first year, SEIU had become convinced that the Fight for 15 should be run primarily as a narrative campaign, that is, a campaign that changed the way that most people feel and think — in this case, about low-wage workers and what is due to them. Organizers sometimes denigrate narrative campaigns — an attitude I admit to having shared in — but they play a big role in our work. Where a direct action or legislative campaign seeks to pressure the decision-makers to change their minds or, at least, their actions, a narrative campaign seeks to change the minds of a mass-based target audience. In the most successful campaigns, narrative change happens through both communications strategies and direct action organizing (though many organizations want the cheap version — the slogan without the organizing.).

In the case of Fight for 15, the target audiences were:

1) Low-wage workers: workers would raise their expectations about what their labor was worth and how they could win a decent wage (namely, by organizing a union to fight for it)

2) A majority of the public: voters would improve their understanding and passion about what low-wage work was worth, that is, at least $15/hour

To most of us organizers, there is probably no such thing as a mere narrative campaign: it always takes some form of direct pressure on decision-makers to get them to pass a new minimum wage or recognize a new union. But there are campaigns where the messaging is so successful that it makes it much easier to win the policy change. In that sense, Fight for 15 became a narrative campaign. 

The campaign used two key elements of our work to propel it forward: the one-day strike and the slogan, “Fight for 15.”

The one-day strike was the contribution of Jon Kest and NY Communities for Change, and it was brilliant. It was very difficult to get those first fast food workers to strike, but once they did, the courage that it showed captured the imagination of the people watching the media coverage. Low-wage workers would never be viewed again as teenagers learning how to work. These were very serious, very brave adults. Jon used the relationships that he and Dan Cantor’s Working Families Party had built with elected officials, leaders from Black and brown communities, and churches. This community and political power was key to Jon’s faith that, if they took workers out on strike, they could force the employers to accept them back the next day, with elected officials and church and community leaders accompanying each one.

“Fight for 15” came out of Chicago. Action Now — and Illinois ACORN before it — had fought a number of living wage and minimum wage campaigns over the years. I had heard from working people that our demands were always too low. “That’s nice,” said one working man when I knocked his door on the South Side about our campaign to win $10/hour for big box stores back in 2006. “I’ll sign for it, and I’ll call my City Council member, but it’s not enough,” he added. “You can’t live on it, and you can’t support a family on it. We need more.” I never forgot his comment, or the comments of young people from the South and West Sides of the city who told us, when we were holding a series of conversations about what we should be fighting for in the summer of 2011, that $15 was the right number. Anything less would not cover the basics. I shared the plan with Hannah, who presented the idea at a worker meeting, returning with the slogan their very creative worker-artists wanted to put on the shirts and banners: Fight for 15.

In the meantime, SEIU organized a focus group around the idea. The focus groups came back with mixed results: workers loved the demand and slogan, but suburban residents from both cities did not. Luckily, the focus group’s results came in too late to stop Chicago, and media coverage of the Chicago fight moved New York workers. “Fight for 15” was so compelling, there was no stopping it once people heard it. Rather than wait for suburbanites to be ready for $15, we won them over through the fight.

Television coverage of our two November 2012 marches was huge. Workers in New York were in the process of planning their first one-day strike on November 29, 2012 around the slogan, “Fast Food Forward.” Their banner had already been printed, but when they saw the Chicago marches, they quickly picked up the slogan “Fight for 15.”

Berlin Rosen, the brilliant communications firm that Jon, Keith, and I had worked with for a number of years, offered Steven Greenhouse, the labor reporter of the New York Times, an exclusive on the story of the largest fast food strike in American history. When the Times put it on the front page, it sparked a huge amount of media coverage of the Fight for 15. New York was where Fight for 15 really took off, becoming a national and international sensation.

 

End of the Year 

As I left Action Now for retirement at the end of 2012, Katelyn Johnson, my replacement, had a conversation with SEIU staff about the project. When it became clear that they were planning to move the campaign national, without local direction, Katelyn bowed out. SEIU picked it up and ran it, with hopes of finding leverage against McDonald’s internationally to win some kind of union recognition.

As a minimum wage campaign, it has been masterful. As a union building campaign, it was not. The campaign continues, and I continue to be impressed by the staff and workers who ran it that first year in Chicago. I may have failed to build the alternative structure or budget to allow us to build out our vision, but their early work is full of lessons for organizers. 

Building a union of low-wage workers is achievable, if we understand “union” to mean an organized workforce, whether or not it has been recognized. But doing so requires a long-term organizing project that keeps the workers engaged in direct action on the job, legislative work to win raises and benefits, and political work to take out the electeds who side with the corporate titans who employ these workers. All organizing stands on the shoulders of those who came before us; we are honored to lend our shoulders to the great organizers and workers who will some day build the union of our dreams.

 

Our beloved friend, Jon Kest, passed away on December 5, 2012, less than a week after that first, historic one-day strike. Most of us who knew Jon are still trying to recover from his loss. May he and his daughter, Jessie Streich-Kest, who died suddenly in Hurricane Sandy a month before her dear father, rest in peace and power.

 

 

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