By Brian L. Cox
Paydays tend to be depressing for McDonald’s restaurant worker Kejioun Johnson. The 20-year-old earns ten dollars an hour, which he said is not nearly enough to cover his monthly bills.
Johnson was one of more than two dozen fast food workers who turned out for a rally at Fountain Square in downtown Evanston on May 1 to call for a $15 hour minimum wage and union rights for workers.
“I’m here to fight for what I believe in, and I believe we deserve fifteen dollars an hour and union rights,” said Johnson. “It would make a big difference. I’d be able to afford things. I have to work double time just to struggle.”
May 1 is well known in the labor movement around the world as “May Day,” a time to celebrate hard won worker rights and to rally union organizers.
Chicago has a rich history in the labor movement, and May Day rallies were slated for various venues across the Chicago area on May 1, said Jes Scheinpflug director of communications with Open Communities which helped organize the Evanston rally.
She said Open Communities advocates for the creation of affordable housing and “inclusive communities” in north suburban Chicago and also said the organization supports things like a livable wage because it is fundamental to creating diverse communities.
“We recognize these things are all inter related,” said Scheinpflug. “Of course people can’t find affordable housing if they’re only making eight twenty five an hour.”
In Skokie, the same day, the North Suburban Teachers Union held its own a May Day Rally in Oakton Park to celebrate working families and the progress of union and immigrant rights, said Steve Grossman, a Niles West High School teacher and President of the North Suburban Teachers Union.
“Teachers unions and other public employees are under attack,” Grossman said.
“We see ourselves as part of that long tradition or workers trying to improve their communities in this country,” said Pankaj Sharma a Niles North High School teacher who recently won a Golden Apple Award for teaching excellence.
“There is a movement in this country to attack public education, or public sector unions or teachers unions,” he said. “I think public education has been a huge force for democracy and social mobility in our country as have unions.”
Dozens of people braved the cold and drizzle as U.S. Rep., Jan Schakowsky, D-9th, the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, and representatives with the Illinois Education Association, AFIRE Chicago, ARISE and UNITE-HERE took turns addressing the crowd.
“This is the winning collation,” Schakowsky said. “This is what it takes. We are all here. This is what it means to fight back. We are going to in this fight.”
Schakowsky, a one time teacher and laborer organizer, also took square aim at Gov. Bruce Rauner, who she said “has a pathological obsession toward union busting. “
“What he’s about to get his way is hostage taking,” she said. “The people who need the state government the most, who we are so proud when Illinois steps up and takes care of our elders and helps to helps to take care of our children.
“These are hard working people that need the support, and people who have retired and want to retire with dignity,” she said. “People will die from the kind of cuts, maybe some have already, that he is doing. It is shameful.”
Paula Varragan, 54, works at a McDonald’s in Skokie and said she considers herself to be one of the millions of working poor people across the country with a full-time job still struggling to make ends meet. She said she had worked at McDonalds for twelve years, that she spends much of her eight hour work day on her feet and that she now makes ten dollar an hour. Other McDonalds workers said they are not permitted to have water because they were told by their bosses that that would mean they would have to take more bathroom breaks.
“There are injustices there,” said Varragan. “We have absolutely no benefits, no vacation. I can’t go to the doctor or I lose a day. I can’t even go to church on Sundays.”
Many of the “working poor” across the country are immigrants and Schakowsky said immigration reform and the fight for workers rights are connected.
“Immigration reform has the stamp of inevitability about it,” she said. “We will get comprehensive immigration reform.”