CHICAGO — Hospital staff and medical service employees in Chicago joined the Fight for $15 in a massive Labor Day march from Pilsen to Downtown.
Hundreds of workers in the Service Employees International Union demonstrated Monday against what they say are unlivable wages for underpaid dietary aides, nurses' assistants and transporters in the city's hospital industry, as well as others who make below $15 an hour.
They joined fast food workers, airport employees and adjunct professors who walked off the job in a march that began at the McDonald's at 1664 S. Blue Island Ave., at 6:45 a.m. before hundreds made their way to the American Hospital Association, 155 N. Upper Wacker Drive.
Among them was Laura Williams, 50, who has worked full-time at the Portillo's in River North for four years and earns $11.07 an hour, just pennies above the Illinois minimum wage that went into effect July 1.
Monday was the first time she went on strike.
"I want to be able to take care of my family, especially the young ones that are coming up," Williams said. "And it's just taking a toll on me to scuffle and make ends meet. I'm pinching around, getting what I can."
Williams, who grew up in Beverly and now lives in South Shore, said she will have to find a second job soon to start saving for school supplies and other items her 2-year-old will need in the next few years.
When activists with the Fight for $15 campaign approached her on the way to work, she said their mission was something she was very interested in. She wants to be in a union.
Williams got her start at Portillo's working on the floor before she graduated to better positions in the kitchen and, eventually, the front counter.
But even as she trained other employees and watched them get promoted to crew chiefs and managers, she was overlooked for desperately needed — and deserved — raises, Williams said.
"At the front counter, people can get upset and throw fits, but they listen to me and I can keep them calmed down," Williams said. "But for all the work I do, all I get are pats on the back and promises."
Laborers who marched Monday are "fighting for the soul" of America as part of the Fight for $15 campaign, said the Rev. William Barber.
"So much, Mr. President, for your so-called National Day of Prayer. How in the world can you call a nation to prayer when your policies are preying," on the American people, said Barber, who led the Chicago march with the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.
Hundreds marched from a McDonald's in Pilsen to the streets of Downtown, carrying giant pink letters that spelled "Union" and chanting, "What do we want? Fifteen. When do we want it? Now. If we don't get it, shut it down."
Chicagoans joined protests in 300 other cities in the United States for the Labor Day demonstrations. In Chicago, activists wanted to highlight the role that hospital service workers play in one of the city's largest industries, which brings in an combined $849 million in profits, according to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Advocate Health Care is the city's largest private employer with 18,903 employees, while Northwestern Memorial Healthcare ranks third with 15,747 employees, advocates said.
Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed a bill last month that would have raised Illinois' minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022. The Illinois Chamber of Commerce applauded the governor's action, saying the measure would have been a "job killer."
Chicago's hourly minimum wage will rise to $12 on July 1, 2018 and $13 per hour on July 1, 2019. After that, annual raises will be determined based on the cost of living.
The Fight for $15 campaign unsuccessfully pushed for the higher minimum wage in Chicago in 2014. It has had better luck recently, with mandates passing in New York and California and in cities like Seattle, Washington D.C. and Minneapolis.