Hundreds strike in Chicago, across US to protest systemic racism, economic inequality

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Monday, July 20, 2020
Hundreds strike in Chicago, across US to protest systemic racism, economic inequality
In Chicago, workers first gathered at the Thompson Center for a march and rally that took them to a McDonald's restaurant in the Loop.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Organizers of a national workers strike say hundreds walked off the job Monday in more than two dozen U.S. cities to protest systemic racism and economic inequality that has only worsened during the coronavirus pandemic.

Dubbed the "Strike for Black Lives," labor unions, along with social and racial justice organizations from New York City to Los Angeles, participated in a range of planned actions.

In Chicago, workers first gathered at the Thompson Center for a march and rally that took them to a McDonald's restaurant in the Loop.

"We need proper protective equipment," said Ash Girtley, who works in the fast food industry. "These big box companies are claiming that they care for Black lives by donating money to Black lives but you're not treating your essential workers like they matter and most of your workers are Black or brown."

Their demands include a full wage for tipped employees, like waiters and bartenders who mostly earn far below the minimum wage. Currently their rate is only $8.40 an hour in Chicago and $6 an hour statewide.

"Me and my husband are both working six jobs," fellow fast food worker Aishia Townsend said, "We're juggling, trying to make time for our family but also trying to make time where we have a roof over a head."

Although many have been furloughed for months, some have not even been eligible to collect unemployment.

"If it wasn't for the $600 dollars, they were only going to be getting $100," said Nakati Rhodes with One Fair Wage. "A lot of workers were confused. They thought because they made $1,000 downtown, it was going to reflect on their unemployment which it didn't and a lot of workers didn't even receive unemployment."

RELATED: 'Strike for Black Lives' to highlight racism, demand change on July 20

Hundreds of workers rallied Monday outside the Trump International Hotel in Manhattan and in cities across the U.S. to protest systemic racism and economic inequality, joining a nationwide demonstration demanding improvement of Black Americans' experiences in the workplace.

Organizers hoped the effort would grow into a strike inspiring tens of thousands of people to walk off the job. But visible support for the effort came largely in the form of smaller protests that drew people whose jobs in health care, transportation and food service do not allow them to work from home during the coronavirus pandemic.

The "Strike for Black Lives" protest was organized by labor unions and social and racial justice organizations, which planned a range of actions in more than two dozen U.S. cities. Where work stoppages were not possible for a full day, participants picketed during a lunch break or observed moments of silence to honor Black lives lost to police violence, organizers said.

About 1,500 janitors in San Francisco walked off their jobs and planned to lead a march to City Hall later in the day, according to Fight for $15, a labor group that supports raising the U.S. minimum wage to $15 an hour. McDonald's cooks and cashiers in Los Angeles and nursing home workers in St. Paul were also striking, the group said.

Participants in local rallies included delivery men and women, fast food employees, ride-share and airport workers.

Glen Brown, a 48-year-old wheelchair agent at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport for nearly five years, said his job does not give him the option of social distancing. Brown and fellow workers called for a $15 minimum age during an event in St. Paul, and he said workers were "seizing our moment" to seek change.

"We are front-line workers, (and) we are risking our lives, but we're doing it at a wage that doesn't even match the risk," Brown said.

In Manhattan, more than 150 union workers rallied outside Trump International Hotel to demand that the Senate and President Donald Trump adopt the HEROES Act, which provides protective equipment, essential pay and extended unemployment benefits to workers who cannot work from home. It has already been passed by the House.

"Today, we're here to demand from those in power, including the man whose name adorns the building, that it's time to dismantle white supremacy and combat police brutality," said Kyle Bragg, president of 32BJ, a union representing more than 170,000 office janitors, security workers and doormen on the East Coast.

"Until we have racial justice, we cannot have economic, climate or immigrant justice," Bragg said.

In Massachusetts, about 200 people, including health care workers, janitors and other essential employees, joined Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate in front of the Statehouse in Boston.

"We're just being overworked and underpaid, and it makes you sometimes lose your compassion," said Toyai Anderson, 44, who planned to walk off her job as a nursing aide for two hours at Hartford Nursing and Rehab Center in Detroit. "It makes me second guess if I am sure this is my calling."

After 13 years on the job, Anderson makes $15.75 an hour. Nationally, the typical nursing aide makes $13.38, according to health care worker advocacy group PCI, and 1 in 4 nursing home workers is Black.

Hundreds of other workers were expected to walk off their jobs at six Detroit nursing homes, according to the Service Employees International Union. The workers are demanding higher wages and more safety equipment to keep them from catching and spreading the virus, as well as better health care benefits and paid sick leave.

Jamila Allen, 23, who joined other protesters outside a McDonald's in Durham, North Carolina, said she was striking from her job as a supervisor at Freddy's Frozen Custard and Steakburgers to draw attention to the need for better pay and benefits.

Allen said she makes about $11 per hour.

"I don't actually get paid sick days," Allen said. "We don't get health care" or personal protective equipment.

The strike continues an ongoing global reckoning on race and police brutality set off by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died at the hands of Minneapolis police in late May.

"We are ... building a country where Black lives matter in every aspect of society - including in the workplace," said Ash-Lee Henderson, an organizer with the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of over 150 organizations that make up the Black Lives Matter movement.

"The Strike for Black Lives is a moment of reckoning for corporations that have long ignored the concerns of their Black workforce and denied them better working conditions, living wages and health care," said Henderson, who is also co-executive director of the Tennessee-based Highlander Research and Education Center.

Participants broadly demanded action by corporations and government to confront systemic racism and economic inequality that limits mobility and career advancement for many Black and Hispanic workers, who make up a disproportionate number of those earning less than a living wage.

Specifically, organizers called on corporate leaders and elected government officials to use executive and legislative power to guarantee people of all races can thrive. That demand includes raising wages and allowing workers to unionize to negotiate better health care, sick leave and child care support.

Justice Favor, 38, an organizer with the Laborers' International Union Local 79, which represents 10,000 predominately Black and Hispanic construction workers in New York City, said he hopes that the strike motivates more white workers to acknowledge the existence of racism and discrimination in the workplace.

"There was a time when the Irish and Italians were a subjugated people, too," said Favor, who is Black. "How would you feel if you weren't able to fully assimilate into society? Once you have an open mind, you have to call out your coworkers who are doing wrong to others."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.