Paul Sancya / AP

Fast food workers gather in Chicago, prepare to escalate wage demands

Unions and community groups are sponsoring the convention, where workers will be asked to do 'whatever it takes'

Fast food workers will take the fight for a $15 minimum wage and the right to unionize to Chicago this weekend, where they will gather for a national convention and plan their next steps.

An estimated 1,300 workers will attend seminars Friday and Saturday at a convention center in the Chicago suburb Villa Park, where union representatives will ask them to do “whatever it takes” to secure the wage increase and unionization, according to Service Employees International Union (SEIU) representative Kendall Fells. Fells is also an organizing director of the national movement to increase the minimum wage to $15 for fast food workers.

“Whatever it takes. Could be workers staying after work to talk to their coworkers, getting arrested at shareholders meetings, calling other coworkers” and more, Fells said. “We’re going to leave it broad for now and let those 1,300 workers decide.”

"We want to talk about building leadership, power and doing whatever it takes depending on what city they're in and what the moment calls for," said Fells, adding that the ramped-up actions will be "more high-profile" and could include everything from civil disobedience to intensified efforts to organize workers.

The convention is largely being paid for by a coalition of labor unions, nonprofits and workers-rights groups, which have been providing substantial financial and organizational support to the numerous fast-food worker protests that began in New York City in 2012.

The strikes have spread to cities across the country and recently included a protest outside of McDonald’s corporate headquarters during a shareholder meeting, resulting in more than 130 arrests.

Nancy Salgado, a Chicago McDonald’s employee, is participating in the convention because she said the extra money would help her provide for her 8-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son.

“It would mean a lot” to have $15 an hour, she said. “Right now, I don’t always have enough money to buy my kids school supplies or buy their shoes or a new toy that they want. I’d be able to relax a little bit and wouldn’t have to worry so much about how am I going to make it every day.”

The prospect of being in a union is also important to her.

“It means a lot to be protected, and I would like to be able to take sick days and vacation. I want to make sure I have a union, so I can be represented and protected.”

After being forced to move into an apartment with two other adults when her hours at McDonald's were cut from 40 per week to about 24, Salgado began sharing a bedroom with her two children.

"I don't think $15 will make me rich. ... I just want an apartment for my family and be able to have my kids in their own room, to not have to wait for the washing machine or the bathtub, and I don't want to be behind on bills if I take time off or get sick," said Salgado, who earns minimum wage after 12 years with the company.

"If we've got to stop working and shut down (restaurants) to get it, that's what we're going to do," she said.

The campaign comes as President Barack Obama and many other Democrats across the country have attempted to make a campaign issue out of their call to increase the federal and state minimum wages.

The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour translates to about $15,000 a year for someone working 40 hours a week, though many fast-food workers get far fewer hours. Obama and others have called for increasing it to $10.10.

Fast food workers say even that's not enough because most people working in the industry now are adults with children, rather than teenagers earning pocket money. The restaurant industry has argued that a $15 hourly wage could lead to business closings and job cuts.

A McDonald's spokeswoman did not return a message seeking comment.

But the National Restaurant Association said Thursday that increasing wages to $15 will not solve income inequality and that the campaign was an attempt by unions to boost dwindling membership.

"Instead of demonizing an industry that opens doors for workers of all ages, backgrounds and skill levels, the focus should be on finding better solutions to lift individuals out of poverty," including policies that increase education and job training, said Scott DeFife, the association's executive vice president of policy and government affairs.

Turnout for the protests has varied, but they've struck a chord at a time when the gap between the country's rich and poor has widened. Executive pay packages also are coming under greater scrutiny, including that of McDonald's CEO Don Thompson, who was given a pay package worth $9.5 million last year. Nevertheless, shareholders this year overwhelmingly voted in favor of McDonald's executive compensation practices.

“At the end of the day when you look at the fast food industry, it’s the fastest growing industry in the country and the lowest pay in the country. It has the largest disparity between worker and CEO pay,” Fells said.

“The American economy is stagnating and people need more money in their pocket to spend to stimulate the economy.”

Al Jazeera and wire services

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