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Coronavirus Could Spark Chicago’s Next Labor Movement

Less than a year ago, essential workers were mocked for wanting a $15 minimum wage. Now, they’re risking their lives to feed the city.

Workers at an Amazon delivery station on the Lower West Side call for the company to disinfect the warehouse, where an employee tested positive for COVID-19, on Friday, April 3.   Photo: John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune

On May 1, 1867, thousands of Chicago workers walked off their jobs in the most widepsread general strike in the city’s history.

Their goal? An eight-hour day for all workers.

The Illinois legislature had just passed an eight-hour workday law, but it contained a loophole allowing companies to “contract” for extra time on the job. Most of Chicago’s major businesses, including the McCormick Reaper factory and the railroads, did so.

The strike collapsed after a week. Nineteen years later, the demonstrations that culminated in the Haymarket Affair also failed to secure an eight-hour day for laborers. The eight-hour day didn’t become law until 1938, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act. It was the culmination of a movement that had begun in Chicago more than 70 years earlier.

I thought of Chicago’s eight-hour movement last month, when organized employees at the Amazon delivery station on the Lower West Side finally won paid time off for part-time workers. As the group, DCH1 Amazonians United, wrote in a post on Medium:

You might wonder why part-time workers need PTO. We’ll break it down for y’all. At delivery stations, Amazon only hires workers for part-time jobs so that they can have a cheap and “flexible” workforce that they don’t have to provide with health insurance or other benefits. These are tough economic times — for many, one full time job isn’t enough to make ends meet. Many workers at DCH1 have multiple jobs and get little sleep. Many of us have children, support other family members, are students, and/or are single parents. We need PTO to recover from Amazon constantly grinding our body down and crushing our soul.

Nearly a year after the campaign began, Amazon granted paid sick leave for part-timers at the national level — right as the COVID-19 crisis swept the nation. Amid one of the company’s busiest periods ever, it ostensibly realized that sick employees could infect entire centers, shutting them down. Currently, Amazon is looking to hire 100,000 more workers to fulfill the surge in online orders spurred by state stay-at-home mandates. It can’t afford to shut down any warehouses.

A week after Amazon’s decision to extend paid sick leave to part-time workers, employees in Chicago went a step further, walking off the job to demand the company disinfect the Near West Side warehouse where a worker tested positive for COVID-19.

The eight-hour movement stemmed from a great national crisis, the Civil War, itself a fight over free labor that led workers to agitate for greater rights and protections. Could the COVID-19 crisis mark the beginning of another labor movement with origins in Chicago?

Amid the coronavirus outbreak, workers who less than a year ago were mocked for insisting their labor was worth $15 an hour — servers, baristas, line cooks, delivery drivers, grocery store clerks — aren’t just turning out to be indispensable: They’re risking their lives to keep the city fed. After this is over, it’s going to be a lot harder to ignore their demands for living wages, sick leave, health insurance, and all the other benefits that lawyers, social media directors, and stock market analysts enjoy.

“If essential workers stop working, so does the rest of the nation,” Northern Illinois law professor Michael Oswalt recently told the Tribune. “I think there will be more pressure on companies to treat them with more respect…They are genuinely the heroes of the pandemic.”

If there’s a positive legacy of COVID-19, it could be a contraction of the economic inequality that has been steadily widening in America over the last 40 years — a phenomenon that author Timothy Noah called “the great divergence” in a 2012 book of the same name.

Not only could this crisis end up lifting incomes at the bottom — it could also bring them down at the top. Take the NBA, whose season appears to be all but lost to the outbreak. The average league salary is $7.7 million, but canceled games, and the prospect of empty arenas when they resume, “would mean a steep reduction in gate receipts, which would factor into the basketball-related income calculations with regard to the 2020-21 salary cap,” reports Forbes.

Even when it’s safe to return to the games, we’ll have learned that we can live, begrudgingly, without professional sports. Meanwhile, as a sign of appreciation for the lowest-paid workers in athletics, United Center owners Jerry Reinsdorf and Rocky Wirtz kicked in $3.3 million to compensate out-of-work gameday staff like security guards, concessions personnel, and ushers.

Chicago has been called the birthplace of the American labor movement — and if this crisis continues to strain the city’s worst-compensated workers, a new one could be born here soon. In fact, it may already be underway.

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