On Wednesday, April 16, students from RISE Grinnell, an on-campus social activist group, travelled to Chicago to join thousands of people to fight for a $15 per hour minimum wage and the right to unionize for low-wage workers.
RISE was initially inspired to join the protest in early February. On Wednesday, Feb. 4, Virginia Parks, an associate professor at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration, spoke about the Fight for 15 movement as part of a larger symposium on campus, exploring urban issues and social justice in Chicago.
“I first heard about the strike from one of the speakers that came,” said RISE founder Brigid Carmichael ’17. “She mentioned the strike on the 15 of April so I emailed Fight for 15 … immediately they got back in touch with me, sent me emails and gave us all kinds of support as to how we would organize everyone on campus and get them over to the strike in Chicago.”
The group was unable to confirm numbers and draft a budget until a much later date, resulting in their inability to officially present their proposed plan to the SPC budget committee. Instead, the budget was immediately forwarded to Campus Council, where it was eventually approved for SPC funding.
Still, the group faced further scrutiny for their proposed lodging plans. The original budget included a large sum intended to house students at the Congress Plaza Hotel, an expensive choice with a history of poor labor practices. May 2013 marked the end of a 10-year-long worker’s strike at the Congress Plaza after proposed wage cuts and healthcare contribution freezes.
“For the purposes of submitting something to SGA, we originally put in the Congress Plaza Hotel, which would have been super convenient and we just didn’t know a lot about it, but then fortunately, Jackie [Brooks ’15, the SGA Diversity and Outreach Coordinator] sent us an email telling us that that hotel had suffered from poor labor practices and a lot of people had actually [been on] strike from that for like 10 years,” Carmichael said. “Upon hearing that, we actually looked at other hotels and we ended up staying really far away at a motel.”
With their revised budget and further financial assistance from the Fight for 15 organization, the group set off to Chicago. During their time in the city, RISE attended two protests for workers’ rights: one small event at a McDonald’s and another larger-scale march near the University of Illinois, Chicago. Roughly 9,000 people attended the march, mostly a combination of fast food workers and allies dedicated to the cause.
RISE Grinnell members were among those hundreds of people and supporters who were carrying signs and chanting their slogans to fight this income inequality in America. Organization leaders from all around were given the opportunity to speak up about labor rights issues at the event, including Carmichael.
“It was cool,” Carmichael said of her chance to address the crowd. “It was a little intimidating, but they had a big rally before we all started marching and they asked different representatives of different organizations to come speak on the microphone, say a few words.”
Carmichael felt that the trip provided the opportunity for Grinnellians to more actively participate in the fight for social justice.
“I think that we can sit in our ivory tower here [in Grinnell] and talk about oppression and subjugation of people and how to make the world a better place, but it was really powerful to see the people that it directly effects, the fast food workers, speaking out for what they need, what they want, kind of making that change happen for themselves and for us to kind of support what they were already creating,” she said.
RISE Member Cecilia Kwakye ’17 echoed the sentiment. “I think it was such an experience, it was amazing to see so many people come together for a common cause,” she said.
In the future, RISE hopes to continue traveling off campus to fight for progressive change. Carmichael expressed that in the small community of Grinnell, it can be difficult to feel capable of making a difference.
“When we see things happening out in the world that we want to be a part of, it can be hard. It can be isolating here in Grinnell but I think it’s important to reach out to different movements in different places,” she said.