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(Photo: Who’s heading home from work here, and who’s just starting their commute? Credit: Looper.)

When I first moved to the Windy City, way back in early 2003–eons ago in Internet time–I was soundly kicked down the economic ladder by fate. I moved midwest on the shaky strength of a job offer that shook apart just as I was arriving. Moving from New York as I did, any savings I might have had to cushion that blow had already been blown on other of life’s line items, like outrageous Gotham rent and food costs. Now here I was, with an urban planning masters degree, without an apartment, and with the sinking feeling I was about to return, albeit temporarily, to the crap jobs of my college days.

Temporary came to visit and settled in for two years. In short order I was lucky to find an apartment in Lake View, and a Hogtown friend got me a job as a commission sales associate selling high-end televisions in a low-brow home store.

In Schaumburg.

My cush 20-minute Brooklyn to Manhattan subway ride became a 90-minute transit odyssey into the retail armpit of the Chicago ‘burbs, to have the privilege of dressing in black, eschewing liquids and pee breaks for hours at a time, and running across a highway to grab lunch. What felt peculiar to me, a refugee from the white-collar world, was that my coworkers didn’t find any of this odd.

When three hours a day on the Blue Line and Pace finally became too much to bear, the Christmas rush was a bust, and none of my upladder interviews were panning out, I knew I had to find a way to earn a roof over my head a little closer to home. Thus began my year of ESL hell in Pilsen and Humboldt Park. I had all the qualifications I needed: a month-long, distance-learning “certificate” secured over the Internet, and air of erudition, and the drive of abject desperation to push me along.

My students were as eye-opening as the job requirements. Teaching English as a Second Language for low wages was one thing. I knew I had signed up for that. Being forced to clean classrooms, do administrative work, and attend Moonie-ish weekend “team-building” sabbaticals, all decidedly off the timeclock, were a shock (as I later learned from a teacher at one ESL school, since many employees were illegal, they were too afraid to protest their treatment).

It was hard for me to speak up, either. My students, mostly Mexican, mostly in their 20s, mostly displaying bright eyes but weary faces, would arrive in my evening classes after working 12-hour days in a local factory or restaurant. Or, worse, before they started their 12-hour evening shifts. If they could do that and sit in my class two hours every night to learn how to conjugate English, who was I to complain?

But a part-time ESL salary isn’t enough to pay the bills, even in Chicago (four years here from NYC and I still see this city as a bargain), so out with any free time whatsoever, and in with $8 an hour at a longstanding, highly dysfunctional hardware store in Lake View. If I didn’t have the impetus to keep seeking a degree-requiring job in Hogtown before (and I sure as hell did), my stay in tool land definitely made returning to Yuppiedom a do-or-die endeavor.

Why? Filth, for one thing, throughout the store, and in the fetid, sawdust-covered cubicle where we were required to take our 10-hour days’ 30-minute lunches. And for another, an absence of any perceived iota of respect from the nitwit, twenty-something manager charged by his owner-father with attempting to relate to the ever-changing sea of faces that would appear behind the register, useless degree in one hand, saber saw in the other, only to leave after an addition of the labor laws being violated by the place summed in their heads to a greater cost to bear than the paltry wage that they were earning.

A wage that the store thought was generous for that type of work. Eight dollars an hour for heavy lifting, assembly, cleaning on your hands on knees, breathing in potentially harmful dust and fumes without a legally required mask. And for being treated as somehow less than human because your income was measured in a single-digit wage.

Those days are long gone for me. But though I’m back in the urban-planning, white-collar, Internet-scribe middle class, I can’t forget what I went through. It was that experience tht drew me into working on 7 Days @ Minimum Wage. In all the debates about low wages and poor working conditions, you never hear much about the actual people who are forced to experience them. I wanted to help to change that.

7 Days @ Minimum Wage begins today. For the next week, the ACORN/AFLCIO-sponsored, Roseanne Barr-hosted video blog will tell the story of real people working at really low wages, in their own words. There’s a lot of pain and a lot of anger–but not much hope–expressed by the people we interviewed. Some of the stories are extraordinarily hard to watch.

You should watch them anyway. If for no other reason, than to remind yourself but for the vagaries of fate how close all of us really are to being in the same boat. And how much we all matter on the inside.

No matter how much our paycheck tells us we’re worth.

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Watch the videos:

Categories: 7 Days @ Min. Wage Backstory Best Of Chicago Carless Labor Politics

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Michael Thaddeus Doyle

I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.

My Bio | My Conversion | My Family Reunion


8 replies

  1. Fantastic job on the video Mike, however I must reserve the majority of my praise for the brave woman who agreed to be interviewed and tell of her experiences living on minimum wage. This is undoubtedly the greatest social issue of our time, one that is constantly overshadowed by divisive “values” topics such as gay marriage and abortion. This is not to dismiss those issues but rather to contrast the number of those affected by them in regards to those whose lives are full of daily struggle because they cannot earn a living wage.

    Our current economic system is one which rewards investors at the price of the workers whose energy feeds a machine that provides them with less than is needed for even the most basic of necessities. The obvious fact that our current political system is dominated by the needs and concerns of the middle and upper classes is nothing new, however this upward trend ignores every democratic principle that our nation no longer observes. I would never advocate a purely socialistic society but even a pragmatic capitalist cannot ignore that the growing ranks of the underprivileged threaten the well being of society as a whole.

    When an economic system is weighted so heavily towards the very top tier, the 1% as it were, it is merely a matter of time before the entire model collapses. The story of the woman interviewed is indicative of not just those living on a diminutive minimum wage but also represents the struggle of those she wishes to rise towards. Even the people whom you sold televisions to in Schaumburg are not immune to the pressures of the current economic cycle.

    And it’s not just the fault of the Bush administration, (though there is no shortage of fault to be laid at its feet). Our nation, no matter how presently dysfunctional, is still capable of directing it’s massive abilities at whichever problem it deems worthy of its resources. The sad fact that it consistently turns it back on those at the lowest economic rung of society is not surprising. But it is a reality that must be addressed, and will be addressed, no matter the whim of those who believe they can influence such matters…

    If there is any way that I may lend a hand to the cause that you have admirably lent your time to, let me know. As an individual who graduated with a film/video degree I feel I have unique abilities that can be utilized to increase the exposure of this and other related issues. Although I have a major time commitment approaching, (well hopefully, I am awaiting acceptance to the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Docent training program) currently my schedule can accommodate at the least a few hours a week, if not more.

    I congratulate your efforts.

  2. Thanks Andy! The longer I live in Hogtown, the more I think NYC is a nice to place to visit, but….

    If I went back, I’d have to receive weekly care packages of deep dish pizza and hot dogs without ketchup on them 😉

  3. Umm, this is just a comment on your blog, not this minimum wage topic.

    Great blog! Chicago totally holds it’s own against NYC. I have lived in Chicago (1995-2000) and NYC (2000-present) and the longer I live here in NYC the more I appreciate Chi-town and think about moving back there. I do love New York, but, like, so does everybody else in the whole damned world. Chicago is more special, more comfortable, and just as exciting.

    A couple of great things Chicago has that NYC lacks: (1) Burritos! For all its diversity, New York just doesn’t have much of a Mexican population. In Chicago, I lived off of Burritos, mostly from various taquerias off of Western Avenue. Here, forgeddaboutit. (2) Balconies: specifically those really old wooden ones on the back of everybody’s apartment where you and your friends can have a party outside: the “Chicago yard.” Here, there’s just nothing. You are either in your apartment or out on the street.

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