Bronzeville Burger King Workers 'Can't Stand The Heat,' Go On Strike

From DNA Chicago:

by Alex Nitkin

Before her shift Thursday morning, Burger King cashier Victoria Fowler called her manager to ask if restaurant's air conditioning was working. The answer, as it had been every day for more than six months, was still "no."

On the verge of a searing heat wave poised to bake the city in 100-plus-degree temperatures, Fowler decided she'd reached her breaking point.

"We don't get paid a lot, and we don't get benefits or anything," said Fowler, a cashier and front-of-house worker. "We shouldn't also have to stand in there hot and sweating all day. Nobody wants to work like that."

After hooking up with organizers from the Fight For 15 labor movement, which has rallied fast food workers all over the country in pursuit of better conditions and higher wages, Fowler and about a dozen of her coworkers walked off the job Thursday.

The group hoisted mostly printed Fight for 15 signs for passing cars, forming a small but noisy picket line outside the burger spot on the corner of 47th Street and Evans Avenue.

"No justice, no peace! Too hot, can't stand the heat!" they chanted, mixing in generic labor chants with direct appeals for a functioning air conditioner.

For months, they said, they'd been asking managers to come replace the defunct AC unit in the back of the restaurant, where employees dunk fry baskets and assemble burgers out of customers' sight. Repairmen had come periodically, they said, but never left a permanent fix.

Temperatures in the cooking area have started to push 90 degrees, food prepper Rachel Cockrell said, and she fears it will only get worse as the weather outside gets more extreme.

"When it gets like that, you get frustrated, you start moving slower, you get worried you're going to sweat all over the food," Cockrell said. 

The heat has already taken a lasting physical toll, she said.

Earlier this month, Cockrell had to go to the emergency room after contracting a nasty skin infection down her back, she said. The doctor handed her a regimen of antibiotics and told her to avoid situations that would cause her to sweat.

The next day, she was back at work.

"There's no reason we should have to come into work and be so uncomfortable," Cockrell said. "Every time a fryer stops working, they come in and replace it. But when it comes to their own employees, it's like they don't care."

Not everyone walked off the job; "two or three" shift workers stayed on, the strikers said, and managers had brought in a rash of workers from other Burger King locations around the city. As the strike went on, customers continued to trickle in for Whoppers and shakes.

At one point Fowler held her picket sign to the window, motioning for an employee inside to come out and join the rally. The woman dropped her broom and shook her head, rubbing her thumb against her fingers.

"I need the money," she mouthed, returning to her task.

"I think they're scared," Fowler said, turning away. "None of us have talked to the managers. None one knows what they're going to do."

By the time three police cars pulled up, about two hours into the protest, the strikers realized they had reason to worry.

After a long conversation with a handful of officers, Fowler huddled back with her co-workers.

"They said we shouldn't come into work tomorrow," she said. "[The managers] didn't even want to talk to us. They just called the police."

The group was done for the day, but not for good, they decided.

"I have a 7 a.m. shift tomorrow. I'll be back," she said. "They can't do nothing to me." Others vowed to join her.

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