Fighting for 15
Thousands of low-wage workers and their supporters from across the country gathered in Oak Brook, Ill. to demand higher wages and the right to unionize.
The following is an excerpt from a larger story, “Fight to Work,” a series of profiles produced by a group of Medill journalism students for my interactive longform journalism course. I produced all of the reporting, writing and photography for this portion of the story.
The Bus – 10:45 am
Coach bus 010 drove westward, toward stormy weather. It was one of two buses carrying Chicago-area protesters to Oak Brook, Illinois, for a day-long demonstration at McDonald’s headquarters.
The buses were arranged by the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago, an advocacy group for fast food workers that runs the Chicago chapter of “Fight for 15,” a national movement to raise the minimum wage. The protesters knew what they wanted: a base-wage bump to $15 per hour, and the right for McDonald’s employees to unionize. In Oak Brook, they would stand close enough to the company to make sure someone would hear.
The 40 or so riders included four organizers, a handful of concerned citizens and pockets of students from labor groups at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Harold Washington College. Though no one fretted over the weather, many came prepared, with raincoats or umbrellas, and backpacks with extra food and water. The group rode in relative quiet, eating their WOCC-provided sandwiches and chatting among themselves on the way to the protest.
They planned to meet up with Fight for 15 advocates from across the country, some from as far away as Atlanta and New York, for a half-mile march from a nearby office park to McDonald’s corporate campus. A stage erected on McDonald’s Drive served as the focal point of the protest, allowing speakers to address the crowd.
The movement had high hopes for this particular protest. Organizers expected more than 5,000 people, making it their largest single-stage gathering to date.
The sheer numbers, however, did not quite meet their expectations. Police reported that about 2,000 protesters marched that day. Still, the program was massive compared to the group’s protest during the same week last year, when 500 protesters blocked traffic on McDonald’s’ campus.
Shortly after the bus departed the WOCC offices, Christina Rivero, an organizer for WOCC, went over the plan and introduced the group’s heavy hitter, Tyree Johnson, 46, who has worked at McDonald’s for half of his life. As a veteran of 10 strikes, Johnson has become a de facto poster boy for unionizing fast food workers in Chicago.
“Instead of McDonald’s investing billions and billions of dollars in shareholders,” Johnson said, “[we hope] they might invest that money into their employees.”
Johnson tried to drum up enthusiasm from the group, teaching them rallying cries they would use later in English and Spanish:
“Hold the burgers. Hold the fries. Makes our wages super-sized!”
Sounding hesitant at first, the protesters on the bus stumbled through learning the words, but started showing more enthusiasm and coordination with each new call.
“When low-wage workers are under attack? What do we do? Stand up! Fight back!”
The Set-up – 11:13 am
Everyone got off the bus, joining the stream of red Fight for 15 shirts and black McDonald’s visors around the corner to Hunter Drive, a roughly 450-foot-long road wedged between a few office buildings and 22nd street which served as the staging point for the march. They raised signs and unfurled banners. One group brought a giant cardboard paycheck for $206.17, one week’s pay at minimum wage, signed by Ronald McDonald.
McDonald’s has taken steps to raise their hourly pay in 2015. In April, the company announced plans to raise its starting salary to a dollar higher than each location’s local minimum wage. This would apply to stores owned and operated by the company, about 10 percent of its U.S. locations. Most McDonald’s locations are owned by independent franchises.
Down the parade line, various calls and responses would drift in and out of earshot. “What do we want?” Someone would call. ”15!” A group would respond. “When do we want it?” The call. “Now!,” The response.
The crowd kept calm as protesters filled the street- when they were asked keep off the grass in front of the offices along the block, they stepped back onto the street. During the Fight for 15 protest at Oak Brook last year, more than 130 Fight for 15 activists allowed themselves to be arrested for trespassing at McDonald’s nearby offices.
A couple of men on the roof of a building overlooking the street watched the spectacle, but very few people other than the organizers seemed concerned with their presence.
The March – 11:30 am
Once most of the protesters reached their starting positions, the group jerked forward, beginning the march towards McDonald’s headquarters. Police blocked westbound traffic, lining the road with bicycle-bound officers to keep meandering protesters from wandering onto the street or spilling onto pedestrian walkways. The Oak Brook police department gathered 300 officers from 100 agencies across the state to ensure they could cover the whole route for the duration of the protest.
“Fired up! We can’t it take no more!,” the bellow of the crowd travelled down the march as one group handed off their chant to the next. “We’re fired up! Can’t take it no more!”
They had every to reason to get excited: Since Fight for 15 last appeared in Oak Brook, there have been major victories for activists lobbying to raise the minimum wage. In December 2014, Chicago’s city council voted to raise the minimum wage from $8.25 to $10 effective July 1, 2015, and up to $13 in 2019. Just the day before the protest, Los Angeles voted to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 by 2020.
Even when the decibel level was high, the pace kept to a casual stroll. Women pushed strollers. Friends conversed. Some posed for pictures or lifted their phones above the crowd.
Underneath the call and response flowed an undercurrent of concern. Many of the protesters didn’t see the Los Angeles minimum wage increase as a victory. Some were hopeful that it might start a wider trend, but many lamented that those living in poverty would still have make to it through five more years of anemic wages.
“If it weren’t for my girls working,” said Yolanda Wright, a 38-year-old McDonald’s employee, “we’d be in bad [shape], for real.” Wright and her two daughters, Tameika, 22, and Romeka Williams, 21, all work at McDonald’s.
The Stage – 12:20 pm
When the front of the march reached the stage, the program began. Protesters put down their signs. The people were ready to listen.
One by one, a series of McDonald’s workers told the group about their economic struggles. The crowd listened intently, cheering or responding. Many were unable to support their families: Two women, Kwanza Brooks and Keandra Guilmant, brought their children with them on stage.
“Every month I try to figure out how to pay my bills,” Guilmant said, holding back tears. “And it’s hard.”
Reverend Rodney Williams, chairperson of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People religious affairs committee, and Reverend William Barber II, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, headlined the program.
Rev. Barber emphasized the need for fast food workers to unionize.
The Bus Home – 2:00 pm
After the speeches, the crowd dispersed, retreating to buses parked along the road and in nearby parking lots.
Back on bus 010, the group was chattier and friendlier, bonded by a day of fighting what they saw as the good fight.
Rivero told group the agenda for day two: protesters would meet back in Oak Brook at 6am, present a million-signature petition —gathered by Fight for 15 outfits from across the country— to McDonald’s before the shareholders’ meeting, and protest again outside their headquarters. Unlike the first day, however, there would be no ride from downtown. No lunch would be provided.
The response was supportive, but the group had clearly given as much energy as it could muster. Tyree Johnson quickly fell asleep lying across the back row of the bus. Patricia Knazze, a retired teacher, mentioned that the teachers’ union would be in Springfield the next day at their own protest, though she would not be attending it herself. The Harold Washington College students chatted about their spring semester grades.
The next day would bring a second wave of roughly 1,000 protesters returning to Oak Brook, about half the size of the initial march.
Chicago e-cigarette users create vaping culture
This story was originally published on Medill Reports in December, 2014.
Jared Yucht started vaping — inhaling nicotine and water vapor through devices like e-cigarettes — to quit smoking, but it has come to play a central role in his life, both for work and play.
“It’s fun,” said Yucht. “It’s a hobby.”
It’s not just a hobby for Yucht who owns Smoque Vapours, a chain of specialty vape shops in Illinois and Wisconsin that sell a wide range of hand vaporizers, essentially e-cigarettes, and the chain’s own brand of artisanal “e-liquids.” These flavored nicotine solutions for vapers use refillable tank-based e-cigarettes and customizable hand-vaporizers called “mods.” Vape shops, which are exempt from Chicago’s citywide e-cigarette ban, are becoming natural havens for those who vape for a hobby.
Where “cig-a-like” e-cigarettes serve as a gateway for smokers to transition away from the dangers of tobacco products, “mods” open the door for users to define their own vaping experience by fine-tuning the amount of vapor generated, the temperature of the vapor as it enters a user’s mouth and lungs and the design of the device delivering that vapor.
“It’s almost like a car,” Yucht said. “First you buy a little Honda Civic and you’re like, ‘I wish I had something with a little more power. Something that can get me out in traffic…’ and then the next thing you know, people are buying Corvettes.”
Yucht, 41, was a pack-a-day smoker managing production for his family’s furniture business before making the jump to to e-cigarettes. Once he did, he quickly began advocating for the practice and it didn’t take long for him to find a way to make vaping a more substantial part of his life.
“I was staying at home with the kids,” Yucht explained, “I was vaping, and it worked for me so well that I told my friend Ari, ‘hey, you’ve got to try this.’ Because every time we’d see each other, we’d start smoking. He was hooked the moment he tried it, and I’m like; ‘we should get other people to do this.’”
The most customizable mods, called “mechanical mods” because they have no electronic components, are actually the simplest version of a vaping device, with little more than a battery and an electrical circuit. Pressing the “smoke” button on the device closes the circuit, heating up a set of metal coils, attached to a cotton wick soaked with e-liquid. To control the volume of the vapor and the heat of the smoke is matter of altering how much power the device draws with each press. More power means hotter coils, which vaporizes more liquid.
More complex mods work in a similar fashion, but also sport a power regulator to ensure a consistent pull throughout the battery’s life. From there, more complex devices add electronic means of monitoring and controlling a device’s temperature and power use. The simplest mechanical mods can cost as little as $30, while high-end mods with extravagant features like LCD displays can run between $200-$300.
While mods offer vapers more options, there are considerable convenience trade-offs. Many are pocket size, but even the smallest devices seem massive compared to a cigarette or the simplest disposable e-cigarette. Moreover, the process of adding e-liquid to a mod, called “dripping,” involves removing a plate from part of the device and using a dropper to douse a cotton wick wrapped around the device’s heating coils, which also needs to be replaced often.
“It’s people who are looking to get more performance out of the device,” said Mike Haynes, manager of Smoque’s Printer’s Row location. “Not necessarily somebody who’s like ‘I want to blow the biggest cloud in the world’ but we get a lot of normal businesspeople who want something with a ton of battery life, a bit more of a hit to it. These are typically people who have already been vaping for a while. They haven’t had a cigarette for a while and they want something that works better than your average kit.”
Despite the extra work, Yucht has noticed that the number of long-term vapers has grown, and with them so has the demand for a wider range of vaping experiences.
“People are looking for what’s new and what’s out there,” Yucht said. “We [Smoque] are more for the beginner or the simple vaper, but we definitely have a fairly strong segment of people who use mechanical mods, build their own coils, put their own wicks in.”
What’s “new” and “out there” include engaging with vaping in ways that are simply not possible with cigarettes. “Cloud chasers,” for example, maximize their vaporizers’ heat and power to produce the thickest, most voluminous smoke they possibly can. Vapers take to YouTube to show off their work and discuss the best devices to pull impressive amounts of vapor.
“You can’t take a hit off a cigarette that going to put out as much smoke as I’m putting out vapor,” Haynes said.
Hobbyist vaping materials only represent a small portion of the vaping population. Yucht estimated that maybe 15-20 percent of Smoque customers use mods. That’s a relatively small percentage taken from an already discerning class of e-cigarette user.
That said, even a tiny piece of the vaping pie likely represents thousands of vapers. E-Cigarette sales exceeded $722 million in 2013, according to The Wall Street Journal. The majority of those sales came in the form of either disposable or refillable cartridge-based vaping kits without customizable components.
E-cigarette habits change dramatically in the transition from people attempting to quit smoking to the self-identifying vapers who use devices purely for pleasure. Many users, for example, agree that the number of times they vape has increased since they transitioned away from smoking, but also that they consume considerably less nicotine as they switched to more diluted e-liquid solutions.
Smoque employee Stephanie Bowman, 21, vapes every day but no longer consumes nicotine.
“I still like the feeling of it,” said Bowman, “but I just don’t need it anymore.”
Matt Brannen, another clerk at the shop, said he still uses e-liquid with nicotine from time to time, but only when he “feels like it.”
Yucht, who consumes about a third of the nicotine he did when first started vaping, said that demand for nicotine-free e-liquid is rapidly expanding.
Before they start chasing clouds or modding, though, Yucht believes that any user willing to go the extra mile starts out by trying to make vaping feel more like smoking.
“They don’t perform like cigarettes,” Yucht explained. “It’s similar — there’s the motion to your mouth, the repetition, etc. — but it’s not like taking a drag off a cigarette. It is different. It’s a kinder hit. It’s softer. People are looking for something that hits greater, that provides more of a simulation.
From a health perspective, the long-term health effects of vaping have not been studied. Despite facing a completely unknown future, many vapers are convinced that e-cigarettes are safe and that, if nothing else, vapor is healthier than carcinogenic smoke.
Government agencies and local municipalities are not as easily convinced. The American Lung Association’s statement on e-cigarettes points to the fact that, without government oversight, some currently available e-liquids and vaping products may include chemicals that may have a negative effect on a vaper’s health.
“The FDA has not approved any e-cigarette as a safe or effective method to help smokers quit,” the lung association advises on its web site. “When smokers are ready to quit, they should call 1-800-QUIT NOW or talk with their doctors about using one of the seven FDA-approved medications proven to be safe and effective in helping smokers quit.”
Standing to prevent any potential future health hazards, Chicago lawmakers banned vaping in most of the city’s indoor and public spaces in January with the Chicago’s Clean Indoor Air Ordinance. (Vape shops and private residences are exempt from the ban.) Many of the U.S. largest cities, including New York and Los Angeles, have adopted similar laws around the same time.
Yucht called media reports suggesting that e-cigarettes might serve as a gateway for teens to start smoking tobacco sensationalist and misinformed.
“I don’t feel bad about what I’m doing one bit,” Yucht said. “I do it around my kids. I don’t blow it in their face [sic], but there’s no second-hand smoke so I’m not anything to anyone but myself and I know I’m doing way better I was doing previously.”
This story was originally published on Medill Reports in September, 2014.
Are you tired of getting chased by your browser profile on Facebook, Twitter and Google? They won’t be able to reach you on Ello, the site producers promise.
Proudly declaring that Ello will never run ads or track and sell user information, the new invite-only social network, continues to sign on thousands of new users every hour. Ello became a seemingly instant internet sensation in late September by rolling out the welcome mat for social network users frustrated by the business-minded data policies of Silicon Valley giants that sell profile information and browsing habits to advertisers.
Ello’s manifesto – yes, they have a manifesto – lays it on the line. “Are you a product?” Users who click “yes” are re-directed to Facebook’s data-use policy. According to that mission statement Ello is “a tool for empowerment. Not a tool to deceive, coerce and manipulate — but a place to connect, create and celebrate life.”
That consumer-friendly persona has brought users to Ello in droves: Despite pundits’ suggestions that the service’s 15 minutes are almost up, the site continues to bring in 40,000-50,000 new users per hour.
Anyone invited to join the site by a friend can create an account and in turn receives five invites to distribute to others.
“Actually, we don’t even consider Facebook to be a social network at all,” Ello founder Paul Budnitz said. “We think it’s an advertising platform, because the customer is the advertiser and the people who are using it are being bought and sold.”
Budnitz, a Burlington, Vermont-based serial entrepreneur, runs online bike shop Budnitz Bicycles and founded toy maker Kidrobot. Budnitz said his home state, which does not allow advertisers to put up billboards, was helped inspire the plan for an ad-free digital space.
Budnitz said he and his partners originally created Ello as a private social platform for themselves a year and a half ago so they could share ideas with their network of friends.
“I thought: ‘I’m not having any fun on social networks anymore,’” Budnitz said. “They’re totally cluttered. I can’t find my friends’ posts because there are all these paid posts getting in the way and all these ads.”
After getting “1000s” of requests from friends of friends, Budnitz said he and company began working on a public-facing site in March, which launched two months ago by sending an opening salvo of 90 invites.
While Budnitz would rather avoid comparing Ello to Facebook, their antagonistic relationship is much at the heart of the service’s recent rise to prominence.
Members of Facebook’s LGBT community began flocking to Ello in droves in response to policies at Facebook and Google+ that don’t allow users to use an alias on their profiles.
Facebook’s “real name” policy, which has been in place for more than 10 years, ambiguously requires users to go by their “authentic” name, the one users would hear from friends. Technically, users don’t need to use their legal name on Facebook, but they cannot use a fake name, either.
Facebook Chief Product Officer Chris Cox released a statement last week on Facebook announcing plans loosen their enforcement of the policy.
“The stories of mass impersonation,” Cox wrote, “trolling, domestic abuse, and higher rates of bullying and intolerance are oftentimes the result of people hiding behind fake names, and it’s both terrifying and sad. Our ability to successfully protect against them with this policy has borne out the reality that this policy, on balance, and when applied carefully, is a very powerful force for good.”
While Ello was initially hailed as the people’s champion, there are already a couple of critical backlashes over some of the service’s practices, though. Some early supporters, including former collaborator Andy Balkan, have cried foul over the fact that Ello received $435,000 from Vermont-based venture capital firm FreshTracks Capital when the company began working on the public-facing site in March.
Taking money from investors, critics contend, is a first step on a slippery slope that could end in Ello’s creators either giving in to advertisers or selling the platform to someone who will.
To those critics, Budnitz said it’s important to remember that not every tech start-up has to be sold to be successful.
“We’ve put a pretty firm stake in the ground on what we’re doing,” said Budnitz. “We are a business. We will be a profitable business. But there is no exit strategy. We [will] just make money.”
Ethics aside, Ello’s minimalist style and offers of a more consumer-friendly community do not sway Miranda Mulligan, executive director of The Knight Lab at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, who doesn’t see why users would choose to spend time on Ello, either in place of another service or as a new addition to their social media diet.
“I have no reason to use this,” said Mulligan. “No one is talking. It got a lot of buzz and the only people who use it seem to be the people who made it and their friends. I want social network platforms that have utility.”
Ello plans to set itself apart — and achieve profitability — by offering users paid profile improvements, including unified access for multiple accounts, new color palettes and custom emoji. When Budnitz and company plan on unveiling those features is still unclear.
For now, Budnitz is confident that the message will keep bringing users to the medium:
“It’s much better to just be able to speak,” said Budnitz. “And so we’re just offering a different business model.”