Hundreds of fast food and retail workers will be striking in downtown Chicago today in an effort to push for higher wages as part of the “Fight for $15” campaign. This comes just weeks after fast food workers in New York engaged in a similar walkout in an effort to increase their wages—the second such action since November. 

Community organizers are leading the campaign, which aims to secure a $15/hour wage for its workers and “the right to form a union without retaliation.”  According to the organizers, most of the workers participating in the walkout earn $8.25/hour—the current minimum wage in Illinois. Workers at McDonald’s, Subway, Dunkin’ Donuts, Macy’s, Sears, and Victoria’s Secret are expected to participate in rolling strikes throughout the day, beginning at 5 a.m. A rally is planned for 4 p.m. at the St. James Cathedral near downtown.  

Although the workers are not currently unionized, their strike still may be protected under federal labor law. Generally, this type of activity qualifies as “protected, concerted activity” under the National Labor Relations Act as long as it is undertaken by or on behalf of a group of employees “for mutual aid or protection.” Concerted activity where groups of employees walk off the job in support of efforts to increase wages generally satisfies this standard. However, workers may lose this protection if they engage in violence, misconduct, or other unlawful activity.  

While the strike may disrupt business operations, whether the workers’ specific actions are protected depends upon the facts and circumstances surrounding their walkout. For this reason, employers should refrain from hastily firing or disciplining workers for engaging in a strike before investigating the relevant facts and seeking the advice of experienced labor counsel.  Failure to take these crucial steps could result in legal liability.