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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Jun 17, 2014, 6:07 pm

Chicago Aldermen Want a $15 Minimum Wage in Their City, Too

BY Ethan Corey

Alderman Leslie Hairston, Alderman Bob Fioretti, Vermont Governor Howard Dean and others gathered at Park Tavern in Teamsters City last week to build support for Chicago's progressive candidates and their initiatives, which include raising the municipal minimum wage. (John Arena)  

Two weeks ago, the Seattle City Council made national headlines when it voted to raise that city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025, the highest of any metropolis in the country. But just a few days prior, halfway across the country, a group of progressive politicians in Chicago made an even more groundbreaking bid to win the “fight for 15” in their own city. 

On May 28, members of the Chicago Progressive Caucus (CPC) or Progressive Reform Coalition (PRC), a group of eight aldermen on the Chicago City Council who seek “to promote a more equal and just Chicago,” introduced a proposal to gradually raise the minimum wage in the city to $15 an hour for all businesses by 2019. The ordinance, which already has support from 21 of the 26 aldermen it needs to pass in a Council-wide vote—pending its approval by the Council’s Committee on Workforce Development and Audit—would require all businesses with more than $50 million in annual revenue that operate in Chicago (including nationwide chains with franchises in the city) to pay employees $12.50 an hour within 90 days of passage and $15 an hour within a year. Smaller firms would have slightly more time to reach a $15 minimum wage: they would pay workers $12.50 an hour within 15 months of the ordinance’s passage; $13 within two years; $14 within three years; and $15 within four. After that, the minimum wage would automatically increase along with the rate of inflation. 

This timeline makes it one of the fastest-acting, most progressive proposals of its kind in the country: Even Seattle’s minimum wage ordinance does not fully take effect until 2025.

The CPC’s proposal also outpaces competing proposals introduced by other politicians on the state and municipal levels. In February, Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed raising the city’s minimum wage to $9.25 an hour, just a dollar more than the current Illinois minimum wage. After receiving criticism for his original plan, Emanuel created a task force in late May to study the economic impact of raising the minimum wage in the city; the task force will report their findings to Emanuel in early July. (Emanuel has yet to comment on the CPC’s initiative.) Meanwhile, Governor Pat Quinn has publicly endorsed increasing the minimum wage to $10.65 in an attempt to gain a competitive edge in his race against Republican businessman Bruce Rauner. And the Illinois House passed a measure in May calling for an advisory referendum on the November ballot asking voters whether the state’s minimum wage should be raised to $10 an hour.

Supporters of the CPC’s initiative, however, say that the bigger bump to $15 an hour is not only necessary, but a relatively conservative move, considering the growth of worker productivity and costs of living over the past five decades. After all, had the nationwide minimum wage kept pace with productivity gains since 1968, it would be $21.72 an hour in 2014—well above any proposal being discussed today.

“The bottom line is that $15 barely gets you above the federal poverty rate. And it’s a shame that people who are working full time, 52 weeks a year still fall below the poverty line,” Alderman Rick Muñoz, a co-sponsor of the ordinance, tells In These Times.

Muñoz also downplays concerns by local business leaders, including Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce CEO Theresa Mintle, that a higher minimum wage would put businesses at a “competitive disadvantage”.

“They’re scared of scaring off business, but the bottom line is when people make a $15 minimum wage, they’re not going to go buy a yacht; they not going to buy a second home in Michigan. They’re going to invest in their neighborhoods,” says Ald. Muñoz. “So this is good for business too—especially local businesses—because people will be spending money in their neighborhoods.”

The efforts of the CPC to raise the minimum wage in Chicago come as part of a larger “progressive insurgency” in the city, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean said during a fundraiser last week in Teamster City aimed at building support for local progressive candidates. This March, for instance, the local Democratic machine suffered a major defeat when grassroots progressive Will Guzzardi—who was also present at the event—defeated the incumbent Toni Berrios in the primary elections for state representative in the 39th district, which covers much of Northwest Chicago. Additionally, the Chicago Teachers Union’s long-running campaign to stand up for the city’s public schools has ignited similar reform movements all over the country.

But much of this insurgency has also come from the CPC itself, which formed in March 2013 to provide a progressive alternative to a City Council notorious for rubber-stamping Mayor Emanuel’s agenda. By the end of 2012, after all, aldermen had cast 1,333 votes in favor of his proposals, compared to a meager 122 votes against. Since its formation, however, the CPC has taken strong progressive stances to oppose the mayor on issues like school closures in the city, paid sick leave for workers in the city and reforms to the controversial tax increment financing (TIF) system, which critics say exacerbates the divide between rich and poor neighborhoods in the city. These positions haven’t just been talk: In late April, CPC members Ald. John Arena, Ald. Muñoz and Ald. Roderick Sawyer successfully temporarily blocked a proposal introduced by the mayor that would have made it easier for unregulated ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft to threaten the livelihoods of cab drivers in city limits.

Carl Nyberg, chair of the Candidates Committee for the grassroots progressive organization Northside Democracy for America, went so far as to compare the CPC’s efforts to Governor Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, which sought to challenge the complacency of Democrats in Congress.

“There was this period in 2003 when the Democrats in Congress weren’t speaking up about stuff that was clearly wrong, and we’re in somewhat of a similar situation in Chicago now, where we’ve got a mayor who is doing things that are clearly not in the interests of the people of Chicago,” Nyberg said during his introductory remarks at the fundraiser.

Governor Dean echoed these sentiments during his speech, praising the CPC’s efforts to improve municipal government transparency and provide a voice for grassroots politics in City Hall.

“Government should work with the people who pay their salary, not against them,” Gov. Dean said.

Ultimately, Alderman Muñoz tells In These Times, the CPC hopes to do just that by using initiatives like a $15 minimum wage to bridge the sharp economic divides that plague Chicago and the country as a whole.

“We need Chicago to be truly a city of neighborhoods,” he says. “Part of the problem is that it’s a tale of two cities—downtown Chicago and neighborhood Chicago. There’s no correlation between them. If you go to [the wealthy] Michigan Avenue, you’ll see a cop on every corner. If you go to [the poorer] Madison and Pulaski, you see nothing but potholes. That’s unacceptable. What the Progressive Caucus wants to do is make those two Chicagos one.”

Ethan Corey is an In These Times Summer 2014 editorial intern.

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