A $13 Minimum Wage Isn’t Enough

Carlos Ballesteros July 10, 2014

In the wake of the Minimum Wage Working Group's announcement, Alderman John Arena represents the Chicago Progressive Reform Caucus at a press conference calling for a $15 hourly minimum wage in Chicago. (Courtesy of Chicago Progressive Reform Caucus)

Irma Díaz, 36, has been work­ing at McDon­ald’s for 14 years. She’s also a sin­gle moth­er of a 14-year-old son. If she’s lucky, she gets to work 35 hours every two weeks.She’s nev­er been paid above the min­i­mum wage.Díaz is just one of the esti­mat­ed 400,000 Chicagoans who would ben­e­fit from the hike recent­ly pro­posed by Chicago’s Min­i­mum Wage Work­ing Group (MWWG). On Mon­day, July 7, the task force—hand-picked by May­or Rahm Emanuel and com­posed of eight alder­per­sons, along with the lead­ers of the city’s top com­mer­cial and labor organizations—recommended rais­ing Chicago’s min­i­mum wage to $13 an hour by 2018, fol­lowed by future increas­es tied to the rate of infla­tion. Tipped employ­ees, such as servers, would also see a one-dol­lar bump in their pay over the next two years.The group also sug­gest­ed that the Chica­go City Coun­cil delay vot­ing on the issue until law­mak­ers decide whether or not to raise the Illi­nois min­i­mum wage, which should hap­pen after the Novem­ber elections.
Though the MWWG pre­dict­ed that the move would inject $800 mil­lion into Chicago’s econ­o­my over the next four years, many busi­ness lead­ers in the area have denounced the idea. They fear that pay­ing employ­ees more would moti­vate com­pa­nies to leave the city and set up shop in the sur­round­ing sub­ur­ban com­mu­ni­ties; they also claim it would force the remain­ing busi­ness­es to raise their prices, ren­der­ing them vul­ner­a­ble to their new­ly out-of-town com­peti­tors.How­ev­er, accord­ing to econ­o­mists at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, who stud­ied nine cities around the coun­try that increased their min­i­mum wages between 2001 and 2011, “an increase up to $13 an hour has no mea­sur­able effect on employ­ment.”For that mat­ter, some work­ers say that the MWWG’s pro­posed hike is both too pal­try and too lengthy to be effec­tive.“$13 [an hour] would be nice, but it’s just not enough,” Díaz says in an inter­view with In These Times. “If you take into account all of our expens­es, it’s just too lit­tle. We, the work­ers, real­ly can’t wait for $13 by 2018. We’re liv­ing in a bad econ­o­my right now, and I can only imag­ine how bad things are going to be by 2018. We need to raise it now.”Díaz is a mem­ber of the Work­ers Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee of Chica­go (WOCC). Formed in 2012, the WOCC is a group of fast-food and retail work­ers that is demand­ing that the min­i­mum wage be raised to $15 an hour.On Tues­day, the WOCC released a state­ment in regards to the mayor’s $13-an-hour pro­pos­al. “Any rec­om­men­da­tion that is less than $15 is an insult to the hun­dreds of fast-food work­ers that have risked their jobs and made sac­ri­fices for the well-being of this city,” it reads. Chica­go fast-food work­ers, it con­tin­ues, “will not sit back and wait for politi­cians to act,” with the group com­mit­ting to fight for a $15 min­i­mum wage.Accord­ing to the MIT’s “Liv­ing Wage Cal­cu­la­tor,” an adult with one child needs to make $20.86 an hour work­ing full time in Chica­go in order to afford basic neces­si­ties such as food, med­ical expens­es, and housing—a fact of which Díaz, who makes ends meet by sell­ing beau­ty prod­ucts on the side, is well aware. “Even $15 isn’t enough to pro­vide for our needs,” Díaz says, “But it would make our lives much eas­i­er.”Plus, as Díaz points out, improv­ing pay is just the begin­ning: Being able to form a union is just as impor­tant to her as rais­ing the min­i­mum wage.“$15 would be bet­ter, but that wouldn’t pre­vent our boss­es from cut­ting our hours and mak­ing it hard­er for us to make a liv­ing,” she says. “That’s why we need a union.”WOCC also advo­cates for work­ers’ right to join unions, and Díaz sus­pects that her work­place out­spo­ken­ness and orga­niz­ing has made her a tar­get for ret­ri­bu­tion from employ­ers.“It’s rumored that I’m in the crosshairs since we’ve begun to talk about union­iz­ing and such,” she says.But Díaz doesn’t plan on giv­ing up any­time soon.“I’m not going to let the 14 years I’ve been work­ing there go to waste,” she says. “I know I have rights and I know I am fight­ing for my rights. My cowork­ers give me pos­i­tive feed­back, and they tell me that they feel stronger because of me. I can only imag­ine how strong a union would make us all feel.”
Car­los Balles­teros is a free­lance writer based in Chica­go. He was born and raised in the South Side and recent­ly grad­u­at­ed from Clare­mont McKen­na Col­lege with a B.A. in History.
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