Reprinted with permission from The Chicago Reporter.
For years now, lawmakers in both Chicago and the Illinois legislature have been going back and forth over whether they should raise the floor on wages.
Few disagree that to keep a roof over your head and food in your mouth, a job that pays minimum wage, $8.25 an hour, just isn’t going to cut it. But each time a proposal in introduced, the prevailing question ends up being less about people living hand-to-mouth and more about whether businesses can afford to pay higher wages.
Now some Chicago labor activists are appealing to a new audience for support: voters.
On December 11, they turned in a pile of signed petitions calling for a March 18, 2014 ballot initiative that will ask voters whether they support hiking the minimum wage to $15 an hour for employees who work in companies that clear at least $50 million in annual profits. The referendum question is only advisory. It’ll be on ballots in 102 precincts that span 20 of the city’s aldermanic wards.
“We’re hoping to show that a majority of people who live, breathe and work in Chicago recognize that minimum-wage workers need a raise,” said Katelyn Johnson, the executive director of Action Now, a community organization backed by union money that spearheaded the petition drive. Under home rule authority, Chicago has the ability to set its own wage standard, she points out.
The last time the Chicago City Council took up a proposal to do so was in 2006. After a long, drawn-out campaign, aldermen agreed to raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour by 2010 — but only for employees at big box stores. Under the ordinance, those companies would also have been required to pay $3‑an-hour more toward benefits.
Former Mayor Richard M. Daley used the sole veto vote of his career to block that measure. And aldermen failed to override the veto.
These days, public opinion polling for raising the minimum wage appears to be strong.
Earlier this year, Crain’s Chicago Business surveyed Illinois residents and found that a majority support bringing the minimum wage up to $10 an hour. Support was strongest in Chicago, where 78 percent of people polled expressed support, Crain’s reported.
National support appears high as well. In July, the public opinion polling firm Rasmussen Reports reported that 90 percent of people surveyed said they couldn’t make it on the national minimum wage (which at $7.25, is a whole dollar below Illinois’).
Neither poll tested opinions on raising the wage to $15 an hour, which Johnson calls “the bare minimum” for pulling more working families out of poverty.