A passionate crowd of Chicagoans made their case for and against raising the city's minimum wage to $15 an hour at a spirited community meeting Thursday night on the North Side. Progress Illinois was there for the meeting, held by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's recently formed Minimum Wage Working Group.
A passionate crowd of Chicagoans made their case for and against raising the city's minimum wage to $15 an hour at a spirited community meeting Thursday night on the North Side.
Cab drivers, fast food workers, home health care aides and small business owners were among the dozens of people who testified at the two-hour meeting, held by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's recently formed Minimum Wage Working Group.
The task force of aldermen, labor and business representatives announced by the mayor in May is charged with crafting a report that suggests short- and long-term wage increases for those who are hourly minimum wage and tipped workers. The group, chaired by Ald. Will Burns (4th) and the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law's President John Bouman, is being asked to look into minimum wage increases put in place by other municipalities such as Seattle, which recently agreed to raise its hourly minimum wage to $15. The task force's report, to be issued in July, will also look at tying the minimum wage increase to inflation.
At last month's city council meeting, a group of aldermen separate from Emanuel's task force introduced an ordinance seeking to hike Chicago's minimum wage to $15 an hour. The ordinance comes at a time when lawmakers at both the state and federal levels are weighing a minimum wage bump of just over $10. The state and federal minimum wages are currently $8.25 and $7.25, respectively.
Emanuel has not stated his position on the $15 minimum wage ordinance, which drew the most attention at last night's meeting, held at Harry S. Truman College in Uptown.
"There's 21 aldermen in Chicago who are pushing this," Ryan Watson with Socialist Alternative and 15 Now said of the ordinance. "We need 26. That means 29 of them are undecided or against it, so we need to keep in mind who we need."
In response, someone in the audience of more than 80 people shouted, "Get rid of them!"
Under the pending ordinance, large employers in Chicago making at least $50 million annually would have 90 days to raise their employees' wages to $12.50 an hour, including workers at their subsidiaries and franchise locations. Large employers would then have to raise workers' hourly wages to the $15 level within one year of the measure taking effect.
Businesses with less than $50 million in annual revenue would have a different minimum wage phase-in period. Small and mid-sized businesses would have to increase their base hourly wage to $12 within 15 months. After that, the smaller employers would have to increase their minimum wage by $1 each year until they hit the $15 level by 2018.
As part of the measure, the city's minimum wage would be adjusted each year after 2018 to keep pace with inflation. The base hourly wage for tipped workers, which is $4.95 an hour in Illinois, would be 70 percent of the overall minimum wage.
Anthony Mesok, who owns a dog daycare in Rogers Park, said a $15 minimum wage that is not phased in over a "reasonable" time period will effectively force his business to close.
"I clean up dog poop for a living, so when you say small businesses have money, we don't," he said, adding that he currently pays his 10 employees more than $10 an hour. "I have no cushion. I'm not like the big businesses. I don't have the ability to absorb this increase ... We live month to month just like everyone else. If you raise it to $15, I'm a labor-intensive business, I will have to raise my rates 50 [percent] to 80 percent. My customers, even if they're making a little bit more, will flock to Evanston. They will leave Chicago."
Watson, however, said if the city were to "tax big businesses properly" and create appropriate subsidies for mom-and-pop shops, small businesses would able to provide their workers with a $15 minimum wage. He also stressed that there should be no minimum wage phase-in periods for large firms.
"There's no reason why multi-billion dollar businesses have to have a three year to two year phase-in process," he said.
Heather Way Kitzes, executive director of the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce, was heckled by some audience members after she said increasing the city's minimum wage "will force businesses to raise prices or reduce worker benefits — at best — layoff employees or close doors, at worst."
"Increasing the minimum wage in Chicago increases the cost of doing business in Chicago. This is a cost for which our neighborhoods will pay the price," she said. "I know that's not popular, but that's our reality. Our economic vitality is at stake too."
After Way Kitzes said that, someone in the audience screamed, "From a rich person's point of view!"
Here's another heated exchange between the audience and Stephanie King-Myers, owner of a small event planning business in Lakeview, as well as testimony from Rich Stowell, a home health care worker:
Ryne Polker with the Uptown Uprising community coalition delivered a fiery speech that energized the crowd, which erupted in chants of "Fight for 15!"
"I'm sorry to say that the Walton family [of Walmart] might have to take their hard-earned money out of their trust funds to pay people a decent wage," he quipped. "I'm so sorry that Lakeview business owners might not be able to live in the lake front condos if they want to."
"I have a proposition," he said to Emanuel's minimum wage panel. "If you want to raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour, make it the salary of every each alderman," who votes for such a measure. "Let's see how long you can live off of it. It's my challenge to you."
Several people with disabilities at the meeting also discussed the importance of raising the city's minimum wage.
The minimum wage should be lifted to $15 for all workers, including those with disabilities, stressed Rene David Luna, who works at Access Living, which advocates on disability-related issues in Illinois.
"Disabled people are among the poorest of the poor," he said. "We face poverty and great inequality ... We have to let the CEOs know that we deserve equal rights and good paying jobs for all people."
Meanwhile, Tracey Abman, organizing director for AFSCME Council 31, said Chicago cab drivers have largely been left out of the minimum wage discussion. A report from Cab Drivers United, an affiliate of AFSCME Council 31, shows taxi drivers in the city earn about $5.40 an hour.
"Their not even making the federal minimum wage, let alone that of the state of Illinois," she said, explaining that city regulations and fines have led to the cab drivers' low wages.
Because the city of Chicago "regulates every aspect" of how taxi drivers conduct their business, it is therefore an employer and should ensure that drivers earn the minimum wage, added city cab driver Melissa Callahan.
"We don't understand how the city can suggest to other businesses that they raise the minimum wage when the city itself does not ensure that cab drivers even make the current minimum wage," she stressed.
In remarks after the meeting, Ald. Burns said he has "met with the cab drivers independently" and "every time Access Living has asked for a meeting, I've taken the meeting" to discuss the minimum wage issue.
"I'm very concerned about the issue," he said. "There's a lot to deal with: the size of the company, what the [wage] level should be, what the exemption should be, training wages ... whether or not there should be some sort of benefit credit for health care expenditures that are provided by companies and other benefits that are provided for workers," he explained. "There's just a lot we're trying to get our arms around in a very, very short period of time."
The panel has a total of 45 days to put together its report for Emanuel.
Minimum Wage Working Group member Matt Brandon, SEIU* Local 73 secretary treasurer, told Progress Illinois that he is a voice on the panel in support of a $15 minimum wage.
"No doubt about about it," he said. "I got into a little riff with one of the retail association representatives on the panel. I think they know where I stand, and that's my position."
Brandon agreed to take part in the panel because he believes the mayor is "serious" about tackling Chicago's minimum wage.
"The mayor has come into one of our meetings and said quite openly that, 'I don't believe in people who work full-time living in poverty,'" Brandon said. "That's why I'm participating here, because I think he's serious."
Brandon added that the intense debate at Thursday's community meeting — the third held by the panel thus far — was to be expected.
"It's a very significant issue," Brandon stressed. "When you create a working group to go around the city and talk about moving people out of poverty, well you better be prepared for the passion behind it."
The Minimum Wage Working Groups will hold two more public meetings:
*The SEIU Illinois Council sponsors this website.