While legislation to lift the state's minimum wage has been pending in the legislature for some time now, Chicago Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) said he and his fellow Progressive Reform Coalition council members are working to drum up support for a $15 minimum wage in the city.
At a minimum wage forum Thursday night hosted by Action Now’s “Faith in Action” coalition in Chicago's South Shore neighborhood, Sawyer said the council's progressive caucus is looking to put forward a $15 minimum wage ordinance, though the details are still in the works.
The first step, Sawyer said, is to get more aldermen and residents involved in the discussion.
"I think (raising the minimum wage is) a basic level of respect to your constituents that are working out here hard," he told Progress Illinois. "I was at one function where a young lady worked 10 years at McDonald's and she talked about how she can't even afford the food to eat where she works. So it's frustrating, and we need to get these wages to a level where they are respectable to the citizens."
Is the mayor on board with a minimum wage hike?
"Based on what I'm hearing, he's amenable to a raise in the minimum wage," Sawyer said. "Where that level is yet, I don't know. But I'm encouraged by that, that he does understand that it should be raised. So we'll just see where it goes."
Progress Illinois asked Sawyer whether an ordinance to lift the wage floor in Chicago to $15 would have any legs in the city council at a time when lawmakers at both the state and federal levels are weighing a minimum wage hike of just over $10. The state and federal minimum wages are currently $8.25 and $7.25, respectively.
"I think we're going to try to pitch the $15 level right now, and we'll see where it takes us," Sawyer said in response.
"Hopefully, it will spread enough conversation where we can get something raised. I think we just need to press the conversation, and get (a possible wage increase) up to a level that's respectable. I think $15 is respectable. I think there's some numbers that are a little less that are also respectable, but without having some sort of benchmark, you'll never get any progress. So right now we're sticking with the $15 option."
He pointed out that Chicagoans are in support of the idea. During the March primary election, Chicago voters overwhelming supported a non-binding ballot referendum to increase the city's minimum wage to $15 an hour for employees of companies with annual revenues over $50 million. The referendum appeared on the ballot in 103 city precincts, garnering support from 87 percent of voters.
Thursday's event was held at St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church, whose Pastor Scott Onque told the audience that he and other African-American faith leaders in the city are fighting to boost wages.
"There's a word called compassion, and it's rooted in love," Onque said in an interview with Progress Illinois. "We have to show this community that are working for a minimum wage, that are living below poverty, that we are concerned, we have compassion and we are with them in this effort."
Kevin Davenport, a Faith in Action organizer, noted that some 400,000 Illinois workers earn the state's $8.25 minimum wage.
"That's 400,000 citizens of the state of Illinois who are living below poverty, trying to survive on roughly $17,000 a year," told the crowd of about 30 people. "Many of us understand that it is very difficult to survive off of $8.25 ... We want to begin to have a groundswell movement of individuals of the faith community who understand that it is important for us, not only to have church on Sunday, but to begin to move our faith beyond the four walls of the church and begin to engage the community and help the community to understand that these issues are important to us."
State legislation that would gradually raise Illinois' current minimum wage of $8.25 to $10.65 by July,1 2016 is currently pending in both chambers of the state legislature. The Senate bill, SB 68, sponsored by State Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood), cleared the chamber's Executive Committee last month.
Davenport said the Senate's minimum wage bill is three votes shy of the 30 votes needed for it to pass.
"We have right now 27 individuals who have voiced their support either (as) sponsors, or through our role call," he told the crowd. "That's the reason why getting you engaged in the process becomes so critical so that you can help us influence these legislators to understand how important this particular issue is to the community."
The House companion bill, HB 3718, sponsored by State Rep. Arthur Turner (D-Chicago), is currently in the Rules Committee. Earlier this week, House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) said the measure does not yet have the votes needed for its approval. The House bill has a total of 29 listed sponsors, while the Senate bill has 15.
“Once we get to 60 (votes needed to pass in the House), we’ll be prepared to call the bill,” Madigan said Tuesday, according to the Chicago Tribune.
The final day of the current state legislative session is May 31.
While it remains to be seen if minimum wage legislation will be enacted before the session adjourns, there is also a sense of urgency among minimum wage activists to get a bill passed prior to November's gubernatorial election. Gov. Pat Quinn, who is up for re-election, is in support of a minimum wage hike to at least $10. His GOP challenger, millionaire venture capitalist Bruce Rauner, has previously stated that he would like to see the state's minimum wage lowered to the federal level.
"I pray that this doesn't become a political force, because it's more than politics at this point," Onque said when asked about efforts to increase the minimum wage in a gubernatorial election year.
State Rep. Elgie Sims (D-Chicago), a co-sponsor of the House minimum wage bill, attended Thursday's event. He encouraged residents to reach out to their state lawmakers who have not publicly announced their support for a minimum wage hike.
"There are only three numbers that matter in Springfield," he told the crowd. "Sixty, 30 and one. Sixty members of the House of representatives, 30 members of the Senate, and the governor. He's got to sign it."
"Part of the organizing starts with understanding who is already with us, those who just need a little encouragement and those who need the full education."
When asked by an audience member how long it will take to garner the 60 necessary votes in the House, Sims responded that "it depends." Over the next month, lawmakers have a number of issues to deal with, Sims noted, including the temporary income tax hike and budget as well as police, fire and teacher pensions in the city of Chicago.
"There are a number of issues that we're still going to be dealing with between now and May 31, so within that time, we're still going to have those discussions about how (the minimum wage) is going to play in the overall structure of the session," he said.