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Chicagos Living Wage
by KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL & SAM GRAHAM-FELSEN
September 25, 2006
As Americans return to their jobs after Labor Day, they should remember that this
Republican Congress has refused to raise the minimum wage, which has remained
stagnant at $5.15 for an unconscionable nine years. In the GOPs latest display of
contempt for working Americans, Republican lawmakers recently attempted to attach a
minimum wage increase to a bill that would cut the estate tax and cost the Treasury $268
billion over the next decade. According to the GOP, in order for those Americans who
have been doing an honest days work for $10,700 a year to get a raise, Paris Hilton and
the richest 8,200 families must receive yet another irresponsible tax cut the country cant
afford. Democrats refused to go along with the GOPs cynical legislative shenanigans
and the bill failed to pass the Senate.
Tired of such callous disregard for hard-working people, grassroots activists and
progressive representatives at the state and local levels are stepping up to the plate.
Twenty-two states and Washington, DC, have enacted higher minimum wages than the
federal government, and several more may raise wages this November, thanks to ballot
initiatives. On the local level, a landmark ordinance was recently passed in Chicago,
handing the living-wage movement its most significant victory to date. On July 26 the
Chicago City Council voted 35 to 14 to require big box stores to pay a living wage of
$10 plus $3 in benefits per hour to employees by July 2010. The ordinance affects stores
that net more than $1 billion annually and that occupy more than 90,000 square feet,
including Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Toys R Us and Home Depot.
This ordinance brings hope to thousands of people. A job should lift a person out of
poverty, not keep him in poverty, says Alderman Joseph Moore, the laws chief sponsor.
Chicago is on the forefront of a growing movement in cities and towns across the nation
to fill the void left by the federal government.
The victory was the culmination of two years of massive mobilization by Chicagos
Grassroots Collaborative, and it did not come easily. The coalition—which included
ACORN and a wide array of labor, faith and antipoverty groups—faced strong opposition
from Wal-Mart, big retail associations, Chicagos mainstream media and the citys
powerful mayor, Richard Daley.
The campaign kicked off in 2004 when Wal-Mart announced plans to open a store in
Chicagos heavily poor and black South Side. Madeline Talbott of ACORN knew that
opposing Wal-Mart outright was a losing battle. u201COur members are low-income folks,
and Wal-Mart is their favorite store because of the prices, Talbott said. But they were
also appalled by the companys practices. A lot of them said, Yeah, I want to shop at
Wal-Mart, but Ive got a sister who works there in another neighborhood, and she gets no
benefits, and its been terrible for her. When Talbott and fellow organizers discovered
that Costco, one of Wal-Marts major competitors, was paying a living wage and
providing benefits while still turning a profit, the idea for the big-box ordinance (We
didnt want to make it just an anti-Wal-Mart thing, she says) hit them.
The Grassroots Collaborative began mobilizing on the ground, knocking on doors and
organizing house meetings. The response from the community was overwhelming. In
February it delivered 10,000 signed postcards supporting the ordinance to the City
Council. A month later an alderman put the issue on his wards ballot as a referendum,
and it passed easily.
As the City Council began to take the movement more seriously, the opposition became
more intense. Wal-Mart and the Illinois Retail Merchants Association (IRMA) spent vast
sums on a large lobbying campaign and advertising in Chicago media, including on the
popular black talk-radio station WVON. The citys major newspapers, the Sun-Times and
the Tribune2C consistently attacked the initiative, toeing the corporate line and arguing that
it would lead to huge job losses for Chicagoans. Mayor Daley, notorious for his viselike
grip on the City Council, loudly opposed the measure as well.
Despite overwhelming pressure from powerful moneyed forces, the movement continued
to gain support. Days before the City Council vote, a Lake Research Partners Poll
commissioned by the Grassroots Collaborative found 84 percent support for the
ordinance—90 percent among African-Americans. They had the money, but we had the
people, says Talbott. It was a stark reality to see this huge media frenzy coming out
against us, but in the final weeks we had so much support there were people literally
ripping signs out of our hands and hoisting them in the air, cars honking everywhere we
went, tons of people joining our rallies and calling their officials.
The aldermen sided with the people, but the fight is far from over. First, theres the
possibility of a veto from Daley, which would be his first in seventeen years in office.
But Daley would have to convince two aldermen to switch their votes in order to avoid an
override, and with such overwhelming support and continued pressure from the
Grassroots Collaborative, that would be difficult.
Then theres the brewing legal challenge from the IRMA. Many opponents are confident
that the courts will overturn the bill by finding it in violation of federal ERISA standards;
they point to Maryland, where the courts killed the Fair Share Health Care Act (which
would have mandated that Wal-Mart and other large companies provide health benefits).
Yet Paul Sonn of NYUs Brennan Center for Justice, who helped craft the Chicago
ordinance, says this law is different from Marylands and that hes very confident it
will be upheld. Every federal court of appeals that has reviewed a wage and benefit law
like this one has upheld it under ERISA, he contends.
The ordinance is already making waves beyond Chicagos city limits. Alderman Moore
has been fielding calls from politicians across the country interested in passing similar
bills, and Illinoiss ACORN office is sharing strategies with grassroots organizations in
other urban areas. The victory has boosted energy and confidence in the campaign in
Washington, DC, which is considering an ordinance like Chicagos. Weve tapped into
something, says Talbott. The demand for a decent wage and decent benefits is so
strong. These people withstood all of the media, all of the scare tactics and they didnt