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$15 Minimum-Wage Referendum A Big Win For Activists -- But Will It Happen?

By Ted Cox | March 19, 2014 1:44pm
 Action Now Executive Director Katelyn Johnson expects the minimum-wage referendum to produce results in the City Council and the General Assembly.
Action Now Executive Director Katelyn Johnson expects the minimum-wage referendum to produce results in the City Council and the General Assembly.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

THE LOOP — Voters overwhelmingly supported an advisory referendum that would hike Chicago's minimum wage to $15 an hour Tuesday, and supporters of the measure said elected officials should take notice.

According to groups organized under the banner Raise Chicago and the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, voters supported the proposal with 87 percent in favor in the 103 Chicago precincts where it was on the ballot. It drew more than 85 percent support in over half of those precincts.

The groups are now using the results of the referendum as leverage to push for a $15-an-hour minimum wage in Chicago for major corporations as well as a statewide increase.

"Voters sent a clear and defining message to their elected officials in Chicago and across Illinois that major corporations can afford to pay low-wage workers fair and decent wages, and that the time to lift wages for working families is now," said Katelyn Johnson, executive director of the Action Now neighborhood group. "Our message is simple — low-wage workers deserve it, corporations can afford it and our communities will benefit from it."

According to Johnson, 96 percent of Chicago's low-wage workers are older than 20, and 263,000 Chicago workers earn less than $15 an hour, more than half of those working for corporations making more than $50 million a year. A full-time worker earning the state minimum wage of $8.25 an hour makes $17,000 a year.

"Chicagoans voted their values and sent a clear message that workers deserve a fair and decent wage," she added. "This referendum speaks volumes.

"We're not asking for handouts, and we're not settling for scraps," Johnson said. "We recognize that this is an advisory referendum, but it behooves a lot of officials to actually listen to the advice of their voters."

Johnson expected the vote to prompt legislation in both the City Council and the General Assembly.

Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) emphasized that the referendum applied specifically to companies taking in more than $50 million, and he cited McDonald's, which took in $5.6 billion last year. "They can afford it," he said. "Now we've got to put something together citywide."

Yet, Fioretti's Progressive Reform Caucus colleague Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), who likewise supported the referendum, warned the council may not be so quick to act on it. He said he had spoken with a McDonald's worker who couldn't afford to take her own family to McDonald's, adding that the minimum wage should have been tied to the rate of inflation long ago.

"We need to do something about that, because when people start making more money they spend more money," Sawyer said. "Quite honestly, I want to see if we can get some traction on it, to see if more of my colleagues would be interested in it."

Johnson was joined by Wendy Juarez of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council and McDonald's food workers in applauding the referendum results at the Chicago Temple Downtown Wednesday.

The referendum asked: "Shall the City of Chicago require a minimum wage of $15 per hour for employees of companies that perform work within the City of Chicago where the employing company had annual gross revenues in excess of $50 million in the last tax year?"

Gov. Pat Quinn has supported a hike in the state minimum wage from $8.25 to $10.65 and is already using the issue against Republican gubernatorial nominee Bruce Rauner. President Barack Obama has supported a national hike from $7.25 to $10.10. Chicago aldermen have issued resolutions in support of both, and others have backed the $15 minimum wage in the city for major corporations like McDonald's and Wal-Mart.

Last month, the Illinois Retail Merchants Association released a fact sheet stating that the state already has the fourth-highest minimum wage in the nation at $8.25, a dollar higher than neighboring states. The association and other business groups, such as the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, the Illinois Restaurant Association and the Illinois Association of Convenience Stores have warned that an increase in the minimum wage could result in job cuts and "falling back into recession."

Johnson said she supported Quinn's efforts to raise the minimum wage statewide, but added that she expected the $15 figure to be fought for in the city, because "it's more expensive to live in Chicago." She added that "this is not an either-or" issue.

McDonald's, Wal-Mart and the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce did not respond to requests for comment.