Decent wages. Filling a prescription for your sick child. Not having to choose between paying the rent and buying groceries. Sound like luxuries to you? Well, they don’t to a majority of Chicagoans. Nonetheless, retailers like Wal-Mart, Target, and Lowe’s apparently ...
Decent wages. Filling a prescription for your sick child. Not having to choose between paying the rent and buying groceries. Sound like luxuries to you? Well, they don’t to a majority of Chicagoans. Nonetheless, retailers like Wal-Mart, Target, and Lowe’s apparently think that their employees can go without. And thousands of retail workers do go without, at great cost to themselves, their families, and neighborhoods across the city.
The Big Box Living Wage Ordinance sought to improve this situation. But despite a supermajority of residents supporting the ordinance, and despite a majority of alderman voting to pass it, Mayor Daley issued his first veto in 19 years in office against this legislation in September 2006. Today, that veto and the resulting lack of living wages in Chicago continue to reverberate across the city.
The Big Box Living Wage Ordinance would have required certain-sized billion-dollar retailers to pay their workers a wage of $10 per hour, with an additional $3 per hour worth of benefits. The wages and benefits were to reach that mark in 2010, and thereafter increase by the cost of living. Community organizations and labor unions organized for its passage in an effort to hold these wealthy corporations accountable to their low-wage employees.
The Living Wage Ordinance worked to address the lack of quality jobs in communities of color. The crisis of unemployment, especially in the African-American community, exists and is an issue many are familiar with. Much less talked about, but just as devastating, is the crisis of job quality – the jobs that are available to black workers are disproportionately low-wage and without benefits, and do little to resolve the crisis of poverty with which many working black families struggle on a daily basis.
Jhatyn Travis, Executive Director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, has seen the impact of this lack of opportunity in the South Side communities in which she organizes. She explains that “not having living wage salaries means people can’t afford a place to live. The city as a whole is seeing an outflux of working people who can’t afford to live here anymore. The issues go hand in hand.” Jamiko Rose, Executive Director of Organization of the NorthEast, states that “when the formerly incarcerated return to our communities, trying to start their lives over and reintegrate, the biggest barrier they face is the lack of living wage jobs. This increases recidivism, because people aren’t given the opportunity to make an honest living.” Bryan Echols of MAGIC, puts it pretty simply: “The necessity for a living wage exists so parents can parent, and families can be families. Nowadays, teens are working out of necessity, not for independence.” What’s clear is that poverty-wage jobs work to perpetuate the struggles of many Chicago families.
Let’s be real: The fact that mega-retailers are now clamoring to get into urban America is not because they suddenly care about poor black and brown folk – it is because there is huge untapped buying power in the inner-city that they previously because they could. Any portrayal of these poverty-wage stores or their backers in Chicago as being fighters for racial justice is a slick attempt to pull an “okey doke” on communities of color. The stores are coming now because they have no choice – Wal-Mart stock has been sluggish over the last two years because the company has not reached their targeted expansion in the U.S. Those who run the company, however, continue to make some of the highest salaries in the world – at stark contrast to their workers who struggle to make ends meet.
The idea that “any job is better than no job” has been advanced among the working poor for centuries. But it’s a false choice – one that only serves to keep those on the edges of social margins grateful for whatever those in power decide to hand out. It is an argument that the vast majority of Chicagoans rejected in 2006, with over 80 percent voting in support of referenda on the living wage in 300 precincts across the city.
The campaign to secure a living wage for big box workers exemplified Chicago-style community-labor collaboration. The Living Wage Coalition, consisting of 35 community, labor, academic, policy, and faith-based organizations, was spearheaded by the Grassroots Collaborative, a coalition whose mission is to organize around the issue. The Collaborative unites diverse constituencies to work across barriers to fight for systemic change that benefits everyone. Our member organizations are our strength – Action Now, American Friends Service Committee, Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Illinois Hunger Coalition, Metro Seniors in Action, Metropolitan Alliance of Congregations, and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Locals 73 and 880. Key labor partners in the Living Wage Coalition included the SEIU State Council, Chicago Federation of Labor, United Food and Commercial Workers 881, and Chicago Jobs with Justice. Key partners in the faith community included Protestants for the Common Good, St. Sabina, Trinity United Church of Christ, and Chicago Interfaith Committee.
Despite Daley’s veto, our organizing has resulted in tremendous change, both statewide and in Chicago. The campaign to win a living wage for big box employees ignited the successful effort to increase the statewide minimum wage. Passed shortly after our veto, the minimum wage increase had huge economic impact for hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers in Illinois. In Chicago, our organizing sparked an electoral change in the City Council not seen in years, with nine new alderman taking office in 2007, many of whom had campaigned in support of the living wage against anti-living wage incumbents.
The lack of living wage jobs in Chicago impacts education, housing, and crime. Poverty touches every part of family life. By not demanding quality jobs with decent wages from those who can provide them, we continue to privilege oppressive politics by saying that those who can don't have to, and in so doing, telling ourselves and each other that we should be happy for the crumbs we got.
Medicine. Rent. Groceries. Being able to provide for family with the wages earned from a full-time job is a right, not a luxury.
Amisha Patel is the Director of the Grassroots Collaborative.