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National Issues -- Chicago Struggle: Living Wage (July 1996)

Living Wage Campaign in Chicago --

Will the Real Democrats Stand Up?

As the Democrats in Washington celebrate their victory in battle over minimum wage increase, Democrats in Chicago appear to be sharply divided over a "Living Wage" ordinance that has been introduced into the City Council.

The Living Wage Ordinance would require that city contract and subsidy recipients pay their employees a wage of at least $7.60/hr. just enough to boost income for a family of four over the federal poverty level. Proponents -- unions, community organizations and religious leaders -- argue the ordinance is desperately needed, since $4.25/hr. is simply not enough to support a family.

36 out of 50 aldermen initially supported the ordinance. However, recently Mayor Richard Daley, Finance City Council Finance Committee Chairman Ed Burke and several other close Mayoral allies voiced opposition, leaving voters confused about where the Democrats really stand on issues like jobs, wages and economic development. Daley operatives have begun to put major muscle to supporting aldermen -- most of whom are Daley political allies anyway -- to bail on the ordinance.

"We think it's a pretty dangerous situation for the Democrats," says Ted Thomas, President of Chicago ACORN (312-471-0837) and a leading proponent of the living wage ordinance. "The Democrats want to promote themselves as the party for working people. But they're having their convention in a city where a Democratic Mayor and a Democratic City Council have refused to back a living wage ordinance. That doesn't make any sense."

Daley and the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce have argued that the ordinance would cost millions of dollars and require a property tax increase. The claim is hotly disputed by ordinance supporters. Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Roosevelt University, the Chicago

Institute on Urban Poverty, and the Center for Economic Policy Analysis have concluded that the cost to the city would be negligible -- less than one-third of one percent of the city's budget. They estimate that the cost would be in the area of $10-12 million, about the same amount that the city has spent on cosmetic infrastructure projects in preparation for the Democratic Convention.

"It really is a question of priorities," says Thomas. "Do we want to have a living wage policy in Chicago, or do we want to have potted plants and fancy street lights along Madison Avenue."

22nd Ward Alderman Ricardo Munoz (312-762-1771) is more blunt. "They can find the money -- easily," he says," and the taxpayers will never feel it. It's a red herring."

As the Democratic convention approaches, living wage activists are preparing for a publicity blitz in an effort to put pressure on the Mayor and the City Council. The goal, say organizers, is not to embarrass the Democrats, but to warn convention delegates of the danger that this controversy represents for their party. Unions and community organizations, traditional allies of the Democrats, see Daley's position on living wage ordinance as hypocritical and damaging the Democrats' election chances.

"We think it's a potential public relations catastrophe, which we would like, if at all possible, to avoid," says Bessie Cannon, President of the Service Employees International Union, Local 880, and an activist in the living wage campaign. "There's no doubt that the Republicans will accuse Clinton and the Democrats of using the minimum wage issue as an election year gimmick. We'd hate to see them pointing to Chicago to prove that point."

Additional Sources: Brian Kettenring, ACORN Community Organization, 312-939-7488

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