Chicago Afire?

Originally published in New Ground 163, November — December, 2015.

by Bob Roman

Dry tinder, high wind, and a persistent spark is all you need for one hell of a fire. Ask any Chicagoan, where the Great Fire seems to have epigenetically impressed itself on the heredity of the natives. And in 2015 we have Bruce Rauner, a fanatically right-wing plutocrat Governor plus the huffing and puffing of a mostly cynical Democratic legislative leadership, and the dry tinder of a state in fiscal paralysis. With distress rising from the downtrodden into the business class, all it would take tonight is a pissed off cow. Two demonstrations this month suggest fire and smoke.

On November 2, Moral Monday Illinois held the latest and possibly the largest of its Moral Monday protests. Well over 500 people gathered at the Thompson Center in the Loop and marched to the Chicago Board of Trade. They shut it down. Several dozen people were arrested. Some went with the police cooperatively. Others were carried. This was not the scripted kabuki performance typical of many labor demonstrations of late. Those arrested do face charges, not a ticket, and Moral Monday Illinois was collecting for a bail fund.

The militancy was impressive and calculated to get the attention of the business class, media, and politicians, but the primary demand was more important: It was for a “LaSalle Street Tax”. Also known as a Robin Hood Tax or a Tobin Tax, it amounts to a small sales tax on trades done on the exchanges. It is something that Chicago DSA and our friends at the Chicago Political Economy Group have been promoting for years, and it’s an example of how this idea is making its way into political discussion, even legislation. Representative Flowers has a bill before the Illinois House and plans are afoot for a Senate bill in next session.

On November 10, Fight for 15 called a nationwide strike of fast food workers and others for a $15 an hour minimum wage and, for many, a union. I have no idea how many such workers walked out on Tuesday, but that is a close second in significance to the noise and visibility generated by demonstrations in 270 cities across the nation.

November 10 demonstration
Peg Strobel, Alec Hudson, and Bill Barclay were among the many DSA members at the November 10 demonstration

In Chicago, we had several actions. Two in the morning on the south and west sides were directed at workplaces. The grand finale was a very large, media oriented demonstration at the Thompson Center. It filled the plaza. These demonstrations are akin to high school pep rallies, but they do have a cumulative affect. It was not so long ago that a demand for a $10 an hour minimum was considered the radical edge of the possible. And by repetition, working conditions and collective bargaining may soon be placed on the agenda, too.

Arise Chicago organized a bus to the demonstration from Oak Park that Greater Oak Park DSA, several west suburban congregations, and fast food workers helped fill. Chicago DSA mailed a few hundred postcards that promoted the bus and the demonstration to the usual suspects in the greater Oak Park area. We also did a similar mailing to people and organizations in downtown Chicago. And we promoted the event using the web, including Facebook, and with emails.

Where does that leave us? In mid-air with a dozen plates in play. This is a work in progress, and we invite your incendiary participation.


On Hold in Oak Park

Originally published in New Ground 146, January — February, 2013.

by Bob Roman

Supporters of a Living Wage ordinance in Oak Park were hoping for some movement on the legislation at the January 7th meeting of the Village Board. Over the past several years, they had succeeded in placing an advisory referendum question about the Living Wage on the ballot in the Village. It passed in a landslide. When the Village Board subsequently referred the matter to its Community Relations Commission, supporters held the Commission’s hand while it studied the matter. But when the Commission reported favorably on the matter, the Village Board stripped the recommendation to pass a Living Wage ordinance from the report before accepting it. This left the matter in limbo.

At the public comment period that opens most Village Board meetings, four supporters of the Living Wage ordinance spoke at the January 7th meeting.

Tom Broderick pointed out that the values expressed in a Living Wage ordinance were consonant with the values of Oak Park. This was demonstrated when 93% of the precincts in the Village voted for a Living Wage ordinance in the advisory referendum. After briefly outlining the history of Oak Park Living Wage ordinance, he further pointed out that the legislation had been delayed long enough that the figure the Community Relations Commission came up with as being a living wage would need adjustment. It would no longer be adequate.

Sydney Baiman spoke in support of the ordinance, noting that it was “only just that workers be treated fairly” in a wealthy community.

Richard Pokorny noted the support the ordinance had attracted from churches in Oak Park. Passing a Living Wage ordinance is “the right thing to do.”

Ron Baiman noted Oak Park’s long and proud history of activism on social justice issues and said it was time to address economic justice. He outlined who the ordinance would affect and noted its minimal impact on Village finances.

At the end of the Board meeting, the Board Trustees have their own opportunity to comment and make announcements. Trustee Bob Tucker spoke in favor of a Living Wage ordinance and hoped it would be on the Board’s agenda. Trustee Glenn Brewer seconded Tucker’s comments. Before commenting on other matters, Trustee Colette Lueck noted she concurred with the sentiment.

But nothing had been done.

Cue the elevator music.

Post Script: The problem with GOPDSA’s campaign for a Living Wage Ordinance is that they persisted in being too damned nice about it. This is very much in the community spirit of middle-class Oak Park and therefore a place to start the campaign, but at this point (in retrospect) my comrades really should have been escalating both demands and tactics.

A Living, Not Slavery

Originally published in New Ground 139, November — December, 2011.

by Bob Roman

Every now and again it’s time for a new coat of paint: your apartment, my face. Nothing lasts forever, including Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway airports. In common with many other cities, Chicago’s approach to this is to put the airport concessions up for bid. Not only do the concession operators (similar in function to the operators of shopping centers) offer to pay more for the concession, they also offer to spend money rehabbing the space.

Sounds like a great win-win idea, yes? Except for the employees at the stores and restaurants therein, who will lose their jobs with no guarantee of being rehired. And for their union that went through a good deal of work to help them organize and now will have to start the process, again, from scratch. It doesn’t have to be this way. The workers can be a part of a win-win-win deal, and to that end a “Stable Jobs, Stable Airports” ordinance was introduced in the Chicago City Council on October 5 by Alderman Jason Ervin (28). A coalition of unions and community groups held a rally / press conference at City Hall prior to the council meeting, where the proposed ordinance was referred to the Committee on Workforce Development and Audit.

The proposed ordinance begins by retaining the present airport workforce. The new concessionaires must hire the current employees, by seniority, for a trial period of 90 workdays. Those not needed are to be placed on a preferential rehire list. In principle, if the trial period doesn’t work out, a retained employee might be let go, but this would be subject to the provisions of a collective bargaining agreement. This is because, more controversially, the ordinance also has a “labor peace” provision that requires concessionaires and other contractors to be signatories to collective bargaining agreements that forbid “picketing, work stoppages, boycotts or other economic interference.” Unfortunately, these “labor peace” provisions are fairly standard in contracts these days, so much so that employers who are asked to sign agreements without one get a tad crankier than usual. The ordinance would allow the city to terminate a contract if there were no collective bargaining agreement, so there would be an incentive to bargain in good faith.

The proposal also amends Chicago’s Living Wage ordinance by expanding its coverage to workers at O’Hare and Midway airports. There are workers at the airports being paid the Illinois minimum of $8.25 an hour. The Chicago Living Wage is presently a bit over $11 an hour, so some workers could expect a raise.

This should obviously be a win-win-win proposal. But the ideologues lurking in the various chambers of commerce and community economic development corporations have a whole repertoire of arguments that “prove” any deal that doesn’t maximize the profits of the business class will also screw everyone else. These are arguments as old as the hills, and they’ve been proven wrong time after time, but they need to be answered.

To that end, Virginia Parks and William Sites of the University of Chicago, Jack Metzgar of Roosevelt University, and Ron Baiman of the Chicago Political Economy Group collaborated in an uncommissioned study, a cost-benefit analysis of the proposed ordinance (see ). For most employees, the biggest immediate benefit would be coverage under Chicago’s Living Wage Ordinance. They estimate some 1,600 workers would see an average pay increase to $22,000 from $18,000, representing a net annual increase in purchasing power of $3 million to $8 million. Now, this is a number small enough to be lost in the statistical noise of the Chicago economy, but it should be plain that it nevertheless would make a really big difference in the lives of the affected employees. These are not high school kids but adults with adult responsibilities. Typically, when employees are better paid, they also stay with the job, resulting in higher productivity and lower training costs. Employers could thus save at least $700,000, the study estimates.

The study estimates the aggregate cost to employers of coverage under the Living Wage ordinance to be $6.9 million. If that were taken entirely out of profits, they estimate a reduction of total profits of 14% to 16% at O’Hare and 23% to 27% at Midway. This would still leave profit margins above similar stores located outside airports because airport concessions have a distinctly monopolistic tinge to them. And you know what that means: The consumer pays. And what would that amount to? 16 cents per trip at O’Hare and 21 cents per trip at Midway.

If you’re inclined to be skeptical of studies like this, you’re probably right to be so. For example, the business side of employment policy, the lemon-mouthed and green eye-shaded cynics of the “free” market, have a model all ready for the chamber of commerce types to plug in the numbers and thereby “prove” that a living wage ordinance will cost a fortune, destroy business, and create a wasteland where once was plenty. But Chicago is not unique. What has been the actual experience of extending a Living Wage ordinance to an airport?

For just that reason, Roosevelt University’s Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation and the Chicago Committee for Working Class Studies sponsored a meeting at Roosevelt University’s Gage Gallery on the evening of November 1. The meeting reinforced the conclusions of the cost-benefit analysis by presenting the experience of Los Angeles. Madeline Janis, the Executive Director of Los Angeles for a New Economy ( ) was the featured speaker.

Los Angeles began its campaign for a Living Wage ordinance a few years before Chicago, and it began at a time when LAX airport was undergoing a rebidding and renovation process similar to what is beginning in Chicago today. People were beginning to lose their jobs at the airport, and this had the effect of including LAX in the coverage of the living wage ordinance. There were the usual chamber of commerce arguments against the living wage ordinance, but ultimately it was passed. Today, LAX is going through another cycle of rebidding concessions and renovation, and it’s a feeding frenzy of businesses wanting a piece of the airport. There’s nary a complaint about the living wage ordinance. This also demonstrates the win-win-win nature of the Stable Jobs, Stable Airport ordinance.

Alderman Jason Ervin introduced the ordinance, and he was among the speakers at the November 1 meeting. He noted that while 31 sponsors constitute a majority in the city council, that’s also no guarantee that the ordinance will pass. Mayor Emanuel has not taken an explicit position on the ordinance, but his airport commissioner has trotted out all the old free market arguments against it.

The ordinance has been referred to Committee on Workforce Development and Audit. This is not exactly a left-wing stronghold. Of the 18 committee members, 5 are co-sponsors and another 3 non-sponsors had participated in the Grassroots Collaborative’s Peoples’ City Council meeting and signed the resolution (see [deleted] ). While this is an optimistic beginning, the ordinance clearly has a long ways to go.

Post Script: O’Hare Airport remains a frontline for UNITE HERE and SEIU. See, for example, this story about airport security and organizing restaurant workers.

Big Box Living Wage Referenda and Other Election News

2006 was an interesting election in Illinois

Originally published in New Ground 109.1, email edition 11.28.2006.

by Bob Roman

In New Ground 108.3, we noted a number of important referenda and campaigns to be decided by the November General Election. Generally, things went well.

Danny Davis, endorsed by national DSA’s Political Action Committee, won re-election to Congress with no difficulty and to no surprise.

Rich Whitney and Julie Samuels, endorsed by the Greater Oak Park branch of Chicago DSA, did very well as Green Party candidates for Governor and Lieutenant Governor, respectively, receiving over 10% of the vote statewide. In some counties downstate (mostly small, rural counties), their share approached a quarter of the vote.

Green Party partisans regard this as a victory even if most political professionals would feel humiliated by such a showing. The context is different though. The most important difference is that across Illinois the Green Party is now regarded by the State as an official party. This means prospective candidates will have an easier time appearing on the ballot as radically fewer signatures need be gathered on nominating petitions. This is a victory, make no mistake about it.

Unfortunately, it also means that the Green Party has also lost control of selecting its candidates and control over its party structure. Like the “regular” organizations in “major” parties, the Green Party locals have now become one competitor among potentially many in a state run venue labeled “Green Party”. This comes at a time when the Green Party is still pretty rudimentary as an organization. This is not an insurmountable issue, particularly in Illinois, though it would be reassuring if more minor party advocates were talking about it and exploring what changes would be necessary to make party government possible (or at least more likely) in the United States.

For those interested in tracking the progress of minor parties, including the Green Party, and the legal issues they face, I highly recommend book-marking the Ballot Access News web site:

The left also fared well with referenda in Illinois. Opposition to the Iraq occupation was on the ballot in Cook County and in a number of townships across Illinois. These questions won by large, often landslide margins everywhere except one township. In DeKalb County’s Sycamore township, the question lost by a narrow margin. This puts lie to the cynical dismissal of non-binding referenda questions as ill-considered and unrepresentative and unscientific public opinion polls. Voters do give these things some thought. It also makes the victory of the “Big Box Living Wage” referenda in selected Chicago precincts that much more significant.

The “Big Box Living Wage” questions asked voters to endorse the ordinance recently vetoed by Mayor Daley that would require a living wage and benefits for employees of large retail operations such as Wal-Mart or Target. The question was on the ballot in a bit less than 200 of Chicago’s 2,605 precincts, but the precincts were selected to embarrass certain aldermanic opponents of the ordinance and bolster support among others. None of the referenda lost. Overall, the questions won 80.4% of the vote, though in a few precincts “Yes” dropped into the mid-60s. Daley the Elder never did so well.

Already some of the Aldermen who voted against the ordinance or who switched their votes have opponents professing support for the ordinance. Even with a discount for opportunism, it should make for an interesting election next year.

It Was May Day and I Couldn’t Stop Smiling

Originally published in New Ground 105.6, email edition 05.08.2006. This was Chicago’s largest May Day demonstration ever, I think, about a half million participants is a reasonably conservative estimate, though the crowd at any one time may have been, at its largest, somewhat less. I didn’t march but was a spectator along the route toward the end, in Grant Park. It really was necessary to shelter behind a lamppost to avoid being swept away.

by Bob Roman

It was May Day, 2006, and I couldn’t stop smiling. Nearly a half million people were in the streets of Chicago. They were demonstrating for immigrant rights and against recent conservative attempts to demonize migrants, true; and unlike many left demonstrations, it was to the point and on message, mostly. But it was also a May Day demonstration and there were an amazing number of red flags.

There were a not a few t-shirts with that classic image of Che Guevara. Sometimes it resulted in interesting juxtapositions, such as a fellow with a Guevara t-shirt carrying a cross emblazoned the name of a saint. It was a sight worthy of a smile though not so incongruous. Che had said that history would absolve him. But history did to him what it did to the saint. It dissolved the fleshy humanity of him, leaving fossilized bone representing not a life but a morality play. A good demonstration does this too.

The red flags were very much an American tradition though in a special way. May Day had its origins in the States, specifically here in Chicago as a result of movement for an eight hour work day, the 1886 Haymarket police riot and the consequent repression. Even though we’ve mostly forgotten this, and May Day celebrations even in Chicago have become a feeble, sentimental imitation of the remembrances elsewhere, this is obvious enough for even some of the mainstream press to have recognized.

But it’s very much an American tradition because migrants often come from countries where more or less ideological labor / social democratic / democratic socialist / communist parties are very much a part of mainstream politics. This was true a hundred years ago; it’s true today. The major difference is that a hundred years ago, migrants may have been more interested in politics in the “old country” but they were largely organized in affiliates to U.S. parties, the foreign language sections of the Socialist Party of America as an example. Today, it’s not uncommon for parties in the “old country” to have chapters here in the States. While it varies from country to country and party to party, many of these chapters are also very much concerned with American politics as it affects their constituencies. Campaign finance laws (here and in the “old country”) plus calculated discretion restrict how the chapters as chapters might participate in organizing demonstrations like the recent immigration rights marches and in electoral politics, but a great deal can be accomplished through informal networks, especially if integrated into grassroots civic organizations.

That “socialism is a foreign import” is an old, old half truth. The untrue half neglects a tradition of home grown radicalism that manifested itself as the agrarian socialism of the wheat growing portions of the Great Plains or as the urban “sewer” socialism of small industrial cities, such as Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Bridgeport, Connecticut, or Reading, Pennsylvania (to name a few).

So what can the left expect of this new movement? I think there are reasons to be optimistic, even though the labor movement remains terribly weak and the ideological left here in the States resembles shattered safety glass. Others are much better at political calculation and prognostication than I, so I’ll offer only two observations.

First, there will be a terrible (but typical) belief on the American left that if we can only just get our message across to this constituency, we’ll gain their support. But this movement belongs to the immigrant communities themselves, and to those organizations that are and have been in a position to make a material contribution to improving the lives of the members of those communities. Talking the talk or even being there will not be enough. (Though some marxist ­ leninist sects would consider dozens of new recruits a victory.)

Second, if the mobilization of the immigrant communities, the labor movement, and the left is an outcome, expect a counter-mobilization on the right, especially as migrants are such wonderful and universal fear objects. This counter-mobilization will be hobbled by the need of the business class for low-wage, docile employees.

An example of this split is Beardstown, Illinois. Some miles west, southwest of Springfield, it is the location of a Cargill plant where the workforce is about a third Hispanic. Cargill closed its plants on May 1, but the Mayor of Beardstown, Bob Walters, was singularly ungracious and unhappy. He sent an email to Congressman Ray LaHood “informing him that the packing house is going to close, and that tells me how many ‘illegals’ are working there. Why in the hell isn’t somebody at INS (the Immigration and Naturalization Service) checking it out?” (As quoted in the Peoria Journal-Star)

The flip side is that the immigrant community is only as strong as its members who are voting citizens. This was powerfully expressed in California, but migrants have been coming to California for many years. Who knows how this will play out in downstate Illinois, or Georgia, or nationally?

Finally, the demonstration in Chicago was probably the most photographed and recorded event in the city in recent history. It may be redundant, therefore, but below is my contribution to the record.

May Day 2006
The march ended with a rally in Grant Park. Long before the march arrived, a steady trickle of people began arriving, sometimes alone, sometimes in little groups. It was like watching a dry wash begin to fill. Photo by Roman
May Day 2006
ACORN was the avant-guard of the march, coming through separately on the sidewalks about a half hour ahead of the main march. This gave ACORN members premium seating at the Grant Park rally. Come to think of it, it also provided the foreground for camera shots of the rally. Photo by Roman
May Day 2006
What got my attention initially was the stream of white balloons in the ACORN contingent. But the couple in the foreground are actually more interesting… Photo by Roman
May Day 2006
…because it makes an almost perfect propaganda pose from 1930s Stalinism: the young couple, gazing off and up into the future, serious and determined with a red banner in the background. Except for the distinctly American twist to it. Instead of some tool or book, the man is holding a soft drink. Photo by Roman
May Day 2006
And what were the couple looking at? This! The gentleman from the Grassroots Collaborative (housed with the American Friends Service Committee, but ACORN is one of several participating organizations) had an incredible set of lungs and a great deal of energy. Photo by Roman
May Day 2006
The main march finally crosses Michigan Avenue. Photo by Roman.
May Day 2006
Another shot of the main march arriving at Michigan Avenue. Photo by Roman
May Day 2006
A shot of the front of the march from the rear as they marched over the METRA / South Shore tracks, just east of Michigan Avenue. Photo by Roman.
May Day 2006
Imagine this passing before you for 3 to 4 hours! Luckily the street light poles provided breaks where spectators could shelter. Photo by Roman.
May Day 2006
Occasionally the march would stop for a “photo op”. Typically, the front ranks would squat for a minute or so while a myriad of cameras would get a shot of the ranks receding into the distance. Then they would leap up with a yell and resume the march. Sometimes they would leap up and leap forward until they caught up with rest of the march, laughing and yelling all the while. Symbolic, I suppose, of breaking free. Photo by Roman
May Day 2006
Several unions had significant delegations in the march, such as UNITE HERE. Photo by Roman

A Living Wage: It’s the Law!

Originally published in New Ground 60, July — August, 1998.

by Bob Roman

Everyone reasonably hip knew that something was going to happen on July 30. If nothing else, Thursday was to be the day the Chicago City Council finally pulled the plug on the proposed Jobs and Living Wage Ordinance. Despite the fact this would provide the New Party a most excellent issue with which to portray most of Chicago’s aldermen as self-serving hacks (“Pay back time in 99!”), supporters of the Ordinance were grim.

Still, Chicago ACORN and SEIU 880 turned out their company of shock troops for a noisy demonstration commenting on the obvious incongruity of the Council voting itself a pay raise while many of the people supplying the goods and services for the operation of city government worked for less than a living wage.

Imagine their astonishment when the hither to recalcitrant City Council passed a Jobs and Living Wage Ordinance by 49-0!

When Keith Kelleher, SEIU 880’s head organizer and a leader in the Living Wage Campaign, received the call from the Ordinance’s City Council supporters asking if the Campaign would accept the deal, he described his reaction:

“I’m like Jackie Gleason on the Honeymooners when he’s speechless: ‘hominna, hominna, hominna, hominna.’. But I recovered quickly enough to say Yes, take the deal!”

Truly, there were rumbas and grins across the city, in offices, in homes, in cars. One activist supporter of the Ordinance described how, for safety’s sake, she had to pull off the expressway when she heard the news on her car phone.

Even the aldermen were grinning. They had just raised their yearly salary to $85,000 (not bad for part time work) and given Mayor Daley a boost to $192,100.

Not Ready for Prime Time Machiavelli

Most accounts give credit for passage of the Ordinance to Alderman Ed Burke. Alderman Burke, some may remember, was a dangerous, creative and marvelously half-assed opponent of Mayor Washington during the “Council Wars” of Washington’s first term.

Typically Burke was the occasion when he unearthed the tidbit that Mayor Washington had failed to file the financial disclosure statement required of all Illinois politicians. The press geared up for a feeding frenzy, but Alderman Burke had not done his homework. Something close to half the state’s politicians had similarly failed to file. Amid a chorus of embarrassed grins, the story evaporated while a silent river of paper flowed toward Springfield.

Ironically, Alderman Burke was an early supporter of the Jobs and Living Wage Ordinance. When push came to shove, he had already abandoned ship (see New Ground #54, September – October, 1997). No one was surprised. Everyone was a little relieved.

Not surprisingly, the Jobs and Living Wage Ordinance passed by the City Council is a very different animal from the original. The new Ordinance is also not a well crafted piece of work, as one might expect from someone who has not done all his homework.

Victory, Fig Leaf, or Clay Pigeon?

While aspects of The original Ordinance may have been open to question, it was a well thought out piece of work. For a complete analysis, see New Ground #49, November – December, 1996, but the outlines are simple enough. First, the Ordinance was not a minimum wage, but it did require employers of a certain size, receiving benefits from or having contracts with the City beyond a certain amount to pay a living wage of $7.60. This was to be adjusted yearly for inflation, whether the Council would or no. The Ordinance mandated the collection of data so its effects and compliance could be judged. While it set up a civic committee to monitor the workings of the Ordinance, the documents were to be public so outside groups could perform their own assessment. Finally, the benefits of the Ordinance were to be directed toward Chicago residents through the creation of community based hiring halls.

Most of this is gone (see sidebar). The new Ordinance only applies to contracts that require the employment of 25 or more employees in a specified list of job categories in the performance of that contract. Not for profit corporations are excluded. There is next to no enforcement mechanism mandated, no way of monitoring compliance with the Ordinance, and while the Council is clearly expected to adjust the base wage for inflation, there is no requirement that it do so.

Is this but a fig leaf for the City Council’s pay raise? Not necessarily: the Ordinance often says less than it means to, sometimes to our advantage. Just one example: “not for profit” is defined with reference to Illinois corporate law and to the U.S. Internal Revenue Code, specifically Section 501(c)(3). However, this is but one section of the Code that applies to “not for profit” entities and not all ‘”not for profit” corporations that operate in Illinois are incorporated in Illinois.

Some of the lack of enforcement and monitoring could be remedied by the regulations implementing the Ordinance. The Purchasing Department is mandated to “promulgate” such regulations. The Jobs and Living Wage Campaign and the Chicago Federation of Labor plan to meet with the Purchasing Department to discuss this very issue.

So the effect of the Ordinance will depend on its interpretation and its implementation. The City estimates some 600 people will be covered; the Living Wage Campaign estimates 3,000 to 5,000 will be covered.

And this is important, not just for the workers that may or may not be covered but for its political implications. While unionized workers consistently get more than their non-unionized counterparts, that doesn’t always mean they get much, particularly in many of the job categories specified in the Ordinance. A Living Wage pay increase on top of a hard fought collective bargaining agreement is a free lunch for union staff and bound to move the New Party from the realm of interesting abstraction to something that actually registers on Chicago labor’s political radar.

Is this a victory? The fight is still in progress.

And it could end up a clay pigeon. The chamber of commerce types who opposed the original Ordinance did so as if it were a minimum wage bill. With the original Ordinance, they at least had the excuse of a novel interpretation that a city business license could be construed as a “benefit” thus requiring the Living Wage. Such a far fetched idea is no longer tenable, but their arguments remain the same. Clearly, the very idea of a living wage raises the class warfare instincts of the business class.

Given the shoddy construction of the Ordinance, one could easily imagine a challenge to some specific portion of it. Unlike the original Ordinance, there is no severability clause: those clever little legal circuit breakers that say if one part of a law is found unconstitutional, the rest of it is still okay. If one part of this Ordinance is defective, the whole thing goes down. Will there be a challenge? One can’t imagine the business class objecting to a fig leaf.

Living Wage Fever

Cook County President John Stroger, Jr., may be one of the more underestimated politicians in Chicago. When the Living Wage Campaign first began in Chicago, then County Commissioner Danny Davis introduced a Living Wage Ordinance in the Cook County Board. In negotiations with the Living Wage Campaign, President Stroger indicated he was not interested in the measure and the Ordinance was going no further than the Finance Committee to which it had been referred. Within weeks of the passage of the Chicago’s ordinance, all this had changed. A new county Ordinance was introduced and referred to the Finance Committee on September 1st. Clearly, this is a man with a sensitive sense of the bandwagon.

Co-sponsored by John Stroger, John P. Daley (another son of Daley the Elder) and Roberto Maldonado, the county Ordinance is closely patterned after the city Ordinance, but better written, modified for specific county considerations, and in some ways much more limited. Indeed, preliminary estimates from the County Purchasing Agent indicated that the Ordinance would cost the county an additional $600,000 and cover a few hundred employees.

For one thing, the Ordinance apparently excludes workers covered by collective bargaining contracts (see Section 2 (B)). While the County Board’s Finance Committee considered the matter, Republican members could not credit the idea of a union contract that paid less than $7.60 an hour. Still, the language in that section was peculiar enough so that it was amended slightly to read “recognized union” rather than “responsible”. The meaning of “in no way influenced or controlled by the County of Cook” remains a mystery, but the ghost of Sam Gompers smiled and lit a cigar.

Another problem in comparison with the Chicago Ordinance is that the county Ordinance makes no provision for adjusting the living wage.

The Chicago Jobs and Living Wage Campaign attempted to remedy these and other deficiencies, including the fact that, while the original Ordinance had been imprisoned in committee, inflation had raised the estimate of a Living Wage to $7.91 an hour. The Campaign drew upon the experience of Living Wage Ordinances elsewhere in the country to suggest language that would address these concerns.

The Finance Committee meeting to consider the Ordinance was held Monday, September 14. It was a relaxed, working meeting, with the Commissioners variously dressed more for demands of the rest of the day than that meeting.

Commissioner Maldonado attempted to address the limited scope of the Ordinance by introducing, in the Finance Committee, an amendment that would have made eligible all businesses that employ 25 or more full time employees rather than those awarded a contract requiring the employment of 25 or more full time employees.

The amendment ran into a solid wall of opposition from President Stroger. “Come on, Roberto,” he complained. “We want to get this thing passed.” A representative from the Attorney General’s Office chimed to opine that Maldonado’s proposed language was more restrictive. Maldonado withdrew the amendment.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. Commissioner Jerry “The Iceman” Butler observed that if he were an employer unwilling to pay a living wage, he’d never be found with more than 24 full time employees. There was a moment of “Well… duh!” consternation among the Committee members, then Butler moved to strike all reference to 25 employees. Surprisingly, the amendment was approved.

Without a written text, I’m not sure whether Butler’s amendment applies to both Section 1 (A) 1 and Section 1 (A) 3 or just to Section 1 (A) 3. Either would be an improvement, but the former would be an improvement indeed.

The Ordinance was taken up by the full Board at its regular meeting the next day, Tuesday, September 15. The day started with an ebullient press conference where all the principle players were well represented. The participants crowded into the Board chambers, ready to serve as a cheering section. Instead, the County Board plowed through a full two hour agenda before it came to the Living Wage.

Almost no one was left to witness the passage of the Ordinance. Finance Committee Chair John Daley moved the passage of items y through z on the agenda. The ayes had it with no dissent. As the decimated audience sat in stunned boredom, Stroger looked up and remarked casually, “That was yours, ACORN.”

And so it was.

Chicago Jobs and Living Wage Ordinance

Note: two “whereas” paragraphs refering to Chicago’s home rule powers precede the Ordinance.


Section 1. That Chapter 2-92 of the Municipal Code is hereby amended by inserting a new section 2-92-610 as follows:


2-92-610 Contracts requiring a Base Wage.


A. Definitions. For the purpose of this section only, the following terms shall have the following meanings:


1. “Contract” means any written agreement whereby the City is committed to expend or does expend funds in connection with any contract or subcontract which requires in the performance thereof the employment of twenty-five or more full time in-City: security guards, parking attendants, day laborers, home and health care workers, cashiers, elevator operators, custodial workers and clerical workers except the term “contract” shall not include contracts with not-for-profit organizations.


2. “Contracting Agency” means the City of Chicago or any agency thereof.


3. “Eligible Contractors” means any person awarded by the City of Chicago or agency thereof for which requires in the performance thereof the employment of twenty-five or more full time non-city security guards, the employment of non-city employed parking attendants, the employment of non-city employed day laborers, the employment of non-city employed home and health care workers, the employment of non-city employed elevator operators, the employment of non-city employed clerical workers.


4. “Not-for-profit organization” means a corporation having tax exempt status under Section 501(c)3 of the United States Internal Revenue Code and recognized under Illinois State not-for-profit law.


5. “Base wage” means no less than $7.60 per hour may be upwardly adjusted each year upon order of the City Council.


B. Every contract of every-eligible contract [sic] shall contain a provision or provisions stipulating the wages required to be paid to the employees listed under Paragraph A(1), and each such contract shall further contain provisions obligating the contractor or subcontractor of such contractor to pay its employees on work thereunder not less than the Base Wage.


C. The purchasing agent may promulgate administrative rules and regulations to implement this Section 2-92-610.


D. Whenever the purchasing agent has reason to believe that any such employee has been paid less than the Base rate of Wages, or upon a verified complaint in writing from an employee worker affected by the provisions of this Section, the Purchasing Agent shall conduct an investigation to determine the facts relating thereto.


E. Any contract that violates the provisions contained in this Section shall be subjected to Section 2-92-320 of the Municipal Code of the City of Chicago.


Section 2. Chapter 2-92-320 is hereby amended by inserting the language underscored and deleting the language bracketed as follows:


D. No person or business entity shall be awarded a contract or subcontract if that person or business entity;


(d) has violated Section 2-92-610.


Ineligibility under this Section shall continue for three years following such conviction or admission[.] or violation of Section 2-92-610.


Section 3. This ordinance shall apply to contracts advertised or if not advertised awarded on or after January 1, 1999.


Section 4. This ordinance shall be effective upon passage and publication.


Cook County Jobs and Living Wage Ordinance

Five “whereas” paragraphs amounting to a nice mini-manifesto are omitted. This text represents the Ordinance prior to amendment in the Finance Committee.


Section 1

That a base wage for services performed or produced shall be paid to individuals employed under contracts between the County of Cook and eligible contractors.


(A) Definitions For the purpose of this ordinance only, the following terms shall have the following meanings:

1. “Contract” means any written agreement requiring Board approval whereby the County is committed to expend or does expend funds in connection with any contract or subcontract which requires in the performance thereof the employment of twenty-five or more employees, except the term “contract” shall not include contracts with not-for-profit organizations, community development block grants, President’s Office of Employment Training, Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program, or Department of Correction inmates.

2. “Contracting Agency” means the County of Cook.

3. “Eligible Contractors” means any person or business entity awarded a contract by the County of Cook which requires in the performance thereof the employment of twenty-five or more full time employees.

4. “Not for Profit Organization” means a corporation having tax exempt status under Section 501(c)(3) of the United States Internal Revenue Code and recognized under Illinois State Not-for-Profit law.

5. “Base Wage” means no less than $7.60 per hours.


(B) Every eligible contract shall contain a provision or provisions stipulating the wages required to be paid to the employees listed under paragraph A (1), and each such contract shall further contain provisions obligating the Contractor or Subcontractor of such Contractor to pay its employees for work thereunder not less than the Base Wage.


(C) The Purchasing Agent shall require as part of the bidding and sole source procedure that any covered Contractor provide the County of Cook certification of its compliance with this ordinance.


(D) Any contract that violates the provisions contained in this ordinance shall be subject to cancellation by the Cook County Board of Commissioners.

Any Contractor disqualified from eligibility by the Cook County Board of Commissioners shall be ineligible for two years following violation of this ordinance.


Section 2.

(A) This ordinance shall apply to Contracts advertised for bid or if not advertised for bid, approved for sole source on or after December 1, 1998.

(B) Whenever a collective bargaining agreement is in effect between Eligible Contractors and employees who are represented by a responsible labor organization which is in no way influenced or controlled by the County of Cook, such agreement and its provisions shall be considered as conditions prevalent in that locality and therefore exempt from this ordinance.

(C) This ordinance shall not apply to any contract with the County of Cook entered into prior to the effective date of the ordinance.

(D) All resolutions or ordinances or parts thereof in conflict with the provisions of this ordinance to the extent of such conflict are hereby repealed effective upon passage of this ordinance.

Jobs & Living Wage Setback

Payback Time in 99

Spoiler alert: Chicago did eventually get a Living Wage Ordinance of sorts. The instructive part of this episode is that a majority of the City Council had signed on as co-sponsors of the ordinance. This was originally published in New Ground 54, September– October, 1997.

by Bob Roman

Everyone thought the deed had been done a week earlier. That was when the Chicago City Council Finance Committee voted, 8 to 17 with 10 “no shows”, to recommend against passage of the Jobs and Living Wage Ordinance.

Conventional wisdom said that was the end of it. The measure would be buried at the next Council meeting, July 30, probably without even the dignity of a formal consideration or a roll call. Reporters wrote their stories in advance around the other business of consequence, the Ethics Ordinance; this is, after all, the City that Works, though for whom is a question rarely asked.

Conventional wisdom reckoned without the Chicago Jobs and Living Wage Campaign. Organized by Chicago ACORN under the auspices of Chicago Jobs with Justice, the Campaign brings together some 80 labor, political, advocacy and service organizations including Chicago DSA.

On Wednesday, July 30th, the Campaign brought together over 200 people at City Hall to demand an accounting. The City Council was scheduled to meet. Some 36 of the 50 aldermen had signed on to supporting the Ordinance. It should pass if considered honestly.

But 200 people in the lobby and the hallway outside the Council Chambers must have seemed like the start of the French Revolution to the Establishment in City Hall. They quickly barred the doors to the Council, without even the traditional courtesy of packing the Chamber with City employees; the Chamber was nearly empty.

The rabble wasn’t having it. “Open the dooooor, Richard!”, the crowd sang, and they pounded upon the doors and the walls of the Chamber in time.

The police were not amused. John Donahue, Madeline Talbott, Maggie Laslo, Diane Lovett, Jon Green and Mike Stewart were arrested. This was news! Reporters went scrambling to revise their stories.

Supporters on the City Council were also active. While (predictably) the Ordinance itself did not come to a vote, a motion to table the motion to discharge the Ordinance from Committee was voted upon. Supporters succeeded in having a roll call vote, losing 17 – 31 – 2.

Because the Committee report was never actually voted upon, the Ordinance haunts the Council agenda. As New Ground goes to press, another demonstration is planned for the next Council meeting, September 10. In a counter move, the initial hearing for those arrested July 30th was rescheduled to September 10. And the Living Wage Campaign is suing the City for violating the Open Meetings Act.

In the mean time, two more cities have joined the ranks of those municipalities having a Living Wage ordinance: Duluth and Boston. And in Chicago, it ain’t over ’til we win.

The Counter-Offensive Gathers

It’s Still the Economy, Stupid!

Originally published in New Ground 46, May – June, 1996. Photo by Roman.

by Bob Roman

After a year of damage control following the disastrous 1994 Congressional elections, a counter offensive is beginning to take shape around economic issues of immediate concern to working people across the nation. If Clinton is inclined to paste a smiley face on the current situation, labor and the democratic left have not forgotten Carville’s reminder: “It’s the Economy, Stupid!”

Across the country, DSA has been holding town hall meetings on “Economic Insecurity” to packed rooms. The University of Chicago Youth Section’s [YDS] first town hall meeting in February attracted an audience of over 300. In Boston, a coalition effort led by DSA brought almost 1,000 people together.

The Progressive Caucus has decided to hold a series of monthly hearings on Capitol Hill and in the Districts on the theme of “The Silent Depression – The Collapse of the American Middle-Class.” The first of these hearings, was held in Washington, DC, on March 8.

Caucus chair Bernard Sanders (I-VT) said, in calling for the hearings, “The most important economic issue facing our country is that 90% of the American people since 1973 have seen their standard of living stagnate or decline. The reality is that the average American, whether white-collar manager or blue-collar factory foreman, today is working longer hours for lower pay and in constant fear of a sudden pink slip. Meanwhile, the richest people in America have never had it so good.”

Future hearings will be held around the country and will address issues ranging from whether we need a new national jobs policy, how to offset the impact of corporate downsizing to the creation of jobs that pay a living wage. Later in the years hearings will provide an opportunity to explore untried ideas for keeping and creating more good-paying American jobs and achieving more economic justice and security in the context of sustainable economic development.

The AFL-CIO has adopted a strategy similar to DSA’s Activist Agenda. The campaign links its legislative, organizing, bargaining and political efforts under the slogan “America Needs a Raise”. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney announced in February the labor federation would hold a series of town hall meetings from March through May to hear from workers on the impact of stagnant wages on their families. Organized labor will also support the Jobs and Living Wage campaigns in states and cities around the country. The AFL-CIO will hold a town hall meeting in support of an increase in the minimum wage on Wednesday, May 29. At press time, the venue and program were to be determined.

The campaign begins in Chicago with a rally on April 24th in support of the Jobs and Living Wage Ordinance and the Minimum Wage bill (HR 620). The event will take place at 5 PM in downtown Chicago in conjunction with SEIU’s national convention. At press time, the exact venue for the rally had not been finalized, but the initial plans had it located at the band shell in Grant Park. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney will be a featured speaker.

The Jobs and Living Wage Ordinance will be formally introduced into the Chicago City Council at the May meeting of the Council. The measure, patterned after similar ordinances introduced in major cities around the country, provides that companies contracting with or subsidized by the city pay a living wage. The Chicago ordinance also has provision for community based hiring halls for non-construction employees.

The campaign for the Jobs and Living Wage Ordinance is led by Chicago ACORN and SEIU Local 880 under the auspices of Chicago Jobs with Justice. The campaign is very well organized and it brings together a broad coalition of labor and community groups. Nearly every Alderman has a group assigned to lobby in favor of the Ordinance. A video has been produced to popularize the issue. Economic research is being done to investigate the effect on business and the city’s finances.

But opposition to the Ordinance is also organizing. The Ordinance has been attacked by CANDO, the Chicago Association of Neighborhood Development Organizations, on the grounds of “business climate” and paperwork. They also do not like the hiring hall idea. Some of CANDO’s arguments could have merit. The quality of the debate is demonstrated by the lack of any effort by CANDO to get these concerns addressed prior to the introduction of the ordinance.

In Congress, the counter offensive is mostly centered on two “wedge” bills, the Corporate Responsibility Act (HR2534) and the Income Equity Act (HR 620). Neither of these bills have much chance of passing in this Congress, but the campaign in support of them frames the issues of economic insecurity and budget priorities in ways that are awkward for conservatives; they bring issues of class to the forefront.

The Corporate Responsibility Act was part of the reaction to the conservative victory in the 1994 elections. A relatively large and complicated bill, it raised the issue of “corporate welfare” at a time when social programs were under increasing attack. The bill closes a number of a number of tax loopholes favored by corporations and the wealthy. It also ends a number of Federally financed research and development projects that are viewed as being primarily corporate boondoggles.

Unfortunately, this approach to the issue runs into the ambiguities of the Federal budgeting process and the issue of industrial policy. There is no way to distinguish between “handouts” and “investments” in the current Federal budgeting process and there is no way to track the performance of “investments” even if there were agreement on which is which. Under the current Federal budgets, one person’s “welfare” could easily be another person’s “investment”.

The Income Equity Act is simply a bill to raise the Federal minimum wage from $4.25 an hour to $6.50 an hour. It also has an interesting provision which closes a tax loophole that rewards employers that pay their most highly paid employees more than 25 times their lowest paid employee. This bill also dates back to 1995, but it has attracted the majority of its cosponsors in this session of Congress.

Your support for these two bills is important. Legislators need to understand that the balance of power and wealth needs to begin tilting toward the working people. Enclosed with this issue of New Ground is a postcard, courtesy of Share the Wealth, to send to your Congressman. The address is: U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, DC 20515. Don’t forget to include your name and return address. Don’t delay! Do it today! (And it only takes a 20¢ stamp!)