Grassroots Victory: Second-Biggest County in U.S. Raises Minimum Wage

Pascal Brixel

Picture a state with a government so dysfunctional that it goes for an entire year without a full operating budget. How can we possibly make progress in a state like Illinois? Answer: Begin by organizing the counties, and aim audaciously yet strategically high.

The government of Cook County, the second-biggest county in the nation, voted 13 to 3 on Wednesday to raise its minimum wage from $8.25 to $13 by 2020. In a state whose corporate lobby looms over its politics like a leviathan, this measure represents a major victory. It comes as the result of a long campaign by the Chicago-based grassroots organization the People’s Lobby and its ally ONE Northside, both affiliates of People’s Action—but the campaign was premised on a much more radical demand.

The Meaning of $13

$13 is not a living wage. According to research by the People’s Action Institute, the living wage for a single adult in Cook County is $18.82 an hour; for households with children, and for the many people with student debt, it is higher still.

Nevertheless, the minimum-wage increase is an important achievement. With a population of over five million, Cook County is the second-biggest county in the nation. Around half of its population lives in the City of Chicago, and the other half in the suburbs. Since the City of Chicago’s minimum wage was already set to rise to $13 by 2019, the County’s new increase effectively extends this wage to the rest of Cook County, with a one-year delay. This is expected to give over 200,000 people in suburban Cook County a desperately needed raise, with full-time minimum-wage workers standing to gain nearly $10,000 a year. By putting more money in the pockets of working people, the measure potentially constitutes an economic stimulus of nearly $1 billion in annual spending.

Cook County’s minimum-wage increase also prepares the ground for more radical action. The difference between $13 and the previous floor of $8.25 represents an increase of 58%; a further increase to around $18.82 would be proportionally smaller. Perhaps for the first time, then, this victory moves the county within political striking distance of a true living wage.

In addition, the victory puts pressure on the state to raise the minimum wage more broadly. In this way, action at the county level can be pursued as a stepping-stone toward change at the state level—and beyond.

The Public Costs of Low Wages

Victory is possible even in politically unfavorable circumstances—but only if progressive movements are prepared to make both radical demands and strategic compromises. In this radical and strategic spirit, the campaign that produced Wednesday’s minimum-wage increase was based on an original and challenging idea, which grew out of reflection on the connection between low wages and government budgets.

While the effects of low wages on workers are well-documented, the broader social and economic impact of low-wage poverty has received less attention. That impact turns out to be enormous. Low wages are an important cause of poverty, which has many depressive effects on the economy. In addition, because low-wage workers rely on government programs to survive, taxpayers end up partly paying workers in assistance what corporations are refusing to pay them in wages. No wonder, then, that our governments are constantly lurching from budget crisis to budget crisis: poverty-wage employers are damaging the economy and free-riding on the social safety net.

Over a year ago, leaders in the People’s Lobby, with the help of national allies at People’s Action and elsewhere, put forward a simple proposal to address this injustice: a fee on low-wage employers. Just as polluters may be required to pay a fee to compensate the public for the adverse health and environmental impact of pollution, low-wage employers should be required to pay a fee to compensate the public for the adverse social and economic impact of poverty-wages. Low wages constitute a harmful economic externality, and in addition to incentivizing higher wages, a fee on low-wage employers would partly internalize that externality.

This proposal was introduced in the Cook County government as the Responsible Business Act. Over months of lobbying, along with direct actions including civil disobedience targeting large low-wage employers to raise the public profile of the campaign, the Responsible Business Act garnered increasing support and came agonizingly close to passing. Ultimately, however, the influence of corporate interests proved too great.

When it finally became clear that the Responsible Business Act faced insurmountable political obstacles, the People’s Lobby and ONE Northside asked one of their supporters in the County government, Commissioner Larry Suffredin, to introduce an ordinance to raise the minimum wage instead. He agreed—and within a month, the minimum-wage increase was passed into law. Many have marveled at the remarkable speed of this victory. In truth, it was possible only as a result of the months-long campaign leading up to it.

How to Win

By the end of the summer, the Cook County government was beginning budget deliberations for the following year and facing a large projected budget shortfall. The Responsible Business Act was not only a large potential source of progressive revenue but also identified low wages as an important cause of the budget crisis. Supporters of the measure therefore geared up to shine a light on the County’s usually quiet budget deliberations, threatening seriously to disrupt the process and confronting Cook County Commissioners with the unpleasant prospect of having to defend more cuts and more regressive taxes to a public already struggling under the burden of austerity. In this context, Commissioners were positively grateful for the opportunity to pass a swift minimum-wage increase.

This campaign for good jobs in Cook County demonstrates that mass demonstration, civil disobedience, and “shutting it down” can be effective tools when used and threatened in the service of specific demands. The campaign also represents a successful resolution to one of the great tensions facing organizers in this time of crisis. Making demands within the given realm of the “politically possible” is not sufficient to address the crisis—yet righteously holding on to demands that cannot be won does not further progressive change. While this will remain a perpetual tension, a balance was struck in Cook County, winning a raise for hundreds of thousands of workers.

Pascal Brixel is chair of the task force for good jobs at The People’s Lobby. The People’s Lobby is a grassroots organization based in the Chicago area with a progressive agenda ranging from good jobs through fair elections to ending austerity politics; it also trains community leaders and elected officials in organizing, and in building progressive narratives; and it runs a canvassing operation that has helped elect progressives to local and state offices. The People’s Lobby is an affiliate of People’s Action.

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