Chicago City Council raises hourly minimum wage
Alderman Ray Suarez argues in favor of increasing the hourly minimum wage to $13 during a City Council hearing on Tuesday December 2, 2014. [Photo credit: William Camargo]

Chicago on Tuesday joined Washington D.C., San Francisco, Seattle and a number of other major cities in passing legislation to raise the minimum wage beyond the current federal level of $7.25 an hour.

Proponents of a minimum wage increase said it would be a life-changing boon for low-income working families, young people and other low-wage workers. Opponents said the measure would send businesses fleeing to cities where labor costs are lower.

Chicago aldermen voted overwhelmingly in favor of raising the city’s $8.25 minimum wage to $13 over the next five years during a special City Council meeting called by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Only five of the city’s 50 alderman voted no.

The first raise will take place in July, taking the minimum wage to $10. After that, 50 cent increases in July 2016 and July 2017 will push it to $11. Increases of $1 in both July 2018 and 2019 would bring it to $13. Further raises will be pegged to the local consumer price index.

Many supporters of the minimum wage hike applauded the new law but vowed to “continue the fight for 15,” referring to a $15 hourly minimum wage.

Others worried that the raise would burden local small businesses, forcing businesses located in neighborhoods bordering suburbs out of the city.

Several aldermen said it was important for Chicago to increase its minimum wage now rather than waiting on the state, whose trek toward passing a $10 minimum wage could take longer and come with stipulations that could hinder Chicago in instituting its own raise in the future.

According to a City Hall news release, the wage increase would affect more than 410,000 Chicagoans, injecting $860 million into the local economy and lifting 70,000 workers out of poverty.

Supporters framed Chicago’s move to raise the minimum wage as a necessary measure given the federal government’s lack of action for a federal increase and the state dragging its feet on a statewide raise.

Down in Springfield, activists are pushing legislators to raise minimum wage statewide. Among them Tuesday was Kaetlyn Johnson, executive director of grassroots group Action Now, who rejoiced at Chicago’s increase to a $13 minimum wage in a phone interview but called the news “bittersweet.”

“We’re still fighting…to have 13 come through after all our hard work, after thousands of doors being knocked is its own reward, but it’s not enough yet,” said Johnson, whose group is still pushing for a $15 Chicago minimum wage.

Fourth Ward Ald. Will Burns said the increase was a key step toward addressing income inequality, but not a silver bullet. Burns’ ward includes the South Side neighborhoods Bronzeville, Hyde Park and Kenwood.

“We look in our city, and we see the growing chasm between those who have and those who don’t,” Burns said. “Raising the minimum wage is not the solution to all of these problems, but it is a key step toward bringing greater equality, bringing greater justice and bringing greater democracy to our city.”

Also under the law, the minimum wage for tipped workers will increase by $1 over two years with subsequent increases indexed to inflation.

Ald. Tom Tunney (44), whose North Side ward includes most of Lakeview, said he favored an increase to $11 over three years. He voted no to the wage increase. The owner of the Ann Sather restaurant chain, Tunney argued that a wage increase would exacerbate the struggles of small businesses buckling under the financial pressures of health care, workers compensation and other costs. He said the measure risks Chicago losing businesses — and jobs. And besides, he said, “entry-level wages were never meant for a family of four.”

“We have got to protect small businesses and respect small businesses,” Tunney said.

Ald. Walter Burnett (27) called the $13 minimum wage, higher than the $11 proposed by some alderman and lower than the $15 other officials and some advocates prescribed, “a good compromise.” And in the cities that have raised the minimum wage, there haven’t been many negative effects observed, he said.

“The cities didn’t die, the cities didn’t crash and burn,” Burnett said. “All the businesses did not go.”



Adeshina is a former reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Follow him on Twitter @ Public_Ade.