6th Ward Alderman Roderick Sawyer
Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th Ward) joined colleagues and members of Rise Chicago Coalition on Tuesday in calling for an ordinance requiring companies with $50 million or more in annual revenues to pay a minimum wage of $15 an hour. [Photo courtesy SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana]

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has tried to get in front of the groundswell of concern over income inequality by backing a hike in the minimum wage. But with a record of contracting out good-paying jobs and shunting aside efforts to help impacted workers, he is playing catch-up as his reelection campaign looms.

Facing the possibility of serious challenge by County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Emanuel badly needs to bolster his sagging populist credibility — and if he aspires to a national profile among urban leaders, he needs to get with the zeitgeist.

Now groups representing low-wage workers are giving him another chance. Appearing with several aldermen at City Hall on Tuesday, members of the Raise Chicago Coalition called for a city ordinance to enact a proposal approved in an advisory referendum by 87 percent of voters in 104 precincts: requiring companies with $50 million or more in annual revenues to pay a minimum wage of $15 an hour.

Up till now, the mayor’s policies have pushed down many workers’ pay. He’s contracted out (at lower wages and reduced benefits) city jobs in health, custodial, and homeless outreach services and in the water department’s call center, among others. Mick Dumke reported that “belt-tightening layoffs and privatization measures” in Emanuel’s first year resulted in the loss of 1,200 middle-class city jobs, “the vast majority of them held by residents of black and Hispanic neighborhoods on the South and Southwest Sides.”

And the mayor has blocked efforts to protect those workers. Last November, 6th Ward Ald. Roderick Sawyer marked the first anniversary of the introduction of his Privatization Transparency and Accountability Ordinance, which would mandate cost-effectiveness studies and City Council hearings when jobs are contracted out, and would require that contractors pay a fair wage and hire city residents. It’s stuck in the council’s Rules Committee.

It’s not the only measure languishing in the council for lack of mayoral support. An ordinance to extend the city’s living wage ordinance to airport concession workers was also interred in the Rules Committee, even though it was endorsed by a majority of aldermen. That effects 1,500 workers, many of whom are making less than the $11.65 an hour required of other city contractors. One study estimated they are underpaid by $8 million a year. That’s money going to multinational corporations, most of them based overseas, instead of the local economy.

Not only that: Alderman Howard Brookins has reported that concession workers at Midway Airport are paid less than those at O’Hare.

Last year controversy erupted when a politically-connected contractor was chosen for the janitorial contract at O’Hare, and the company turned out to have a history of mob links and unreported ownership changes. More than 300 workers were laid off, and the handful who were kept on faced a 30 percent wage cut. Emanuel stuck with the contractor. A Responsible Bidders Ordinance, which would protect incumbent workers and block contractors with records of wage and labor law violations, is also stuck in the Rules Committee.

On another front, Emanuel has raised cab lease charges but held fast against a fare increase for the city’s 15,000 drivers, proposed in a citizens ordinance filed last year by veteran cab driver George Kasp. The last increase for cabbies was almost 10 years ago; a 2009 study by the University of Illinois Center for Labor Relations found cab drivers averaged $4.38 an hour with average shifts of 13 hours. The late Michael McConnell of the American Friends Service Committee, who championed the drivers’ cause, called taxis “sweatshops on wheels.”

Emanuel is responsible for blocking each of these efforts, since he controls the City Council. And prospects for the $15 wage depend on his support.

On Tuesday, the Raise Chicago Coalition released results from a study by the National Employment Law Project that showed that 61 percent of Latino workers, 45 percent of African Americans and 41 percent of women in Chicago earn less than $15 an hour — as do 48 percent of all working single parents.

Since voters in Seatac, Washington, instituted a $15 minimum wage in November, a dozen or more cities are moving ahead on this. The mayors of Seattle and San Francisco have backed a $15 minimum, and the Los Angeles city council is voting on a proposal.

Emanuel has said that if federal and state efforts to hike the minimum wage fail, he’d support instituting a city minimum wage of $9.65, pegged to inflation. That’s something but not enough for working families. According to a living wage calculator developed by MIT — which takes into account costs like healthcare, transportation, and childcare, that are shorted by the federal poverty standard — a wage of $10.48 is sufficient to support a single adult working full-time in Chicago. But a single adult with a child needs to earn nearly twice that to cover expenses without public assistance.

“Working families urgently need a fair and decent wage of $15 an hour, major corporations can absolutely afford it, and our communities will benefit from it,” said Katelyn Johnson of Action Now.

Mayor Emanuel might benefit too. At least he could allow the City Council to vote on the matter.

Curtis is an opinion writer for The Chicago Reporter.