Community support pushing minimum wage bill to key vote one year after introduction

Community support pushing minimum wage bill to key vote one year after introduction

State Sen. Kimberly Lightford, the main sponsor of a bill to raise the minimum wage in Illinois, and a coterie of advocacy groups that support the legislation are feeling optimistic.

The bill was introduced more than a year ago, in February 2011, and has been stalled ever since. But a vote Wednesday in the executive committee is expected to pass, moving the bill closer to becoming law.

More than 71 percent of Illinois residents polled are in favor of the proposal, say supporters of the bill, which would raise the minimum wage from the current $8.25 an hour to $10.65.

Busloads of activists with groups including Action Now, ARISE Chicago and the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council are heading to Springfield with the Raise Illinois campaign to pressure legislators.

But have they really convinced critics of the minimum wage hike to support it?

Probably not, says Jen Kern, minimum wage campaign coordinator for the National Employment Law Project. Kern said that she expects to "always hear the same arguments against raising the minimum wage no matter what's going on in the economy."

A consistent argument has been that it could hurt job growth, or even lead to a job loss, if employers are reluctant to hire because of higher wage costs.

This was the reason for the bill being stalled, Lightford told The Chicago Reporter earlier this year:  business leaders weren't on board.

The passage of tax cuts for Sears and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange eventually neutralized the opposition from the business community, but proponents of minimum wage bills say that fears of job loss are still unfounded.

"The most rigorous research over the last 15 years, including studies across state lines with different minimum wages, has found that higher minimum wages do not result in job loss. Even for minimum wage increases during weak economic periods," wrote Kern's colleague, Christine Owens, in a CNN.com op-ed piece.

Owens cites studies, including one from the University of Berkeley, which compared employment and different minimum wage levels across state lines and found that wage increases don't hurt employment.

But what has changed in the year since the legislation was introduced, say advocates, is that real wages have continued to fall, which hits low-income people hardest.

According to the National Employment Law Project, from March 2011 to March 2012, real hourly wages (taking inflation into consideration) fell 0.6 percent for private sector workers, while pay in "production and nonmanagerial jobs" fell by 1 percent.

Another study by the group, which bills itself as aiming to "restore the promise of economy opportunity in the 21st century," found that new jobs being created skewed towards low-paying positions.

Add on the 2 percent income tax hike passed this January in Illinois, says Madeleine Talbot, director of Action Now, and low-income communities have less and less to spend on their basic needs. 

"We know what the suits are doing to get heard on this issue," said Talbot, noting what she called CME's generous tax breaks. "But how do regular hard-working people who don't make enough get heard?"

Kerns says that with swelling support to raise the minimum wage, low-income people are getting closer to pushing for both local and national bills to pass.

"What we are seeing is that more and more community organizations and civil rights groups and religious groups are getting together in coalitions across the country ... to fight to raise the minimum wage."

Lightford told the Reporter that she hopes the time it has taken the bill to make its way through the legislature will mean it has "enough votes to get the bill moving through the executive committee."

Lightford said that she also relied on community interest in raising the minimum wage to get the bill through. "I'm hoping that because the demand is so great and so many people are unemployed, we have a chance to get legislators to understand the bill's importance."

Talbot, whose organization will be taking a busload of low-wage workers to Springfield, says that it's now or never. "If we don’t set some kind of level playing field at a place where people can live, things will only go down from here."

Photo credit: spike55151

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