A group of Chicago-area progressive groups and unions are backing a bill that would punish large companies who don't pay their workers a living wage.
The Responsible Business Act would charge corporations who employ more than 750 Cook County workers at less than $15 per hour fees for paying what advocates call poverty-level wages. Since it was introduced in October last year, the act has gained the support of unions and grassroots organizations fighting for economic justice.
Two actions in support of the proposed Responsible Business Act (RBA) took place in Cook County on Monday, February 1. In Chicago's Uptown neighborhood, Organizing Neighborhoods for Equality: Northside, or ONE Northside, led a teach-in at their offices and canvassed outside of corporate stores. Supporters of the RBA including IIRON and the Reclaim Campaign held an action at a Walmart store in suburban Bedford Park, just outside the city limits.
The RBA is a county-level act and is sponsored by Commissioner Robert Steele of the Cook County Board of Commissioners. It currently has three co-sponsors: Joan Patricia Murphy, Luis Arroyo, Jr. and Jerry Butler; organizers say they also have two commitments to vote "yes" from Jesus "Chuy" Garcia and Larry Suffredin. Three more commissioners need to support the act in order for it to pass through the 17-member board. Monday's actions called on 11th District Commissioner John Daley and 10th District Commissioner Bridget Gainer to back the bill.
At the canvassing event organized by ONE Northside, supporters of the RBA called for Gainer to co-sponsor the proposal. They engaged pedestrians outside of Target, Starbucks and McDonald's - all corporations that would potentially be affected by the RBA.
"The CEOs of these big corporations continue to make massive profits while the workers, who are responsible for the functioning of the corporations, are forced to rely on public services to survive off their poverty wages," said Eugene Lim, a member of the group's Workers' Rights Team.
Commissioner Gainer did not respond to a request for comment.
The Responsible Business Act would give corporations with over 750 employees a choice: either raise their employees' wages to a living wage - determined by Cook County Chief Financial Officer Ivan Samstein at $14.57 per hour without benefits and $11.66 per hour with benefits - or pay a $750 fee for each dollar paid below the hourly living wage per employee.
For example, a corporation where 100 workers earn $13.57 per hour (one dollar below the living wage of $14.57 per hour) would have the choice of raising their hourly wage by $1 for each worker, or paying a fee of $75,000 ($1 times 100 workers, times the $750 fine). This fee is designed to supplement the housing and childcare assistance, Medicaid costs and other services out of reach for workers earning poverty wages. The fees would be earmarked specifically for public assistance programs and distributed by the county.
Seventy-five percent of the revenue would be placed into a newly established Family Sustainability Fund, 20 percent would go to pre-existing health care spending and the remainder would be spent on administrative costs. A nine-person commission would advise the Cook County Board of Commissioners on allocation of the collected funds.
Monday morning's South Side action took place at the Walmart store at 7050 S. Cicero Avenue. About 50 people, including low-wage workers, students and members of IIRON, Reclaim Campaign, the Bridgeport Alliance and National Nurses United were present. At 11 A.M., the protesters entered Walmart, carrying signs and chanting "Hey you, millionaires, pay your fair share!"
Gianna Chacon is an undergraduate at Roosevelt University. She says her $10 per hour retail job at Marshalls isn't enough to cover her living expenses. "These companies can afford to pay us enough to live on, but instead they choose to squeeze their workers and make a few million more," she told the crowd.
The group brought with them a 3' x 5' invoice for what they say is the $33 million owed by Walmart to workers and taxpayers. The number is an estimate of the amount of taxpayer money that goes to supporting Walmart employees to provide essential services that they are unable to afford. According to a study by the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), the Responsible Business Act would affect 67 employers in Cook County and raise the wages of over 16,000 workers. The average increase would be $7.11 per hour, per worker.
Yamara Ayala, a mother of two and a home care aide for her father, said at Monday's action that she has high hopes for the Responsible Business Act. "I'm hoping it does go forward because it will help so many families. … None of us are getting our fair share, and that's what we're fighting for."
Monday's South Side action was one of the first to target 11th District Commissioner John Daley, who has yet to pledge support for the Responsible Business Act. Tom Gaulke, a leader with IIRON and the Bridgeport Alliance, addressed Daley during the action: "You have the power to help us make large corporations like Walmart pay their fair share to workers and pay their fair share to our communities."
Commissioner Daley did not respond to a request for comment.
If implemented, the act would incrementally raise the minimum wage that large employers are required to pay employees to avoid fees. The rate would increase by $1.35 per year, from the current minimum of $8.25 in Cook County, to a high of $15.00 over five years. The UIC study found that the Act could raise up to $500 million during the four year phase-in, and $200 million after it is fully implemented.
Emiliano Vera, a Northwestern University undergraduate and a low-wage worker himself, said at Monday's action that "We need to speak up to challenge that blatant lie [that low wage work is justified], and tell the story that the real culprits are the corporations that refuse to pay a living wage."