Illinois workers win pay hike

CHICAGO – In the midst of rising regional unemployment, a massive budget crisis, and a widespread housing shortage, some of Illinois’ lowest paid workers will be receiving some relief. Both branches of the Illinois State Legislature have passed a minimum wage increase, which will rise to $6.50 over the next three years. The wage increase will make Illinois the only Midwestern state with a minimum wage above the federal base.

Governor Rod Blagojevich, who was backed by the Illinois AFL-CIO in his election campaign, is expected to sign the law. Speaking at a March 30 labor and community-sponsored rally here to support the minimum wage increase, he said, “The minimum wage today buys about a third less than it did a quarter century ago ... [i]f the minimum wage had been allowed to keep pace with increased worker productivity, it would be $13.80 today. What we’re asking for is modest by comparison.” Blagojevich has also argued for the increase based on the prospects of increasing taxable income for the state. State Senator Kimberly Lightford (D) helped shepherd the bill through the legislature.

From the beginning Republicans and business advocates opposed the increase which was a major part of the newly elected governor’s campaign. The large margins by which Democrats swept into all but one statewide office made it possible for the increase to pass, although the resulting legislation is a compromise. Initially the increase was to be phased in over the next two years, with an increase of 50 cents on Labor Day of this year, and then another dollar increase on Labor Day of 2004. Now, however, the increase will not go into effect until Jan. 2004 and then again on Jan. 2005.

Besides increasing the minimum wage for all Illinois workers the proposed law will also eliminate the tip loophole, which allows workers who get tips to be paid less than minimum wage. The loophole allowed waiters and waitress to make less than $3.00 per hour.

Despite proof to the contrary, business advocates continue to argue that an increased minimum wage will deter profits. The minimum wage increase is just one of many complaints by corporations, which also saw business fee increases and the closing of some corporate tax loopholes, ushered in during this legislative session.

Although this increase is a victory for workers, activists are quick to point out that $6.50 is still far below a living wage. And despite the feigned cries of business, working people still continue to bear the brunt of the tax burden, nationally, regionally and locally.

The author can be reached at bkishner@pww.org