The state minimum wage will continue to increase an additional dollar per hour each year. Illustration by: Ellie Mejia.

When low-wage fast food workers went on strike this past autumn, they didn’t know what to expect. Many of those on strike didn’t match the expectations of outsiders either. While fast food workers have long been seen as teenage temps, today’s minimum-wage worker is more likely to be feeding a family or putting a child through college. Thanks both to those protests and to the minimum-wage reality that many Americans now face, political momentum has begun to gather to give the country’s lowest-paid workers a raise.

The reality is that, for many of those who survive on the Illinois minimum wage of $8.25 per hour, things just aren’t working. As State Representative Christian Mitchell says, “We’re talking about everyday working people who, in a different economy, could be potentially working at a higher wage already.”

Two campaigns to raise the minimum wage are underway in Chicago. The Raise Illinois campaign, which counts a wide array of organizations among its supporters, agitates for an increase of the state minimum to $10.65 an hour. Governor Pat Quinn has come out in support of the proposal, which would give Illinois the highest minimum wage in the country—setting the mark where wages would be had they kept pace with inflation since 1968.

The second proposal is smaller in scope but advocates a more drastic increase, proposing that Chicago adopt a $15 an hour minimum wage for companies with revenues of $50 million or more. That campaign is led by Fight for 15, an organization that led the fast-food worker strikes last fall.

Action Now, a national workers’ advocacy organization, has had a hand in both of the proposals, particularly the first. Action Now organizes the Raise Illinois campaign, which includes a number of Chicago labor unions, immigrants’ rights organizations, and workers’ advocacy groups, all of which regularly travel to Springfield to weigh on legislators’ consciences.

Amid all of this political organizing, however, millions of people across the country continue to live and work at the minimum wage, and more are forced to work at low wages despite advanced degrees and experience. Luz Medina, a recent immigrant and single mother of three, is one of these people. Medina lives in South Chicago, where she works part-time at a daycare center, making minimum wage.

In addition to supporting her three children, Medina volunteers with Centro de Trabajadores Unidos, a community-organizing project that helps immigrant workers on the Southeast Side. Her oldest daughter is eighteen and is looking at colleges. Medina hopes to be able to pay for her tuition, but, as she says with a laugh, “that’s why we need a raise.”

Medina has been down to Springfield four times to help lobby for such a raise. Mitchell, whose district snakes from Streeterville down to Centro de Trabajadores Unidos’s office, in South Chicago, regularly speaks with minimum-wage advocates in both his Bronzeville and Springfield offices. “Raising the minimum wage means more purchasing power, more spending power in people’s pockets,” Mitchell says. “It’s a dire situation right now, and the minimum wage increase can have a real impact on the lives of these folks.”

The argument that Mitchell makes, and one that many of the activists make, is that raising the minimum wage will give people more cash, allowing them to spend more, thereby creating jobs down the line. According to Raise Illinois, in 2005, when the state increased minimum wage by a dollar, Illinois “achieved the Midwest’s second biggest improvement in job growth.”

“Raising the minimum wage to $10.65 across four years would infuse $3.8 billion into our economy,” the organization says, citing research from the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

Astar Herndon, of the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), points out that “the perception is that every worker makes the minimum wage, but that is not the case.” Restaurant workers earn $4.95, and the ROC advocates for an increase to $10. “When people make more money, they’re able to spend more money,” says Herndon.

The reality on the ground may not be that clear-cut. Darnell Macklin, a Republican candidate for the state’s 34th District and the chairman of the 6th Ward Republican Committee, in Chatham, remains unconvinced. “I have a lot of mixed feelings. Firstly, I think that hiking the minimum wage hurts—not helps—workers.” Macklin runs a consulting firm downtown and holds a Master of Public Administration degree from Roosevelt University. “If I’m a small business owner with four employees making $8.25 an hour,” he says, “and if I’ve got to raise that to $10 an hour, I’m probably going to cut one of my employees. I’m going to cut one or two, or find a way to automate.”

Derek Neal, a labor economist at the University of Chicago, notes that “going to $10 will likely not cause large losses of unemployment. However, there is no reason to expect such a change to increase employment, either.” There will be some consequences for consumers, though. “If the minimum wage goes up, the best research shows that the prices of products made with low-skill workers will rise,” he explains.

This perspective has stymied some efforts to convince lawmakers to raise the minimum. “Most of the legislators that are on board have been Democrats,” says Aileen Kelleher, an activist with Action Now. “Some are worried about the impact on small business, while most Republicans are outright against it.”

Activists dispute the threat to small business. “There’s research to suggest otherwise,” says Herndon. “Chicago has the second-largest restaurant industry in the nation. California doesn’t have a sub-minimum wage; their minimum wage is as high as $13 in some areas, and their restaurant industry has grown across the board.”

Before Luz Medina got her job at the daycare, she worked as a caretaker at a nursing home, making roughly $10 an hour. In 2010, however, with businesses still reeling from the recession, Medina was fired from her job so that new management could make way for minimum-wage workers. She finds it difficult to talk about the months that followed, during which she lost her home. “The hardest thing was…seeing my things put out on the street,” Medina says. After a year and a half of looking, she found her current job at the daycare through her brother.

Medina is looking to supplement her income with more work, and the problems that she faced during her time of unemployment recur today. “I’ve been going after jobs where the competition has degrees that I don’t have,” she says. Raymundo Valdez, of the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos, where Medina volunteers, points out that “minimum-wage jobs are not only for unskilled workers. More and more skilled workers, college-aged students, people with associates degrees, tend to be fighting for those same jobs because of the marketplace.”

Darnell Macklin says that in the current market, a wage increase could make competition for jobs even more brutal. In a time when many people with degrees and advanced levels of work experience are being shunted down the pay scale, many of the South Side’s less advantaged workers find themselves in a dilemma. “A lot of these guys got out of jail, no degree and no skills, starting at minimum wage, and used to end up as a shift manager after a few years,” says Macklin. “But employers want to hire people with degrees and experience over others.” Of the Chicago proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 on large corporations, Macklin says, “Looking at McDonald’s, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, I think that the effect will be that people with degrees are going to be taking those jobs at $15 per hour.”

Neal, the UofC economist, sees problems with the $15 an hour hike as well. “My guess is that, if the $15 per hour law goes into effect, the real winners will be the owners of property in Indiana that is zoned commercial or industrial. Cities on the Indiana side of the state line will become new centers for businesses that rely on low-skill workers, e.g., malls, distribution facilities, light manufacturing. In fact, the best name for such a policy would be the Northern Indiana Revitalization Act.”

However, a job in Indiana would be out of reach for workers like Luz Medina: “That’s another difficulty…I can’t go more than thirty minutes from home because of my children.”

A similar restriction goes for much of the South Side already. Raymundo Valdez notes that, “from here, if you drive twenty minutes in either direction it’s difficult to find a place where you can find the types of jobs that you might find on the North Side.”

Valdez says that, for Medina, “there’s no other choice [but to work at the minimum wage]. She has three kids, so she has to go out every day and work for them, and that’s why she’s been part of the campaign from the beginning.”

“This is an issue that touches all of our communities,” Kelleher says. “When people don’t have good-paying jobs it increases crime and violence and decreases faith in these communities.” Macklin agrees. “I see a lot of teens walking the streets waiting for something to do,” he says. “A lot of them sell drugs on the corner for a job, and if they had a job it would take them off the streets.”

Over the past few months, the struggles of workers like Luz Medina and the anxieties of people like Darnell Macklin have become a larger political affair. In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama pledged to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 an hour, and called for Congress to raise the federal wage. “Let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth,” he said, “no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty—and raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour.”

Last autumn’s protests by low-wage workers have netted some individual successes. According to Fight for 15, some workers at Victoria’s Secret received a $3 raise, while workers at Whole Foods were awarded paid sick days. Action Now and Raise Illinois are still lobbying the General Assembly in Springfield, but, as Valdez pointed out, “You can still be working at a temp agency for twenty years and be getting paid the minimum wage with no real form of getting a better job.”

These campaigns have a long way to go. Raise Illinois and Action Now’s proposal to raise wages to $10.65 still hasn’t been brought to debate. Fight for 15’s proposal will appear on Chicago ballots this March. The referendum won’t wield legal power, but activists hope that strong enough vote totals will send a powerful message to Chicago aldermen. While everyone agrees that no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty, higher-skilled workers still continue to find themselves in low-wage jobs, and the poorest of the poor still struggle to find jobs at all. Activists fight for a higher minimum wage in the belief that it will bring a humane livelihood to millions of Americans, while detractors contend that that same increase will decimate job offerings and increase the numbers of the destitute. And for Luz Medina, the year and a half she spent looking for a job “is still too hard to talk about.”

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