I have a very clear recollection of scoffing at a local community organizer a few years ago soon after she’d helped launch a campaign to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
“Never gonna happen,” I told her, or something to that effect, failing to appreciate that the audacity of the demand was actually its strength.
That episode has haunted me several times in the years since, as it did again Wednesday when the Cook County Board voted to increase the county’s minimum wage to $13 an hour by 2020.
The ordinance will gradually bring suburban Cook County’s minimum wage in line with the city of Chicago, which moved two years ago to get to $13 an hour.
That $15 minimum wage no longer seems so far out of reach, not even for those workers still stuck at the Illinois state minimum of $8.25 an hour.
At some point in the not so distant future, it will happen.
That will be thanks to a confluence of many factors, but most of all, because of ordinary people who got organized and forced oftentimes reluctant public officials to face the issue of jobs that don’t pay enough to live on.
Some of those grassroots types came from The People’s Lobby, which took the bows Wednesday for the county wage hike.
The People’s Lobby, which used to be known as IIRON, is a small organization with a mailing list of 5,500 supporters and maybe 500 dues-paying members.
Yet this group spent the past year pressuring county commissioners to approve a far more ambitious proposal called the Responsible Business Act.
The Responsible Business Act would have required any employer or franchisor with more than 750 workers to either pay a minimum wage of $15 or pony up a hefty fee to Cook County, in theory as compensation for the social services that their underpaid workers require from county government.
In other words, it was some real lefty stuff, too far out even for me.
To put its proposal on the county political radar, The People’s Lobby became a constant presence at County Board meetings.
Low-paid private sector workers from around the county testified in public and met with individual commissioners in private to enlist their support.
To put pressure on holdout commissioners, the organization arranged for volunteer phone banks to call voters in their district, in turn asking them to contact their commissioners.
Commissioner Robert Steele agreed to sponsor the Responsible Business Act.
But it wasn’t getting anywhere until finally somebody proposed a compromise — a minimum wage increase patterned after the city’s without any other complications.
Commissioner Lawrence Suffredin sponsored the minimum wage proposal, explaining he couldn’t justify why constituents in the southern end of his district in Chicago were making $10.50 an hour while those north of the city border were still at $8.25.
Suffredin nodded to the grassroots groups such as The People’s Lobby and One Northside for putting the issue in front of the County Board and making it happen.
“Settling for $13 is still a large win,” said Jessica Cummins, 26, a divinity school graduate student in Evanston. Cummins got involved with The People’s Lobby campaign after struggling to pay the bills with a pair of $9 an hour part-time jobs.
I don’t want oversimplify this. After putting the $15 minimum wage in their national party platform this year, Democrats are under pressure to follow through.
In some ways, the biggest surprise is why it took the county so long to follow suit behind the city.
But the county’s higher minimum wage also has echoes of the Occupy movement and the Fight for $15 for fast food workers and all the others who reopened the important conversation about income inequality in America.
It’s nothing to scoff at.