One of the more significant issues shaping the governor’s race and rattling the state legislature is a possible minimum wage hike for the Illinois workforce. Raising the minimum wage is a key centerpiece of Gov. Pat Quinn’s re-election effort, pushing to raise the hourly rate from $8.25 to $10.
Merits and pitfalls of such legislation aside, including the potential for employers to scale back the number of jobs they can offer, readers should know that this debate is not taking place by pure happenstance. It is just one chapter in a nationwide minimum wage campaign orchestrated by the Service Employees International Union and its big labor brethren.
To understand the unions’ fixation on the issue, one must first understand that they are motivated to reverse shrinking membership numbers. With fewer members comes fewer financial resources and ultimately influence. To buck this trend, big labor has set its sights on one of the few remaining sectors traditionally outside of union influence, the food services industry.
Enter the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), a “worker training center” which has an adversarial relationship with restaurant operators who refuse to meet its demands. ROCs operates under the guise of representing the social welfare of restaurant employees but with one very clear distinction — entities such as ROC do not have to comply with federal labor laws and union disclosure requirements and can also claim 501(c)(3) charitable organization status without paying taxes or raising tax-deductible contributions. This makes it the ideal front group for big labor.
With ROCs at the forefront, the SEIU, AFL-CIO and others can execute their labor-friendly agenda out of the spotlight. The relationship is so tight that AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has even lauded ROC as the future of the labor movement while the SEIU bankrolls ROC chapters and affiliates throughout the country to help execute its “Fast Food Forward” and “Fight for 15” campaigns, demanding the doubling of the existing federal minimum wage and enacting mandatory paid sick leave.
ROC-Chicago’s do-gooder façade has even allowed it to tap into funding from numerous philanthropic organizations, funds that the organization then uses to intimidate local restaurant operators into complying with their demands. What happens otherwise? One New York restaurant came face to face with a 12-foot inflatable cockroach and subsequent protest. Another pair of restaurateurs felt so threatened that a judge issued a restraining order against the organization. Never mind the multiple congressional investigations aimed squarely at ROCs that call into question its murky funding and operating structure.
As the governor’s race in Illinois continues in 2014, it is certainly within reason to have a legitimate and substantive debate about minimum wage. Chicago’s restaurateurs will tell you that minimum wage hikes will wreak havoc on their finances, leading to a cutback in the number of jobs they can offer. While two reasonable heads can disagree on that sentiment, it is important to realize the motives of those organizing on the other side.
Chicago can make progress and advance sensible reforms on this issue, but only if all parties come to the table in an open and transparent manner.
Gerald J. Roper is the former president and CEO of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. He also served as president and CEO of the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau.