Veteran Ald. Patrick O’Connor (40th) reminded us during this week’s City Council debate over raising the minimum wage that even though this is the first time Chicago has set its own minimum wage, it’s hardly the first time the subject came up.
And in all the previous discussions over the years about Chicago requiring a higher wage than the rest of the state, O’Connor said, “we’ve always been told we can’t do it.”
“We’ve always been told we don’t have the power as a city to do that,” he repeated.
“What’s changed?” O’Connor asked rhetorically. “The law hasn’t changed. The court cases that were relied upon previously to tell us we can’t do it have not been overturned.”
“What’s changed,” he concluded, “is the attitude of an administration that basically said to the Law Department: Take a look at this and tell me how we can do it. Don’t tell me why we can’t.”
O’Connor intended his comments as an homage to the git-r-done approach of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, for whom he serves as City Council floor leader.
But also implicit in what he had to say was a warning: This might not work, folks.
Actually, O’Connor made his warning explicit.
“There is a possibility that we’re overreaching here. Let’s be clear about that,” O’Connor said, adding, “But this is a reach that is well worth it.”
Count me as somebody who agrees the potential benefit of higher wages for the city’s lowest-paid workers is indeed worth the risk.
But before anybody starts spending that extra money, set to begin in July with a bump to $10 an hour from the current $8.25 (on its way to $13 by 2019), we probably ought to more carefully consider the possibility somebody will indeed say: Chicago can’t do that.
So far, nobody has indicated they will file suit to challenge the city’s ordinance, although I expect no shortage of businesses willing to take up the cause.
The Illinois Retail Merchants Association, the most determined opponent of this week’s City Council move, acknowledges it is considering legal action.
“We’ve looked into it and will continue to do so,” said Tanya Triche, the group’s vice president and general counsel.
Triche said it’s clear that part of the reason Chicago didn’t raise the minimum wage previously was the belief it did not have legal authority to go above the state’s minimum.
“I think it’s questionable whether they have the authority today,” Triche said. “Chicago may not be on sound footing.”
Obviously, the Emanuel Administration has come to the opposite conclusion.