The vast gap between rich and poor only will grow wider thanks to the callous leaders of the many suburbs opting out of Cook County’s ordinance to increase the minimum wage.
Upscale Northbrook is one such northern suburb that apparently functions as a plutocracy. The village board voted to exempt itself from the county ordinance earlier this year, denying a guarantee of higher pay and paid sick days to workers there.
Yet, some who are lucky enough to live in Northbrook have taken a bold stand for the people who come there to labor for poverty wages amid the affluence.
Despite the village board’s vote on May 23, a group called the Northbrook Working Families Coalition is continuing to show up at board meetings, urging elected officials to reverse their decision to opt out of the county ordinance.
At a Starbucks near the village hall before the last meeting, members of the group explained why they care so much about an issue that doesn’t affect any of them directly.
No doubt virtually every independent adult who’s paid the minimum wage to work in Northbrook has to commute from a community not nearly so posh. You’d probably have to make many times the minimum wage to afford anything more than a cardboard box in Northbrook.
“We all passionately believe people who work full-time should have enough money to live,” says Julie Rosner, a homeowner and activist with the Northbrook Working Families Coalition.
“Those are the people who work in our restaurants, our hotels, our supermarkets,” she adds. “We feel terribly anybody would be getting $8.25 an hour in a community where we have this kind of wealth.”
The Cook County ordinance that passed earlier this year provided yearly increases in the minimum wage until it reached $13 an hour by 2020, with a process for cost-of-living increases after that.
Referendums have found the activists are not in the minority on the minimum-wage issue. Those votes indicated overwhelming public support in Northbrook for an increase to the minimum wage as well as a guarantee of sick leave.
“Instead of seeking public input, they listened to a few businesses and the chamber of commerce,” certified public accountant Herb Brenner says of the village board members, only one of whom voted against opting out of the wage hike.
At the last village board meeting earlier this month, Brenner and others took direct aim at the Northbrook Chamber of Commerce for lobbying against a higher minimum wage.
The chamber, they said, is only too happy to accept six-figure handouts from the village government, even as it espouses laissez-faire economics for employers of low-wage workers.
Northbrook pays 10 percent of the hotel tax it collects to the chamber. That amounts to nearly $100,000 a year for the chamber, according to village records.
“The village does not need to give them money,” Rosner says of the Northbrook chamber. “Especially not our money.”
Village President Sandra Frum sees a difference between taxes paid by her constituents and what the village gets from visitors who check into the town’s hotels.
“It’s not taxpayer money in the sense that it does not come from the property tax,” she says of the subsidy to the chamber.
It’s a weak distinction that shouldn’t appease critics. The hotel-tax revenue could be used for other government expenses if not diverted to the chamber.
Frum says the grants to the chamber are money well-spent, covering the costs of “things like the community resource guide that goes to every business and home and the village street map.”
And Frum makes no apologies for blocking increases to the minimum wage.
“The businesses pay what they need to hire employees in Northbrook,” says Frum — who owns a 4,871-square-foot home valued at $1,243,040, according to county tax records.
Frum is no different than so many politicians at every level. When it comes to subsidizing business interests such as the chamber with your money, it’s all about “public-private partnerships.” If you’re the working poor, expect nothing but free-market capitalism.
It would be too easy to dismiss the dissidents of Northbrook as bleeding-heart, limousine liberals or champagne socialists.
At least they care about something other than further enriching themselves.