A Victory for the Living Wage and Local Democracy in Champaign County

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On February 25, 2002, two important things happened in Champaign County. First, after four and a half years of research, community education, and organizational networking, the Champaign County Living Wage Association (CCLWA) achieved a significant goal when the Champaign County Board, witnessed by an overflowing crowd of Living Wage supporters, voted by a margin of 18 to 3 to adopt a Living Wage resolution. Second, local democracy scored a major victory in that a coalition of over forty civic, religious, and labor organizations formed a consensus that wages lower than the poverty level were unacceptable, brought its case to its representatives on the County Board, and succeeded in convincing them that no county employee should ever be subjected to such inhumane and degrading remuneration.
Introduced by board member Jennifer Putman, the measure received overwhelming support from the Democrats. Only Democrat Steven Beckett voted against it. But the resolution also was supported by six members of the Republican minority. The ChampaignCounty Board thus becomes the third local governmental authority to adopt a Living Wage policy, following the adoption of similar policies by the boards of the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District and the Champaign County Housing Authority.
The resolution commits the county to paying all of its full-time employees at a level at least equivalent to the federal poverty level for a family of four, currently $8.70 an hour ($18,100 a year). This wage amount is indexed so that it is adjusted annually to reflect increases in the cost of living.
The resolution also specifies that the county will make health benefits available to employees and their dependents. And there is a further provision prohibiting the county from contracting out to private employers any work presently done by county employees, unless the private employer pays at least a living wage and offers group health benefits to its employees.
Twenty-nine employees of the Champaign County Nursing Home – mostly female and to a significant extent persons of color – will be immediate direct beneficiaries of the resolution, when their wages increase to at least $8.70 an hour on December 1, 2002. Some of these employees are currently receiving wages in the range of $6.00 to $7.00 per hour.
But the pressure that the Living Wage campaign brought to bear had already resulted in many county employees seeing wage increases even before the Living Wage policy was officially adopted. The CCLWAworked to raise awareness among candidates and voters during the 2000 county board election cycle. A number of candidates who supported a Living Wage policy were elected to the county board, along with the first Democratic majority in many years. This change in leadership resulted in labor being treated with greater respect, in contrast to the union-busting tactics of previous administrations. Prior to the 2000 election, about 20% of all county employees earned less than the Living Wage.Following the election much progress was made, and the number of full-time employees earning less than a Living Wage fell as contracts were renegotiated. With the vote on February 25, all county employees can now look forward to at least a Living Wage.
For many residents of Champaign County, this policy may come as something of a surprise. The efforts of the coalition that the CCLWA put together have been mostly ignored by the media. Although it did publish a Commentary by someone involved in the campaign over a year ago, the Champaign News-Gazette adopted a policy of relegating what little news it printed on the Living Wage campaign to the Business section. Editors apparently felt thatthe issue was one which employers needed to know about, but they seemed to hope that hiding it away in the Business section would keep most workers from finding out about the issue and the campaign in support of it.Then, on February 12, when it became known that the Living Wage resolution would be soon be voted on by the County Board, the News-Gazette editorial board published an unsigned editorial that was little more than a misinformed attack on the idea,claiming that people working in jobs paying less than a Living Wage were simply too unambitious to get a better paying job despite their needs. The paper then refused the right of reply to a factual article, written by a member of the CCLWA, which explained the need for the Living Wage locally and refuted the News-Gazette’s arguments against it. In the end, though,the organizing efforts of the community’s citizens overcame the elitist arguments of the News-Gazette and led to a hard-won victory.
The Living Wage campaign has already had a great deal of influence locally, asdemonstrated by the enormous progress in more fairly compensating workers that the county board had made even prior to its official adoption of a Living Wage policy. As word of what it really takes to elevate a family’s income even to the poverty line spreads, activists hope that it will inspire discussions in both public and private sector workplaces throughout the county. To date, the Living Wage policies that have been adopted locally apply only topublic employees. However, it has been a tendency in the United States for government to be the first to adopt positive polices, whicheventually spread by way of example to the private sector. In other communities, Living Wage polices have been applied to services contracted for by governmental bodies, to economic development
assistance (as a requirement for access to funds and/or tax abatements by the businesses
receiving them), and to entire districts as a part of economic development initiatives.
The Living Wage is not beneficial only to workers. It is also good for government, since workers paid a Living Wage are more likely to become homeowners, and to pay higher property and sales taxes. Families better able to support themselves require less government assistance, whether financed by local, state, or federal taxes, such as food stamps and Section 8 housing vouchers. The benefits for employers are also obvious. A Living Wage results in higher workplace morale, less employee turnover and thus lower training costs, and greater productivity and efficiency.
The increased spending power at the bottom of the income scale tends to stay in the community, as these workers must still spend the bulk of their income on the necessities of life. Raising average earnings in a community also raises the demographic attractiveness to a business looking to locate in our area. Allowing people to pay their own way by earning a Living Wage, rather than relying on government and charity for assistance, reduces the load on other taxpayers and allows charitable giving to go further in helping the genuinely needy.
So what is next for the local Living Wage campaign? Both the cities of Champaign and Urbana already pay nearly all of their full-time employees a Living Wage. However, they should also adopt officialLiving Wage policies because of the effect that a good example has on others, and as a way to assure the public that they will not succumb to the all too common practice of trying to realize economies by contracting out decent-paying governmentjobs to private employers who do not pay life-sustaining wages or offer health benefits. Such adoption would also indicate important philosophical and moral recognition and support, on the part of the two cities, of the positive impactthat paying a Living Wage has on the community.
The CCLWA thanks its numerous supporters throughout the community, and asks for their continuing support in promoting the idea that a fair day’s work deserves a Living Wage. It invites your active participation in its ongoing efforts. The CCLWA meets at noon on the third Saturday ofevery month at the Illinois Education Association/NEA office above Pard’s Western Shop, 304 North Maple, in Urbana. Enter through the door in the center of the front of the building. Stairs and an elevator allow access to the second floor, where the IEA office is located at the end of the hallway.

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