Around a dozen activists from Chicago’s West Side and Oak Park marched from the Forest Park Public Library north to Forest Park Village Hall on June 15 to protest the Village Council’s unanimous decision three days earlier to opt out of Cook County’s earned sick leave and minimum wage ordinances.
The county’s minimum wage ordinance, which takes effect on July 1, would increase the minimum wage from the state’s current minimum of $8.25 an hour to $10 an hour, and by an additional $1 each subsequent year through 2020.
Many suburbs in Cook County are leveraging a provision in the Illinois Constitution that says that if a county ordinance conflicts with a municipal ordinance, the municipal ordinance wins out.
At least 40 other suburbs, including many neighboring towns like River Forest, Bellwood and Maywood, have opted out, according to an estimate provided by village officials. Forest Park Mayor Anthony Calderone and other council members said that they support a minimum wage but would prefer that the Illinois General Assembly pass legislation that would increase the state’s current minimum wage of $8.25 an hour.
Currently, officials in numerous “opt-out” villages have argued that the county’s ordinance creates an uneven playing field for businesses and workers within and outside of the county.
The activists who demonstrated last week, however, think that local municipalities should shoulder what they described as a moral burden of doing right by workers regardless of what the state does. They also argued that the advantages of establishing higher wages outweigh the disadvantages.
“If you pay people a fair wage, people in your community are going to have more economic resources,” said Carol Frischman, an Oak Park resident who joined the June 15 demonstration, which was organized by members of various social justice organizations — including Black Workers Matter Coalition Against Segregation of Employees, both baesd in Chicago and Oak Park Call to Action. There were few, if any, Forest Park residents among the demonstrators.
“Which side of what’s right does a community want to be on?” said Dominican Sister Patricia Farrell, OP, who also lives in Oak Park.
The activists cited the results of a 2014 advisory question that asked voters whether they supported increasing the state’s minimum wage from $8.25 to $10 by Jan. 1, 2015. Nearly 64 percent of Illinois residents voted for the ballot measure, with nearly 85 percent of Proviso Township residents voting in favor of the measure.
“Your constituents are the people, not the businesses,” said Lisa Pintado-Vertner, a member of Oak Park Call to Action. “They need to look at the facts and figure out who they represent.”
The 2014 ballot measure only references a statewide minimum wage. It didn’t ask voters whether they supported a minimum wage increase in the form of the county’s current ordinance.
Black Workers Matter activists said that not all employers located in the suburbs would feel squeezed by high wages. The activists took particular aim at Ferrra Candy, the Forest Park-based candy maker that lobbied elected officials in that village to opt out of the county ordinance.
According to the political watchdog organization Illinois Sunshine, Ferrara has donated more than $3,000 since 2003 to Forest Park Mayor Anthony Calderone’s campaigns. The company has also donated to the campaigns of local politicians in Bellwood, where it has a manufacturing plant, and to Illinois State Sen. Don Harmon (39th).
The BWM activists, some of whom are former Ferrara temporary employees, said that 65 percent of the company’s work force is made up of temporary workers who make minimum wage.
A wage increase from $8.25 to $10 could mean an extra $3,600 a year for Ferrra workers, said the activists, who also lambasted the company’s controversial work environment.
In 2016, Ferrara settled a $1.5 million class action discrimination lawsuit by workers who live in Chicago’s Austin community over allegations that the company “exploited Latino immigrant workers” and shut out “U.S.-born blacks, whites, Puerto Ricans and Mexican-Americans,” BWM supporter and CASE organizer Dan Giloth noted in a statement.
Ferrara contracts with Elite Staffing and REM, two temporary agencies that have been charged with wage theft.
In a letter addressed to Calderone, Rick Jochums, Ferrara’s vice president of manufacturing, said that his company depends “on employing a large number of entry-level labor positions in our facilities [that] are stable jobs that allow our employees to gain entry-level work experience and establish careers that usually feed into skilled labor roles both in and out of the Ferrara Candy system.”
Jochums said that the county’s wage increase would cost the company’s Forest Park plant $1.5 million within a year and “north of $40 million” over 10 years — a 10 percent increase in business costs.
Stewart — a co-founder of BWM and a former Ferrara temp worker who claims he was fired after he complained that the candy company and temp agencies were conspiring to illegally short his wages — challenged officials in the villages that have opted out of the county increase.
“Why don’t y’all try living on $8.25 an hour,” Steward said during the June 15 demonstration. “Do it for just 30 days.”
At Village Hall, the activists demanded to speak to Calderone, who village employees said was absent. The group talked with Village Administrator Tim Gillian, who accepted their Freedom of Information Act request for communications between the mayor and Ferrara company officials.
This article has been updated to more accurately reflect Dan Giloth’s position with BWM. Forest Park Review regrets the error.