For those who pushed for Illinois minimum wage increase, automation poses questions, challenges


By Dwight A. Weingarten
Medill Reports

The Illinois state minimum wage will rise to $9.25 an hour on Jan. 1, 2020, increasing for the first time in a decade, and to $15 an hour by 2025. But the struggle of low-wage workers and their political allies who fought for the increase face a seemingly steep obstacle—automation, robotics and kiosk services.

In the spring of 1964, civil rights activist Bob Moses spoke at Stanford University in an attempt to recruit students to join him in Mississippi to help register voters. Moses’ words about organizing and human rights hold true some 55 years later and will frame the struggle that achieved the $15 minimum wage in Illinois – click on Moses’ words quoted in this story to hear the original recording of the speech.

The Demonstration
“All the questions about automation, all the questions about our schools, all the questions about our cities—what kind of cities will we have?—all of these find their focus in the public eye in terms of some kind of civil rights demonstration or another.” Bob Moses

“Stand up, sit down, Chicago is a union town,” said fast-food workers and their allies as they marched to the McDonald’s headquarters in the West Loop on Oct. 4, a month before Illinois would elect a new governor.

Rev. William J. Barber II, a civil rights leader and national co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign,  came to Chicago for the march. The North Carolina organizer stood in solidarity with the workers as they held their demonstration for a $15 minimum wage and a union.

“[The day] was very powerful and very moving,” said Ieshia Townsend, 32, a McDonald’s employee in Chicago who participated in the march and demonstration.

Illinois state representative Will Guzzardi, a Chicago Democrat, walked alongside the workers as they marched, aptly, from Union Park down West Randolph Street to the McDonald’s headquarters where Chicago police removed Guzzardi, Barber, and 50 others, issuing them citations.

“It was a memorable day for me,” said Guzzardi in an interview this March, calling the grassroots movement Fight for $15, powerful and inspiring.

Fast-food workers and their allies rally at Union Park on Chicago’s West Side before marching to McDonald’s headquarters. Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Rev. William J. Barber II joined the demonstration for a $15/hr minimum wage and a union.

The Steps
“They’re all gaining national focus and beginning to bring to the attention of the American people a wider cross-section of problems. The problem is whether we will be able to really find solutions, whether we will be able—if we find these solutions—to take the steps that might be necessary, in terms of the structure of our politics and economics, to carry them through. If we’re willing to take those steps, whether those steps can be carried through peacefully, and with some kind of minimum amount of real frustrations for millions of people.”Bob Moses

As Rev. Barber was dealing with the Chicago Police that day, he was selected as the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” worth $625,000 to carry on his advocacy work nationally.

While Barber’s work continues across the country, it was the local movement for an increased minimum wage that spurred state-level policy change.

“We really galvanized around $15 as the appropriate minimum wage for the state,” said Guzzardi, who represents the state’s 39th district. “That happened largely as a result of public organizing, of grassroots movement building that insisted on fifteen as the bare minimum for decency and a reasonable standard of living.”

A bill to increase the state’s minimum wage passed both houses of the Illinois legislature in 2017 before then-Gov. Bruce Rauner (R-Ill.) vetoed the bill.

With Rauner’s defeat in the November election, Democrats in the state house reintroduced legislation to increase the minimum wage. This time the legislation became law as new Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D-Ill.) signed the bill several weeks after taking office.

Watch scheduled wage increases for the Chicago area and Illinois

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Stage 1: July 1, 2019. Minimum wage in Chicago & Cook County increases $1.
Stage 2: Jan. 1, 2020. State minimum wage increases $1 to $9.25/hr.
Stage 3: July 1, 2020. State minimum wage increases $0.75 to $10/hr. Cook County increases $1 to $13/hr.
Stages 4-7: State minimum wage increases $1 each year on Jan. 1 until Jan. 1, 2025 when the wage across the state is scheduled to reach it reaches $15/hr. Sources: City of Chicago; Cook County;  State of Illinois . Graphic by: Dwight A. Weingarten in collaboration with Andrew Hullinger/MEDILL

The new law mandates that the state’s minimum wage increase approximately $1 per year until it reaches $15 an hour on Jan. 1, 2025. The increased wage does not mean the end of challenges or activism for those who fought for the wage increase.

As the minimum wage increases and corporate costs rise, a 2017 study suggests that automation could jeopardize the security of many jobs. Guzzardi does not see the wage increase as the cause.“

Automation is happening no matter what, irrespective of the minimum wage,” said Guzzardi, the bill’s house sponsor, saying the increased wage will be transformational for people in Illinois.Pointing to the shortcomings of automation, Townsend said,

“I don’t think we’re going to be fired or replaced [by automated kiosks].”“The machine cannot interact with the customers,” said Townsend, mentioning the relationships employees have with regular customers.

Townsend, who has been active with the Fight for $15 for three years, sees organizing as the key. “We come together as one,” said Townsend, “and eventually, we will have our union.”

In 2018, only 10.5 percent of American workers were members of a union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about half as many as in 1983.

For Townsend, a union would mean security and could bring health insurance and maternity leave, benefits she does not currently receive.

For Guzzardi, the question brought about by automation is larger: “How do we structure an economy that shares the advantages of that automation with working people?”

The Questions
“The questions that we think faces the country are questions which are much deeper than civil rights. They’re questions which go very much to the bottom of mankind, and of people. They’re questions which have repercussions in terms of our whole international affairs and relations. They’re questions which go to the very root of our society. What kind of society will we be, what kind of a people will be?”Bob Moses

Guzzardi framed the question another way, “How do we structure an economy that distributes the benefits of automation in a fair way to every one throughout the economy?”

Noting that automation could be positive as people have to do less work, Guzzardi said, “The [economic] benefits of automation are only adhering right now to the folks at the very top, to the folks in the ownership.”

“We can’t get into a downward competition between human beings and machines for labor costs,” said Guzzardi.

Illinois state representative Will Guzzardi (center, yellow armband) at the October march to McDonald’s headquarters. Guzzardi, who sponsored the legislation in the house that raised the state minimum wage to $15 an hour, now sees automation as another challenge (Photo by: Dwight A. Weingarten).

For the activists that campaigned for the increased wage, the organizing work continues in the fight for a union.

“We will have our union,” said Townsend, “I have no doubt in my mind.”

For the legislators that worked to pass the bill, the challenges continue as the economy changes.

“[Automation] is a really important challenge that we’re facing in the American economy,” said Guzzardi, “and one that we’re going to have to grapple with over the next years and decades.”

To read about Moses’ work in education today to empower students through mathematics for the Information Age, click here.

Photo at top: A customer orders at an automated kiosk in a Chicago McDonald’s. One study suggests that an increased minimum wage could lead to more automation (Dwight A. Weingarten/MEDILL)