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Chicago: Mayoral aide opposes ‘living wage’ rule for airport concession workers
Chicago Sun-Times
Fran Spielman

October 26, 2011
View the Original Article

O’Hare and Midway Airport retailers should not be required to pay their 1,500 employees a “living wage” of $11.18-an-hour, a top mayoral aide said Wednesday, arguing that the free market should determine wages.

“We’ve never interfered. We just don’t think it should be legislated. It’s an open market,” Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino told aldermen during City Council budget hearings.

“The market is working. . . . We now have a union-represented workforce in Terminal 5 — something we have not had in 18 years. . . . We’re seeing better wages and more benefits for those employees already.”

Is Andolino concerned that concessionaires forced to pay higher wages would jack up the already high prices they charge their captive audience of consumers?

“That is a potential concern. But, more important is that we’ve had great success thus far” without mandates, she said.

Andolino’s free market argument did not sit well with aldermen, 31 of whom have now signed on as co-sponsors of an ordinance championed by United Here Local 1 to coincide with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s concession makeover at both airports.

“This is an opportunity to give our citizens a living wage in an environment that’s a very lucrative environment for these companies. We want to see it apply to everybody — not just piecemeal,” said Ald. John Arena (45th).

The proposed living wage ordinance would close a legal loophole that has allowed airport concessionaires to avoid paying the “living wage” long applied to city contractors.

To prevent existing employees from losing their jobs during the makeover, the ordinance would require new concessionaires to retain existing employees for 90 days. If layoffs are necessary after that, it could only be done on the basis of seniority. Fired employees would be placed on a preferred hiring list.

To justify the mandate, Ald. Tim Cullerton (38th) told the story of one of his Northwest Side neighbors.

She’s a single mom who was laid off from her hospitality job after 9/11, got her real estate license only to see that bubble burst and is now trying to scrape by on the wages she earns as a server at the O’Hare outpost of Macaroni Grill.

“These workers live in Chicago. They own homes here. They send their children to our schools. They shop in our stores. They pay taxes here in Chicago. We’re gonna raise the vehicle taxes and the water rates. And their wages are not gonna be able to keep up with some of these increases and they’re gonna be taking food off the table,” Cullerton said.

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) noted that some airport employees are making less-an-hour than the $10 hamburgers they serve.

“If we’re gonna be giving out contracts and allowing companies to make money off the airport, the people who work at the airport need to be paid a living wage and a decent wage,” Dowell said.

Turning to Andolino, Dowell said, “I feel like there’s a resistance here from you and I don’t know why you would resist something that makes good common sense.”

Although a similar ordinance went nowhere in the City Council earlier this year, United Here and its allies now claim five more votes than the 26 they need to pass the ordinance over Emanuel’s objections.

And what happens if aldermen defy the mayor?

“I follow all the rules and ordinances this council passes,” Andolino said.