Illinois Gubernatorial Candidate Calls For Minimum Wage Cut, Then Backs Down Under Pressure


Fast food workers strike in New York in May (Credit: Salon)

One day after saying Illinois should reduce its minimum wage by a dollar, a wealthy conservative candidate for governor is walking the proposal back.

In a radio interview Tuesday, Bruce Rauner (R) went farther than the other three men competing for the Illinois GOP’s nomination, who all oppose Gov. Pat Quinn’s (D) push to raise the Illinois minimum wage from its current $8.25 hourly level to $10 by the end of 2014. “I will advocate moving the Illinois minimum wage back to the national minimum wage” of $7.25, Rauner told WBGZ listeners. That radio interview brought Rauner’s wage cut proposal to a broader audience, but it wasn’t the first time he had offered it. According to the Chicago Tribune, Rauner called for the same one-dollar cut in December at a candidates’ forum.

Rauner’s on-air call for a wage cut drew sharp criticism from state Democrats and also earned him a jab from one of his GOP competitors. Chicago Teachers Union leader Karen Lewis, possibly the most prominent labor leader in the state after her role leading the Chicago teachers’ strikes in 2012, noted that Rauner’s private equity career has made him so rich that he earned $7.36 per second in the year prior to calling for many Illinoisans to have their pay cut to $7.25 per hour.

Under all that fire, Rauner changed his tune on Wednesday. “I made a mistake,” Rauner told the Tribune. “I was flippant and I was quick.” Rauner now proposes tying the Illinois minimum wage to the national wage, saying that the state is less able to lure businesses than other states because it requires higher wages than what federal law mandates. “I should have said, ‘Tie the Illinois minimum wage to the national wage and, in that context, with other changes in being pro-business, I support raising the national minimum wage.’ I’m OK with that,” Rauner added. His campaign also issued a more positively worded statement walking back the wage cut, saying that “Bruce is all about improving schools and making the Illinois economy more competitive,” and would therefore support raising the national minimum wage to match his state’s.

Rauner joins President Obama and numerous congressional progressives in calling for a federal minimum wage hike. After pushing for a $9 minimum wage in last year’s State of the Union address, Obama raised his sights to $10.10 in the fall. That is the rate proposed by a group of progressive lawmakers, who note that that is where the wage should be just to restore what workers lost to inflation over the past four decades. Lifting the wage floor to $10.10 would bring 5 million Americans out of poverty.

The governor Rauner hopes to displace isn’t alone in calling for a state-level hike, either. About 1.5 million workers in 13 different states got a raise when the calendar rolled over to 2014, a sign of widespread activism and legislative action on wages at the state and local level in 2013. While nine of those 13 states saw automatic hikes because their laws tie wages to inflation, momentum is building elsewhere for more drastic raises. Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, and New Hampshire lawmakers are considering wage hikes. In Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Massachusetts, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Washington, D.C., activists are trying to put wage hikes in front of voters directly in November.

Even in places where wage hikes have met setbacks, progress seems likely. The tiny town of SeaTac, WA had its referendum vote establishing a $15 minimum wage for the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport reversed by a judge, who said the airport’s wages are set at the discretion of the Port of Seattle Commission. But that body now says that raising wages “is a top priority for the Port commission in 2014.”