Mayor Brandon Johnson stepped through a curtain in a ballroom at the Hilton on Michigan Avenue, his husky torso wrapped in an apron labeled “OFW,” for One Fair Wage, the movement to eliminate the subminimum wage for tipped workers. The mayor had just delivered the keynote address at Netroots Nation, a July conference of progressive activists, and was performing the first political stunt of his mayoralty: In solidarity with waiters and waitresses, he served food to attendees.

As the mayor’s security detail shooed bystanders out of his path, and TV cameras flashed their beams on his face, His Honor gingerly lifted a meatball on a stick from a tray and set it on a paper plate, with the hesitant motions of a man who has never worked in food service. As a show of humility, it was an unusual gesture for a politician, like the pope washing a prisoner’s feet.

The 15 minutes of theater had a purpose: to promote an ordinance that would raise the minimum wage for tipped employees from $9.48 to $15.80 an hour, on a par with that of other workers. Johnson’s ability to pass it will be a sign of whether he can deliver on the progressive agenda he promised voters — one that also includes shifting responsibility for mental health calls from police to social workers and raising taxes on high-end real estate sales to fund homeless services.

The tipped wage has been banned in eight states, but abolishing it in Chicago would be a symbolic victory because this is where it started, says Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage and director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Pullman porters started out working for tips. After the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters won a guaranteed wage, the National Restaurant Association, headquartered in Chicago, lobbied Congress to exclude servers from the first minimum wage law. “They did not want women in the restaurant industry to get what Pullman porters were getting,” Jayaraman says.

“It’s a matter of when, not if,” the ordinance passes, says alderperson Jessie Fuentes, a backer of it.

Johnson has entrusted the job of passing the tipped wage ordinance to alderpersons Carlos Ramirez-Rosa and Jessie Fuentes. Ramirez-Rosa, a democratic socialist from the 35th Ward, is Johnson’s City Council floor leader. Fuentes, who represents the 26th Ward, was elected this year as part of a wave of progressive alderpersons the mayor is counting on. And they on him. The council’s Progressive Reform Caucus tried to eliminate the tipped wage four years ago but ran into opposition from Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who worried about the impact on restaurants and other small businesses. Johnson is more concerned about the workers, who include not only waiters and waitresses but also nail technicians, chambermaids, and car wash attendants. “The tipped wage ultimately has worked against the economic viability of the city of Chicago,” he said in July. “This administration’s policies are focused on better wages and expanding employment opportunities for working people.”

A new mayor isn’t the only reason the ordinance has a better chance of passing. The COVID-19 pandemic inspired food service workers to demand more money and better treatment from employers. Some restaurants, such as Back of the Yards Coffeehouse and Windy City Ribs, already pay employees the full minimum wage or more. Says Fuentes: “This is a way we protect and dignify the workforce, by paying the wage that they deserve: the livable wage.”

Fuentes says she has the votes to pass the ordinance (it has 25 cosponsors) and expects that to happen in October: “It’s a matter of when, not if.” She has been negotiating with restaurant industry representatives on a phase-in period for the wage increase. She wants two years. They want five.

Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association, contends that eliminating the tipped wage could actually cost servers money. He points out that, under the current law, employers must make up the difference between the tipped wage and the minimum wage if it is not bridged by patrons’ tips. That rarely happens: According to the National Restaurant Association, the median wage of servers is $27 an hour, tips included. Raising their minimum wage would drive up labor costs for restaurants and reduce diners’ incentives to tip, he predicts, resulting in fewer positions and less take-home pay. “The current system seems to be working,” Toia says. “Leave it up to the restaurant owners.”

One Fair Wage is just the first in a series of ordinances Johnson plans to push — all items on a progressive wish list thwarted by previous mayors. Treatment Not Trauma would reopen mental health clinics closed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and establish crisis response teams of social workers to respond to nonviolent 911 mental distress calls. Bring Chicago Home would raise the real estate transfer tax on properties over $1 million and use the proceeds to fund affordable housing for the homeless. (Johnson has compromised by agreeing to a graduated tax.) According to a well-connected City Council observer, Johnson has the votes to pass his agenda: a “hard core” of 15 or 16 “socialist or socialist-aligned” alderpersons, plus committee chairs who owe their positions to him.

Alex Han, a former labor organizer who now heads the Chicago-based left-wing magazine In These Times, says Johnson is satisfying his base of labor, community groups, and progressive activists. “We see three critical pieces — housing, policing, and worker issues — that cover a lot of what that coalition wants. We’re seeing something markedly different than almost anything in any other American city: We have a mayor who comes from those movements.”

Beyond those initial initiatives, say alderpersons and City Hall observers, Johnson may support the Just Cause Evictions ordinance, which would require landlords to provide a justification for booting tenants, as well as measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from buildings. Johnson says he is not ready at this point to endorse either, but he has backed similar principles. As a Cook County commissioner, he helped pass the Just Housing ordinance, which eliminated discrimination against ex-convicts, and as mayor, while talking about a report the city is preparing on the environmental pollution in the neighborhoods, he said, “The amount of green jobs that come with investing in climate justice and environmental justice, the possibilities are endless.”

For decades, progressives have been on the outside at City Hall, railing against one middle-of-the-road mayor after another. Now they’re on the inside: They’ve got a guy on the fifth floor. And he’s got a council that will vote his way.