Chicago Wal-Mart Vote Once Again Delayed, Amid Labor Activist Resistance

Kari Lydersen

Wal-Mart employee Anna Hines walks through the parking lot of the only Wal-Mart in Chicago, Ill., which opened in September 2006.

CHICAGO — Four years ago a bitter battle over a proposed Wal-Mart on Chicago’s South Side provoked a Big Box Ordinance mandating a $13 an hour living wage for such stores. The ordinance passed but was vetoed by Mayor Richard M. Daley, sparking a successful campaign by organized labor to oust local politicians who didn’t support the ordinance.

Now another proposed Wal-Mart, also on a vacant former industrial parcel on the South Side, is again fueling bitter debates about how low civic and labor leaders should lower the bar to bring jobs and retail space to a disinvested community. The Wal-Mart Supercenter is planned as the anchor for Pullman Park, a retail center near the former site of the railcar factory and company town run by legendary anti-union magnate George Pullman.

On June 3 the Chicago City Council delayed a planned zoning committee vote on the Wal-Mart proposal, after alderman Anthony Anthony Beale refused to meet with or even accept a letter from local activists in his office. The police were called to arrest the residents, including one who gave birth early the next morning.

Critics want Wal-Mart at the very least to guarantee wages starting at $11 an hour and ramping up, either through specific wage requirements or commitments related to Illinois’ minimum wage

That city council committee vote had previously been delayed a month after Wal-Mart officials had started talks with labor leaders regarding their demands for a living wage, local hiring and other guarantees. But the talks stalled, hence public and union pressure on aldermen to vote down the proposal at Thursday’s zoning meeting.

Wal-Mart and city officials offered no explanation for the delay. Some saw it as a minor victory, implying Wal-Mart did not have the votes it needed. The Chicago Federation of Labor issued a statement criticizing the delay as a cop-out. Secretary Treasurer Jorge Ramirez stated:

We are puzzled by the decision to postpone the Zoning Committee vote on the proposed Wal-Mart development in Pullman. Postponing the vote does nothing to bring Wal-Mart back to discuss residents’ concerns about wages and community relations.

One month after our meeting with representatives from Wal-Mart about the concerns of labor and community residents, the ball is still in their court. Rather than try to reach a solution, the company has waged a massive corporate public relations campaign leading up to the Zoning Committee meeting. It’s disappointing to us that Wal-Mart would rather spend millions of dollars on paid advertising rather than agree to pay its workers in Chicago a decent starting wage.

By agreeing to reasonable standards about wages and benefits for the community, we could bring new development and create jobs that will raise the standards in our communities up, not push them down further. That is what organized labor has always stood for and we will continue to fight toward that end.

Wal-Mart proponents argue that in this economy, any jobs are desperately needed, and that Pullman and the adjacent neighborhood of Roseland are food deserts” and even retail deserts,” where one is hard-pressed to buy fresh produce or even a pair of socks, as an April editorial in The Chicago Tribune said. The supercenter would sell fresh produce and other groceries.

With mocking vitriol, the Tribune condemned a proposed city ordinance that would force stores with more than 50 employees that get city subsidies to pay a living wage of $11.03 an hour.

The Tribune called this an unjustified double standard for large employers,” without addressing why one of the world’s largest companies should deserve city subsidies to open a store opposed by the organized labor and a substantial portion of the general public…and which would pay wages so low workers still could not make a living.

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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