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TODAY

Monday, December 18

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Airbags

There will have to be a miracle today, if Chicago is to make history and take a step towards civilization. That miracle will be: aldermen show up.

There is a peculiar bug that goes around Chicago political circles when there is an important vote up before the Council. Not only that, but flights seem to be missed more often than is the average; dentists appointments run long.

Ald. Joe Moore has estimated he has 30 votes in favor of the Big Box Living Wage Ordinance; it needs 26 to pass. However, given Mayor Daley's recent furious opposition to the bill, there can be little doubt that a number of those 30 will fall away — but not want to lose face.

I hope those 30 votes materialize. Seeing so many of these supposedly tough aldermen wilt like hothouse flowers these last few years, I cannot say I believe it is likely.

Wal-Mart has dug in. They have promised, in a rather gaudy public fashion, that aldermen can count on the Arkansas-based retailers' sponsorship in the February municipal elections if they vote nay on the Big Box Living Wage ordinance that would mandate a living wage be paid by gigantic retailers with revenue over $1 billion.

Across the aisle, unions and community groups have clumsily threatened to dedicate cash and "troops" to the opponents of anybody who votes against the measure, and to reward those who vote for it, creating the perfect opening for Wal-Mart, retailers associations, and contractors to offer garbage trucks full of cash to fight off any Johnny-Come-Lately challenge.

Labor and community activists held a candlelight vigil last night outside of City Hall, a balmy midsummer Chicago night dripping humid, made to feel somewhat hollow by the gravelly voiced standards being sent into the sky:

"We're fired up, we won't take it no more!"

"What's outrageous? Wal-Mart wages!"

Some slept near City Hall in a church, ready to join battle with opponents of the ordinance in the early morning hours.

Among them, South Side pastor and maverick state Senator Rev. James Meeks of the massive Trinity Congregation. Meeks, along with an insta-coalition calling itself the "Ministerial Coalition for Jobs," have used ugly rhetoric and faulty logic in opposing the ordinance, saying it is tantamount to refusing jobs to blacks in low-income communities.

Mayor Daley, red-faced and blustering, came just short of calling the bill racist, likening it to the redlining practices that kept (and, well, keep) blacks out of predominately white neighborhoods.

And labor, clumsy as labor will be, has not done a great job of explaining just what exactly is going on here — that Chicago, like so many cities and towns before it, is being extorted.

Part of labor's clumsiness on this issue comes from its historically poor record in the black community. When most people think of "unions" in Chicago, they likely don't think of the progressive unions representing bus drivers or hotel workers making $7 an hour or the home healthcare workers making $8.50. They think of the plumbers, joint fitters, and other trades that have locked out minorities since time immemorial; a pale and stale craft unionism that, working with the business community, locked out minority contractors, too.

And among the leaders of Chicago's unions, whether the trades or service sector, there are noticeably few — which is to say, almost no — black faces.

But these are all divisive "sins of the father" type arguments — and all part of the public relations maelstrom that has made a rather simple issue into a confusing one — because although labor is undoubtedly a major stakeholder in the fight to pass this civilizing legislation, this isn't about unions. There is nothing in the living wage ordinance that will inherently help unions. This is about affirming our humanity by not forcibly compromising somebody else's worth.

The union in question here is the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents among others Jewel and Dominick stores. Wal-Mart and Target spinmeisters have been sketching this picture — with short, quick, deft strokes on mixed media — of unions jealously protecting their market share via this piece of legislation. The reality is, Wal-Mart and Target could pay their workers $25 an hour and still crush Jewel and Dominick's if they so wish. The mere fact of their size and ability to sustain losses in the short term makes that intrinsically the case. The $13 in wages and benefits mandated by the ordinance would do nothing to "protect" unionized grocers; in any case, Wal-Mart is not building a grocery in Chicago, at least not yet.

This is about worth. This is about understanding, perhaps finally understanding, that community is of everybody, and strong communities benefit everybody. And that a strong community is one where we don't mark one as worth less (or worse, worthless) as a way to bargain for a few table scraps. We don't, in a civilized society, simply shrug at our humanity in hopes for better treatment.

The "pro-jobs" coalitions, which parade under the slogan "Don't Box Me Out," have used sly innuendo of union racism and white liberal parochialism to insinuate that there is no support for living wage legislation in the black community; this is patently not the case. In 2004, a pair of thugs broke up a hearing on Wal-Mart's intended South Side store shouting "Fuck the racist unions!" But having worked personally on this issue in the past I can relate anecdotally that when the actual legislation is explained to people — i.e., when it isn't being described as an ordinance to keep Wal-Mart out — eight or nine out of ten people support it. This is backed up by a poll conducted by Lake Partners earlier this year that showed that 84 percent of Chicagoans supported the measure.

So bitter (or, conceivably, bought) have these "pro-jobs" supporters become that they completely fail to pause; that pause would helpful. That pause might help them see that there is not a 1-to-1 correlation between this ordinance passing and Wal-Mart not creating jobs. Wal-Mart would almost arbitrarily be making the decision not to open stores in Chicago if the ordinance passes; there is nothing forcing them to do so. If it is the case that Wal-Mart already pays well over the living wage detailed in the ordinance, as they allege, then what exactly is the "competitive disadvantage" that their spokesperson, one John Bisio, has been whining about for the last two years? It doesn't exist.

This is that same old refrain that, though sung across five generations by a thousand different tongues in a thousand different keys with a thousand variations of timbre, somehow ends up sounding exactly the same: Kneel before us, and maybe we'll let you work for us.

The same refrain sung when we fought to outlaw child labor.

The same refrain sung when women choked to death in weaving rooms, and we insisted on workplace safety.

The same refrain sung when we fought for a bare minimum wage.

The same refrain sung when we fought for a progressive income tax.

It has never proved out. Finally, I hoped, business had sunk that shaft one too many times, and nobody would fall for it — nobody would sniff twice the fool's gold they produced.

But many did. They not only fell for it — if we take the opposition of this ordinance as something less than sinister, the kindest thing we can say is that they were duped — they marched for it; Mayor Daley, an otherwise intelligent man, made a fool of himself blustering for that fool's gold, the promise of a low-paying, insecure job.

When I say this ordinance will bring Chicago a step close to civilization, that is to say it will move us from the dishonorable position of groveling on our knees and deleting our humanity, to standing fully erect in proud awareness of our worth as human beings.

To grovel on our knees for crumbs when dining at the table is our full right, and easily done to boot, is a shame beyond embarrassment but seeping in fact into devolution. It is not civilized to treat oneself, and one's brothers and sisters, as chattel.

To stand erect and demand a seat at the table is to be cognizant of one's own humanity, to possess that self-awareness that makes man Man.

That is the two-fold choice: on your knees or on your feet.

Chicago, what position do you assume?

GB store

Comments

Peter / July 26, 2006 9:27 AM

Two things:
1.) If this ordinance passes, it will get thrown out later in court, making this puppet show do nothing but bill taxpayers for huge legal costs down the road.
2.) Is it a prerequisite for a GB Chicago politics writer to be so blatantly biased towards organized labor?

amyc / July 26, 2006 10:38 AM

Peter, columnists are not reporters and therefore are not required to maintain a veneer of objectivity.

Besides, is there something wrong with being biased toward organized labor?

Richard F Carnahan / July 26, 2006 11:24 AM

Peter-

About 1,500 words in this column and nary a single positive word about organized labor, really. I think its telling that you take an argument about the intrinsic worth of human beings as just pro-union propaganda.

Indicate to me where exactly there is a "pro-union bias," unless you consider supporting something unions also support (like, oh I don't know, workplace safety) as "bias."

Amy-

I am shocked--SHOCKED!--to find out that my veneer of objectivity is so easily seen through!

Matt / July 26, 2006 3:50 PM

Peter - If this ordinance DOESN'T pass, it will inflict economic damage on the taxpayers by forcing underpaid employees to use the already insufficient public health care system when instead the company should provide some basic healthcare. Maybe it is a puppet show, but these discount retailers are very powerful machines and if they are not regulated, there WILL be huge costs down the road - just different costs than the ones of which you are thinking.

Peter / July 26, 2006 5:05 PM

Richard, your body of work speaks for itself.

"Americans need labor more now than perhaps any time since the Gilded Age"

Mike Doyle / July 26, 2006 5:05 PM

The outcome of this vote is completely meaningless in my opinion. This is a national problem needing a national solution. As long as there are political jurisdictions out there where Walmart and Target can pay their employees low wages at a nice profit, they'll locate their stores there while cities like Chicago lose jobs and retail options.

The vote having passed, let's now see how long it takes for us to lose jobs and stores thanks to all the politically correct rhetoric that has clouded the issue for weeks. Let's see how proud all the oridnance's supporters will be a year from now when the Roosevelt Road Target is closing and Walmart is nowhere to be found on the south and west sides. And let's see whom they'll blame -- I bet not themselves.

Chicago, not to mention any local municipality, cannot make the national juggernaut that is Walmart change its ways. You want change? Call your Congressmen and Senators in Washington. That's the real field where the big-boxes play, not out here in the provinces.

This entire debate has been nothing more than a city full of liberals (and mind you, I'm one myself) feeling powerless to effect change at the national level, hoping to make the best of it at the local level where the only people they can hurt is themselves, not Walmart.

I for one would like to know where in this entire debate has been the backup plan for what this city and its Aldermen intend to do if the worst really does come to pass because of this ordinance? What do we do as a city if we lose the big boxes we've got, lose shopping choice, lose jobs, lose a big chunk of the sales tax base? In case you haven't noticed, none of the ordinance's supporters has ever -- said -- one -- word about that.

Wonder why?

Richard F Carnahan / July 26, 2006 5:13 PM

Peter,

It is no secret that I support the right of people to organize unions; but this issue is not, to me, a union issue. My argument for the ordinance did not rest on anything that could be called support for organized labor.

Mike-

It hasn't been discussed because nobody takes that ludicrous suggestion seriously. There are over 40 Wal-Marts (just Wal-Marts--that doesn't include Costcos, Targets, etc.) within 50 miles of Chicago's city limits. Forty. If Wal-Mart wants to expand, they HAVE to move into the city, and they will.

Santa Fe and other municipalities have living wage laws and big boxes have not fled and even have built new stores. They want their profits, and everybody knows it is an empty threat. Chicago is a potential $1 BILLION market just for these big box retailers--you think they're going to leave that money untouched on principle? No.

Mike Doyle / July 26, 2006 5:45 PM

Rich:

I take it personally that you think "nobody" takes the suggestion seriously that the big boxes might flee the city in response to this ordinance. I take it seriously. Obviously 14 of Chicago's Aldermen do, too. So does our mayor. So does the Chicago Tribune. So do many community activists on the south and west sides. So are you calling us all nobodies?

I've always respected you guys at GP, but please do not feel free to state your opinion like it's mine or anyone else's. People certainly do fear that that outcome is possible, and you do them a disservice by dismissing their worries out of hand.

Your statement that "nobody takes that" suggestion seriously is, simply, incorrect.

Richard F Carnahan / July 26, 2006 6:32 PM

I meant no offense personally: I should have said "Nobody should take that ludicrous suggestion seriously."

I did not dismiss it out-of-hand though; over several columns and even in that comment I have laid out WHY it is a ludicrous argument.

Y A J / July 26, 2006 10:52 PM

It is exasperating to me that critics dismiss the living wage issue as solely a union issue.
For me, it is very much a women?s issue. The lowest paid employees at most big boxes are women. A living wage would help many women have longer, healthier and better lives.

Additionally, I think big boxes cost communities more than they bring. Governments give them big tax breaks to come in. Then their underpaid employees are forced to utilize the public health and welfare systems.

Finally, even if this ordinance is subsequently struck down by the courts (haven?t other cities? similar laws survived court challenges?) I think it?s an important symbolic victory that says we support quality of life over corporate profits for a few of the largest and greediest companies in America.

Andrew / July 26, 2006 11:20 PM

Gripers should also note that this ordinance doesn't go into effect until 2010, which should give big boxes plenty of time to move in and make their millions. If this ordinance is such a financial hardship, they'll also have plenty of time to pull back out of Chicago, too.

Mike Doyle / July 27, 2006 10:31 AM

Thanks for that, Rich. You know, I think we're all on the same side. It's just a question of strategy. When you get to the bottom of it, we all care deeply about the economic future of this city and its residents. Let's see what happens.

alicia / July 27, 2006 5:15 PM

um. mike? call my congressman and senators? um, one, our congresssmen and senators in chicago don't have the power to affect change in washington because they're not in power.... and, i don't know if you saw that whole minimum wage thing go down a few weeks ago, but something tells me now is not the time to be passing a national big box living wage law. my hope is that what happens in chicago provides impetus for other large cities to pass similar ordinances. if not, i really don't think living in a city that doesn't have a wal-mart or a target is going to destroy the fabric of our society and turn our city in to a barren wasteland. there was commerce before the big box. there are still people who need to buy stuff here. if wal-mart or target doesn't want to sell it to them in the city limits, perhaps there is another retail establishment-- even a big one-- that will be willing to sell us stuff for cheap here in the city AND pay a living wage!

Steve / July 28, 2006 10:49 AM

perhaps there is another retail establishment-- even a big one-- that will be willing to sell us stuff for cheap here in the city AND pay a living wage!

And if you're willing to brave the crowds, you'll find one at Damen/Diversey/Clybourne....

Mike Doyle / July 29, 2006 12:12 AM

Alicia,

Target on Roosevelt Road replaced nothing. Target on Addison and Diversey replaced previous retailers who left. Walmart would go into the south and west sides where retailers are simply not there. Unfortunately, the areas of Chicago into which these two big-box retailers entered into, or wanted into, didn't have a lot going on before them. The big boxes were not supplemental retail options or supplemental retail employers in those neighborhoods. They were pretty much the whole ballgame.

You talk of a barren wasteland, but do you remember the corner of Roosevelt and Clark before Target? Have you personally visited underserved communities on the far south or west sides lately? I do regularly for my job, and I see first-hand the lack of retail development, the poverty, and the need. It might be a catchy turn of phrase to say our city won't turn into a "barren wasteland", but regular forays into some of these communities show that such a wasteland is here already -- hence the fervor in these neighborhoods for Walmart to arrive.

You're correct that commerce existed in Chicago before the big box retailers came here. It existed. Then it died. And only then did the big boxes come -- unlike the story in the rest of the country. Not the other way around. If you want to risk them pulling out, I caution you to remember what was here before they came: a lot of people who "needed to buy stuff here", as you put it, but not many good places to do that. Until the early-1990s, this was a city of dying State Street retailers, a couple of Kmarts, and a lot of people bumming rides to shop in the suburbs. Target came in to fit a niche that simply wasn't being addressed anymore. If there are other retailers out there "perhaps" clamoring to fill the void that a pullout by Target or Walmart would cause, I think it would add greatly to the debate if you would help us to identify them.

I always say there's nothing like the ability of a Chicago pundit to dismiss opposing views out of hand, not that I've never been guilty of this myself (or you, for that matter, given last year's myopic Chicagoist coverage of the downtown noise ordinance battle). But that said, I truly hope the people in this city, such as yourself, who consider themselves absolutely correct and completely above reproach in thinking that this wage ordinance can in no way do harm to the economic health of Chicago and, especially, its poorest citizens, are correct.

Because if you're not, you and the rest of us will be paying for that lack of judgment for years to come, and there's really no "perhaps" about that.

Velk / July 31, 2006 12:00 AM

If it gets past the courthouse, after we spend millions defending it, I suppose it might have Joe Moore's intended effect, the gentrification of the big box workforce and the rising tide of exclusivity of the surviving moms and pops. I suppose Starbuck's will have to pay more, lattes will go up, and indie bookstores can forget about cheap clerks but if you think for one moment that the same people will hold the Big Box Jobs you have a screw loose. If they pay more they will have a larger more educated pool to draw from and they will take the cream of that crop. The trickle down effect on existing business is enormous and all of those entry level job seekers can forget about it, they will not be the ones being hired. The winners? Not minorities.

Larry Griffin / July 31, 2006 12:27 PM

Velk: Let me get this straight. Your argument is that middle-class white folks are going to trek out to Austin and down to the South Side to work at Wal-Mart and Target for an extra $2/hour, supplanting the local residents who will doubtlessly flock to fill the jobs when the new stores open? I don't quite follow the logic.

To the rest: There is a valid point to be made in that there are trade-offs being made. The opponents of the living wage ordinance have simply exaggerated the negative consequences in an effort to derail the ordinance. It is, in the most basic sense, extortion, as Rcihard explains in a more pithy way than I. The "take it or leave it" threats of Wal-Mart and Target will ring hollow with me; they are going to open up these stores no matter what. There is no possible way that their profit margins will feel a significant impact. It is only the precedent that it will set that disturbs the big-box retailers so much, and in the end, their stock price is dependent on continuing growth. They will go where the customers are--and there are plenty of customers on the South Side and West Side who are right in their target market.

alicia / August 1, 2006 6:03 PM

Mike,
I'm not going to get into a pissing match with you about who has the right to speak for the poor. I've spent a couple years working on the south and west sides, but I'm not from there, and I won't claim to have some sort of poverty credentials.

I agree that there aren't enough stores in poor neighborhoods. I'd rather give tax incentives to minority owned businesses or other businesses that are at least willing to pay living wages to their employees than go begging to wal-mart or target for crappy jobs.

At the same time, I think Target and Wal-Mart will both build here because it's in their economic interest to do so.


Richard F Carnahan / August 1, 2006 6:14 PM

Ohhh, snap!

 

About the Author(s)

Richard F. Carnahan is a true South Side Sox fan who's played a bit part in Chicago politics more than once over the years. Contact him at rfc@gapersblock.com.

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