Chicago to Wal-Mart: Pay a living wage

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CHICAGO — A packed gallery erupted into jubilation as the City Council passed an ordinance July 26 making Chicago the largest city to set minimum wage and benefit standards for retail giants like Wal-Mart. The measure passed 35-14, despite furious opposition by Wal-Mart, a unified corporate community and Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Wal-Mart and Target threatened to freeze their business plans if the measure passed. They shamelessly bought off aldermen, religious leaders and the media. They tried to pit Chicago against the suburbs and especially to split the African American and poorest communities.

The victory resulted from a massive two-year campaign by a multiracial, grassroots coalition uniting the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL), Jobs with Justice, ACORN, many grassroots community organizations and religious leaders.

Supporters picketed, rallied, and swamped aldermen with thousands of phone calls and petitions. A boisterous rally of 500 people filled the council lobby before the vote with chants of “Hey, Daley, you know! Seven bucks is far too low!”

CFL President Dennis Gannon remarked, “Today’s vote sends a message that our elected officials and community members alike are not interested in the creation of low-paying jobs that fail to provide a living wage or adequate health care benefits for working families. The choice between no job and a low-paying job is a choice between bad and worse.”

Big business nationally is pressing Daley to veto the ordinance. The big-box retailers vowed to get it overruled in court. But Alderman Joe Moore, a principal sponsor, told the World supporters anticipated a court challenge but were confident the measure would stand. Meanwhile his office has been inundated by calls from others across the country seeking to emulate the victory.

The ordinance mandates a starting wage of $9.25 in 2007 in retailers with stores of 90,000 square feet or greater with at least $1 billion in annual sales. By 2010, that wage will increase to $10 an hour with automatic cost of living increases thereafter. Three dollars an hour must be devoted to health care. The ordinance covers 34 currently operating stores. For three hours the audience listened with rapt attention as aldermen blasted the greed of Wal-Mart and other giant corporations. They cheered wildly when a point was scored and hooted when an alderman tried to justify a “no” vote. It was an unprecedented debate in the council.

In introducing the ordinance Moore invoked President Franklin Roosevelt, who declared in signing the Fair Labor Standards Act 68 years ago, “No business that depends on paying less than a living wage has the right to exist.”

Moore said, “The same old tired arguments are being waged against a minimum wage — that it would cost jobs, drive business away and destroy the economy. They were wrong then and they are wrong now.”

“Wal-Mart made $11.2 billion in profits last year, second only to Exxon,” he said. “Our job is not to safeguard the profits of the world’s largest corporations. It is to protect the well-being of our constituents.”

Opposing aldermen warned big retailers would abandon the city, tax revenues would be lost, their constituents were desperate for jobs at low wages, supporters were racists and the ordinance was unconstitutional.

To claim their constituents opposed the measure, they could only cite postcards and “robo-calls” paid for by Wal-Mart. In fact the ordinance was very popular, including among African Americans and Latinos, where polls showed 90 percent supporting the living wage law.

At one point Ald. Bernard Stone suggested Moore was really Robin Hood and “wants to steal from the rich and give to the poor.” The audience erupted.

Later Ald. Billy Ocasio remarked, “People are arguing for businesses that have the largest profits take from the people who have the least. I would happily become one of Robin Hood’s merry men.” The audience stood and cheered again.

“For Wal-Mart to grow they have to enter the urban market. They picked the time and place for this battle,” said African American Ald. Freddrenna Lyle, also a principal sponsor, alluding to Wal-Mart’s bluff to abandon the city if the ordinance passed.

“Is our opposition racist? It’s racist that they trotted out African American ministers to castigate, threaten and berate the African American elected officials,” she said. A majority of African American aldermen supported the ordinance.

Opponents had also charged organized labor with racism because it would deny jobs to the African American community. Lyle acknowledged influences of racism in the building trades. Yes, she said, “every institution has problems. But the face of commerce is white.”

To the charge that the aldermen were stooges of the unions, Lyle declared, “Maybe those of us who are voting for the ordinance are stooges of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who died in Memphis fighting for a living wage for sanitation workers.

“Without organized labor, there would be no pension plans and health benefits. No other single institution has had that empowering impact on the African American community,” she said to cheers.

Reflecting on the victory, James Thindwa, director of Chicago Jobs with Justice, told the World, “Wal-Mart opposed this measure not because they can’t afford it. They are afraid this will be repeated across the country. The Wal-Mart model predicated on low wages will collapse. We have drawn a red line around our values — beginning with dignity for workers.”