CHICAGO – For the moment, the Wal-Mart monster has been held at bay. Standing up to immense pressure by the retail giant to open new stores in Chicago, the City Council postponed a decision allowing construction on the city’s south side.

A broad labor-community coalition had rallied opposition to Wal-Mart’s request and threatened a repeat of the fight around the Big Box Living Wage Ordinance that shook this city in 2006. Opponents warned of a race to the bottom in wages and benefits and increased union busting if Wal-Mart’s effort to open more stores went unregulated.

On July 28, the Council’s rules committee deferred action on an ordinance submitted by Alderman Howard Brookins to strip the City’s Planning Commissioner of oversight powers over certain development projects – including the ability to move forward on plans to build a second Wal-Mart in the city’s Chatham neighborhood. The committee sent the matter to the Finance Committee, chaired by Alderman Ed Burke, known as a friend of labor. ‘Chicago is a strong union town,” Burke stated. “If every other organization can agree to card check neutrality, why can’t Wal-Mart? They can build 14 stores here. All they have to do is make a commitment to the rights of working men and women in Chicago to organize. “If Wal-Mart can come in to Chicago and operate on a non-union basis, then how can Jewel and Dominicks (other major food retailers) and the other food chains continue to have union men and women?’ asked Burke. The labor-community coalition had been calling on the City Council to resist Wal-Mart’s demands and protect residents against the unscrupulous business practices of the mega-corporation until some labor standards are established.

“This vote demonstrates the serious concerns by city council members about Wal-Mart’s poor labor practices which are well documented,” said Elizabeth Drea, director of Communications for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 881, which led the fight.

“Alderman Burke’s statement sends a strong message to Wal-Mart. There needs to be some accountability of giant retailers. Chicago remains in the forefront of efforts to set labor standards. What happened elsewhere with Wal-Mart won’t happen here,” she said.

As a result of its action the city council postponed any decision about Wal-Mart until after the International Olympic Committee decides in October if Chicago will be host city for the 2016 Olympic games. Olympic backers, business and finance leaders fear public rifts between the Daley administration and labor will harm the chances of being awarded the games. Daley was silent on the council action.

As part of the campaign of intense pressure, Wal-Mart commissioned its own “poll” that showed 75% of Chicagoans supported Wal-Mart stores in the city. The “poll” results were a top story in the local corporate mass media on the eve of the council action.

Wal-Mart had also cleverly tried to take advantage of the desperation for jobs in the worst economic crisis since the “Great Depression” and exploited other real problems including an insufficient representation of African Americans in the trades and the existence of “food deserts” in the African American community.

Ald. Brookins and Wal-Mart supporters argued that confronted by mass joblessness in Chicago’s African American community, “any job is better than no job.” Wal-Mart worked through a south side church to mobilize buses of unemployed African American youth to the City Council meeting to support Wal-Mart’s demand.

“This is absolutely the wrong message,” said Elce Redmond, organizer for the South Austin Community Coalition and a leader of Chicago Jobs With Justice. “Rents are going up, mortgages are going up, utilities are going up and yet wages are going down. Even with a job at Wal-Mart how can a person afford to pay anything?”

“The goal of a job is to uplift people from poverty. Will you accept anything this multi-national corporation gives you? What builds a community is when people can pay their rents. Good wages build community,” Redmond said.

Wal-Mart also concealed other negative impacts of its business practice on the community including ruining small businesses and destroying jobs.

“If every small business in my community is gone at the end of three years, I’m going to get the blame because of this vote they want me to take for Wal-Mart,” said Alderman Freddrenna Lyle, a leader of the 2006 Big Box Living Wage Ordinance.

Redmond, local progressive economists and Chicago Jobs with Justice along with other unions and community groups believe the best way to create living wage jobs is by demanding a federally funded massive jobs creation program. They are planning a September 24 action called “Real Recovery for Working People: Jobs, Housing and Health Care”. The action takes place on the one-year anniversary of the Federal Bailout, which has so far only helped Wall Street begin to recover its profits.

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John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He is active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, where he attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs. He currently lives in Chicago.